Commentary

NFL to L.A.? The seven wonders

Breaking down the franchises that could one day (soon?) play downtown

Updated: August 9, 2011, 8:03 PM ET
By Arash Markazi | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- Now that the Los Angeles City Council has passed the financial framework of a deal between Anschutz Entertainment Group and the city to build Farmers Field, a $1.2 billion football stadium attached to a remodeled Los Angeles Convention Center, one of the next big hurdles before construction can begin is actually getting an NFL team to Los Angeles.

AEG wants to begin construction on the project June 1, 2012, after getting past the environmental impact report and entitlement process next spring. The agreement between AEG and the city, however, requires that an NFL team sign a long-term lease to play in Los Angeles before construction can begin.

Two teams might end up playing at Farmers Field when it opens in 2016, but only one team needs to agree to come to Los Angeles by May 2012 for construction to begin on time. There are seven teams with stadium issues currently in the running for relocation (the NFL has ruled out expansion), so who will that first team be? Who might that second team be? The answers, or at least some educated guesses, can be found below.


Chargers

San Diego Chargers

Lease: The Chargers can announce their intention to leave San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1 of each year through 2020 if they pay an early termination fee tied to the bonds used to expand Qualcomm Stadium in 1997, which would be about $24 million after the 2011 season.

Ownership: Chargers owner Alex Spanos, who will turn 88 in September and suffers from dementia, is currently looking to sell a minority stake in the team to help with estate planning. He and his wife, Faye, own 36 percent of the team, while their four children each own 15 percent. Two minority owners own the other 4 percent.

Stadium: For nearly a decade, the Chargers have unsuccessfully tried to build a new stadium to replace Qualcomm Stadium, which opened in 1967 and is one of the five oldest stadiums in the NFL. If this were baseball, the Chargers would have struck out years ago after plans in Chula Vista, Escondido, Oceanside and Mission Valley all fell apart before a formal plan could even be put before politicians or voters. The Chargers' latest and likely last attempt to keep the team in San Diego focuses on a stadium proposal in downtown San Diego.

The Chargers are hoping to build a domed stadium in downtown San Diego which would be a part of an expanded San Diego Convention Center. The stadium would not only house the Chargers but also be used to attract Super Bowls, Final Fours and larger conventions. If it sounds familiar, it's because it's essentially the same project AEG plans to privately finance in Los Angeles. The only difference, of course, is that the Chargers are trying to get it built with public dollars that simply aren't available.

While the Los Angeles City Council supported AEG's project Tuesday, the Chargers' last-ditch effort to get a stadium built in downtown alongside the convention center seems to be nothing more than an idea solely supported publicly by the Chargers. San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and San Diego Convention Center board member Steve Cushman view the new stadium and expanded convention center as two separate projects. The Chargers are trying to tie the stadium to the convention center now mainly because California Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to eliminate redevelopment funds, saying the state can no longer financially support them. The decision essentially eliminates the preferred revenue source which would have been used on the new stadium and has all but killed off whatever hopes the Chargers had of getting a stand-alone stadium built with public financing.

So the Chargers are now trying to align themselves with the $550 million San Diego Convention Center expansion, which will be paid for through a proposed hotel tax. The problem is the proposed financing plan for the convention center is not big enough to encompass an $800 million stadium which would rarely be used for conventions.

Outlook: Not only does the Chargers' proposed stadium in downtown San Diego seem like a long shot, simply getting a public vote on the stadium in 2012, which the Chargers had hoped for, looks unlikely at this point.

The Chargers seemingly meet all the requirements to be Los Angeles' next NFL team. AEG wants to buy at least a 30 percent minority interest in the first team that moves into Farmers Field, and Spanos seems willing to sell roughly that amount. AEG needs a team to be able to commit to move to Los Angeles by May 2012 and the Chargers can get out of their lease in San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1. The Chargers already have some history with AEG and Casey Wasserman, who is partnering with AEG on Farmers Field. Two years ago, the Chargers signed a deal with the Wasserman Media Group to help market the team in Los Angeles, and for two years the Chargers held their training camp at the AEG-owned Home Depot Center in Carson.


Vikings

Minnesota Vikings

Lease: The Vikings' lease with the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission to play in the Metrodome expires after the 2011 season.

Ownership: New Jersey real estate magnate Zygi Wilf, 61, and a group of investors bought the Vikings from Red McCombs in 2005 for $600 million. Wilf isn't looking to sell the team, but has met with AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke, the former CEO of the Minnesota Timberwolves. Vikings vice president of public affairs Lester Bagley has said the Vikings are solely focused on staying in Minnesota.

