USA TODAY Sports’ Tom Pelissero recaps the recent NFL owner vote that will move the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas.
USA TODAY Sports
SAN DIEGO – The Beach Chapel church in San Diego County recently posted a spiritual message about the dear departed San Diego Chargers:
“God will never forsake you – unlike the Chargers,” said the church’s small roadside billboard in Encinitas, Calif.
More than two months after the team announced its relocation to Los Angeles, it’s a sign of the soreness still swirling in this sunny Southern California community, the Chargers’ home of 56 years.
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NFL fans are fuming, just like they have been in St. Louis, where the Rams played for 21 years before leaving last year for L.A. On Monday, the NFL also approved a plan for the Raiders to move to a new $1.9 billion stadium in Las Vegas in 2020 — after more than 44 years in Oakland.
Add it all up, and that’s 121 years of fan loyalty, all rudely rejected in the past 15 months. But that kind of market also is partly why Major League Soccer might be eager to help San Diego and St. Louis forget the NFL, at least until the next round of NFL stadium leverage drama sparks up in the next 10 to 15 years, as some sports economists predict.
“The NFL likes having a few hungry cities without teams to give existing teams more leverage in negotiating stadium deals with their home cities,” Stanford economist Roger Noll told USA TODAY Sports. “In the 2020s, several NFL teams are likely to ask for new or renovated stadiums, and the presence of other cities that might try to lure them improves a team’s bargaining position.”
NFL expansion isn’t on the agenda, but the relocation game might not be over. Tampa Bay, New Orleans and Jacksonville are among those with relatively older stadiums and team leases expiring by 2030. If another NFL team is looking for a new $2 billion stadium — and if several non-NFL cities are interested in getting a team — Noll wryly predicts at least one city will bite at the NFL’s bait to offer public subsidies.
The high bid “will not be zero dollars,” he said.
In the meantime, the proposed MLS plans in St. Louis and San Diego could recast their identities without the NFL. If successful, they might even help buck a trend in which the six previous metro areas deserted by the NFL later provided enough enticements to get the mighty league to return. The question is how much St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland might be willing to pay to play along with the NFL next time, if anything.
Lost and found NFL cities
Since 1982, the six markets abandoned by NFL teams all regained a team eventually, always with better stadiums than the last NFL team there had and often with more public money. Houston, Cleveland, Baltimore and St. Louis built new stadiums with the help of public money after being ditched by the Oilers, Browns, Colts and Cardinals. To attract the Raiders back to Oakland in 1995, the city and county put up $200 million in bonds to help renovate the Oakland Coliseum.
“After losing their estranged NFL teams, frustrated former NFL mid-markets have systematically overpaid in stadium subsidies several times over what they had offered to pay before their breakup with the fickle and footloose NFL cartel,” Vanderbilt University sports economist John Vrooman wrote in an e-mail.
After 21 years without an NFL team in Los Angeles, the return of the Rams worked out differently — with a $2.6 billion new stadium plan that will be privately financed and shared by the Rams and Chargers. Both teams left for this lucrative new venue after failing to get acceptable, publicly subsidized upgrades in their old markets.
The stadium plan in L.A. didn’t need public money, the Chargers said, because of the enormous size and corporate wealth of the L.A. market supporting it — along with funding from Rams owner Stan Kroenke, one of the league’s richest owners.
L.A. is an outlier in that respect, quite unlike the much smaller Las Vegas market, which was willing to pitch in a record $750 million in public funds for a 65,000-seat domed stadium to lure the Raiders.
“Smaller NFL cities will continue to provide subsidies,” Noll predicts, even though he and other economists have warned that public subsidies for stadiums are bad deals for taxpayers.
Despite the financial downside, city leaders and fans often have been willing to fork over public subsidies for these stadiums because of the popularity of the NFL, the attention the NFL brings to these cities and, in some cases, the yearning for NFL love again after a bitter divorce.
On the other hand, there are signs that forsaken cities have had enough and are moving on.
Futbol instead of football?
To keep the Rams, St. Louis leaders had pushed a $1.1 billion stadium plan including $400 million in public funding. The team left last year anyway, the second time since 1988 that the city was deserted by an NFL franchise. Taxpayers are still funding the Rams’ old domed stadium, and it’s not clear St. Louis has the public-funding appetite to play the stadium game again.
In Oakland, the city said no to public funds for a new Raiders stadium, and about $95 million in debt remains on those Coliseum bonds from 1995.
In San Diego, 56% of voters in November rejected a hotel tax increase to help fund a new $1.8 billion convention center and stadium for the Chargers. Two months later, the Chargers said they were leaving for L.A.
Less than two weeks after that, an investment group announced a proposal to redevelop the site of the Chargers’ old home, 50-year-old Qualcomm Stadium. The group hopes to lure an MLS expansion team to this “SoccerCity” with a privately funded $200 million stadium that seats about 30,000. The plan requires “not a penny of taxpayer dollars,” said Nick Stone, who is helping lead the effort with the firm FS Investors.
Likewise, in St. Louis, an investment group also hopes to land an MLS expansion team with a stadium seating 22,000.
Both soccer stadium plans still face hurdles. On April 4, voters in St. Louis will decide whether to approve $60 million in public funding for the stadium, which could cost $200 million overall. After that, city leaders — or voters — in San Diego could determine the fate of the soccer stadium project, which may or may not also house the San Diego State football program, a top-25 team last season.
The San Diego soccer plan would leave room for an NFL stadium to be built on the site as well, but only if there’s a commitment for that within five years. If there are no NFL takers by then, the space likely would be dedicated to housing.
That’s not to say the NFL couldn’t return somewhere else in San Diego County. But without public subsides, other prime locations might be hard to get for an NFL owner. Ask the Chargers, who said they couldn’t do it here, possibly making room for a less expensive futbol stadium instead.
“There will be a cohort of football fans for whom soccer is not a replacement,” Stone told USA TODAY Sports. “But I do know the level of enthusiasm today around the soccer side of the opportunity is massive.”
One example of a city recovering after the loss of a major-league team is Seattle, which was abandoned by the NBA SuperSonics in 2008. In 2009, an MLS expansion team, the Sounders, began play there and sold out of 22,000 season tickets.
“Markets where there were pro sports teams that left are very intriguing,” San Jose Earthquakes president Dave Kaval told USA TODAY Sports.