Stadium: Long before the roof of the 30-year-old Metrodome collapsed last year, forcing the Vikings to play two home games at Detroit's Ford Field and then the University of Minnesota, the team has been trying to get a new home. Not only is the Metrodome one of the 10 oldest stadiums in the NFL, but the Vikings' lease with the MSFC, which was signed in 1979, is one of the worst in the league. The commission owns the stadium, and the Vikings are locked into paying rent until the end of the 2011 season.

After a decade of trying to get a new home, the Vikings claim their last chance of staying in Minnesota is tied to their current proposal to build a $1.1 billion retractable-roof stadium in Arden Hills, which was the former site of the Twin Cities Army Ammunitions Plant. The Vikings would pay for 39 percent of the project with Ramsey County and the state of Minnesota taking care of the other 61 percent of the publicly owned stadium.

The stadium is far from a done deal. Last week, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton directed Metropolitan Council Chairwoman Susan Haigh and Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission Chairman Ted Mondale to conduct an analysis of the risks and costs associated with the site. The review is expected to take 30-40 days. If all goes well, Dayton could call a special session this fall, possibly in September or October, to hammer out a deal. If they can come to an agreement, the Vikings could be playing in their new home by 2015.

Outlook: Getting a new stadium hasn't gone as smoothly or as quickly as the Vikings would like, but after the Minnesota Twins moved into Target Field ($545 million) last year and the University of Minnesota football team moved into TCF Bank Stadium ($289 million) in 2009, both using public funding, it seems unlikely Minnesotans would now derail their beloved Vikings from getting a new home after what happened to the Metrodome last year. The Vikings might use Los Angeles as leverage, but it seems unlikely they will join the Lakers as purple-and-gold-wearing teams from Minneapolis now playing in L.A.


Bills

Buffalo Bills

Lease: The Bills' lease with Erie County to play at Ralph Wilson Stadium expires after the 2012 season, but the Bills can announce their intentions to leave Buffalo after the 2011 season, between Feb. 28 and July 31 of 2012, if they pay an early termination fee of $2 million.

Ownership: Bills owner Ralph Wilson, who will turn 93 in October, has no plans to sell the team. He also has no known succession plan but has previously stated he plans to have the team auctioned to the highest bidder when he dies.

Stadium: Ralph Wilson Stadium, which opened in 1973, is the seventh oldest stadium in the NFL, just behind Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. Even though the Bills' lease is coming to an end and the stadium is outdated, there are no specific new stadium proposals.

As long as Wilson is the owner of the Bills, the team will stay in Buffalo and play in the stadium named after him, but the future of the team is uncertain. It seems unlikely the team and the city will be able to finance a new stadium, which would likely cost more than $1 billion. A more likely scenario would be a renovation of the current stadium. A $375 million renovation of Arrowhead Stadium was completed in 2010 and partially funded by the NFL.

Outlook: Considering Wilson's age, Buffalo's market size and an expiring lease in an aging stadium, the Bills will always come up in relocation talk. The NFL, however, would like the team to stay in Western New York. Not only do they have more than 50 years of history in Buffalo, but they serve as the league's tie to Canada without actually having a Canadian franchise. In 2008, the Bills agreed to play eight home games over five seasons in Toronto. The Bills appear to be safe in Buffalo for now, but with an uncertain future after Wilson, that could change at any point.


Raiders

Oakland Raiders

Lease: The Raiders' lease to play at the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum expires after the 2013 season.

Ownership: Raiders owner Al Davis, who turned 82 last month, has no plans to sell the team and has said full control of the team will be assumed by his wife, Carol, and his son, Mark, when he dies.

Stadium: Amazingly, the Raiders left one decaying Coliseum in Los Angeles for another decaying Coliseum in Oakland 16 years ago and are still stuck there. The Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is the fourth-oldest stadium in the NFL, and while it has gone through five name changes, it has seen few structural changes since the Raiders returned to Oakland in 1995 after a 13-year stint in L.A.

There have been proposals in the past for a new stadium in Oakland, but the focus these days seems to be on a joint stadium in Santa Clara with the 49ers (see below). The problem is that Al Davis wants the team to remain in Oakland, near the site of the Coliseum and the team's headquarters in Alameda. Even if he can get past the stadium's location, something will have to be done about the red-and-gold color of the facility in recent artist renderings, which doesn't quite mesh with the team's silver-and-black mystique.

Outlook: If they want to stay in the Bay Area and play in a new stadium, the Raiders and 49ers might have to team up to make it happen, which is something NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has suggested they do for some time while pointing to the New Meadowlands Stadium, with the New York Giants and Jets, as an example.

Virtually every new sports venue in the country includes some form of public financing, which is almost impossible to achieve in California. There's a reason why three of the five oldest stadiums in the NFL and Major League Baseball are in California and why Los Angeles hasn't had a new football stadium built since the Coliseum and Rose Bowl broke ground in 1921 and opened in 1923.

No matter what happens with the Raiders, it is safe to say their move back to Oakland in 1995 hasn't been as fruitful as expected. Since returning to the Bay Area, 83 of the Raiders' 128 home games have been blacked out on TV after failing to sell out, and they have gone 37-91 over the past eight seasons.


49ers

San Francisco 49ers

Lease: The 49ers' lease was set to expire after the 2012 season, but the team renewed its lease this year, which will keep the Niners at Candlestick Park at least through the 2014 season, at which point they can opt out.

Ownership: Jed York was named the 49ers' president and CEO earlier this year while his parents, John and Denise, remain on as the team's co-chairs. There are no plans to sell the team.

Stadium: As iconic as Candlestick Park may be to old 49ers fans, it is the third-oldest stadium in the league behind Soldier Field and Lambeau Field. Considering both of those venues have received major facelifts in recent years, it wouldn't be a stretch to call Candlestick the oldest in the league as it was originally constructed in 1960. Although the San Francisco Giants moved into a new stadium of their own back in 2000, the 49ers, who won five Super Bowls in the city, still can't find financing for a new home.

The 49ers' newest plan is to build a $987 million, 68,500-seat stadium next to the Great America theme park in Santa Clara. In June 2010, voters in the Silicon Valley city signed off on a plan to have the city and area hotels contribute $114 million to the project. The 49ers have raised $138 million in suites sales. Needless to say, they have some work to do before they can begin construction in 2013 and open the stadium for the 2015 season, as Jed York has hoped.

That's where the Oakland Raiders come into play. The Raiders need a new stadium, too, and the NFL has encouraged both teams to work together to make the financing of a Bay Area stadium work. The league has also committed to help fund the two-team stadium as it did for the Giants and Jets with the New Meadowlands Stadium, which got $300 million from the league's stadium fund.

Outlook: It's unlikely the 49ers would leave San Francisco and their stadium proposal has picked up steam since the end of the lockout. The team has a website devoted to the new stadium with pictures and videos and recently unveiled a scale model during a Santa Clara news conference. York seems to think the team will have the financing in place to start construction in 2013; whether that will include a partnership with the Raiders remains a lingering question.


Rams

St. Louis Rams

Lease: The Rams can get out of their lease agreement with the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission after the 2014 season if the Edward Jones Dome doesn't receive significant improvements by then. It is currently one of the league's older venues.

Ownership: Billionaire Stan Kroenke, a 63-year-old Missouri native who lives in Denver, became the majority owner of the St. Louis Rams last year for $750 million. In order to become the majority owner after being a minority owner since the Rams moved to St. Louis in 1995, Kroenke agreed to turn over operational and financial control of the Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche to his 30-year-old son, Josh, and give up his majority stake in the teams by December 2014. NFL rules prevent owners from owning major league franchises in other pro football cities. Kroenke is a longtime friend and business partner of fellow Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, and AEG's Leiweke has admitted to having conversations with the Rams.

Stadium: Simply put, anything outside of a new stadium would make it impossible for the Edward Jones Dome to rank among the league's top facilities. Getting public funding for such an expensive undertaking in St. Louis, which is still paying off the original construction debt of the Dome, is highly unlikely.

The St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission has until Feb. 1 to give the Rams a preliminary proposal for how it plans to give the Dome "top-tier" status. The Rams can either agree to the offer a month later or reject it and make a counteroffer by May 1, which is the most likely scenario. The commission can then either agree to the counteroffer by June 1 or reject it and go to arbitration. If such a scenario unfolds, the lease could be voided and the Rams could rent the Dome on a year-to-year basis or choose to move elsewhere.

Outlook: There is no way the Edward Jones Dome, no matter how many refurbishments, will be on par with the over $1 billion stadiums built for the Cowboys, Giants and Jets. So the question is can St. Louis afford to build a $1 billion domed stadium on par with those facilities? Probably not, so Kroenke will have to decide if he wants to stay in a subpar facility in St. Louis or get involved with his old friend Anschutz and return the Rams and their 50-year history in Los Angeles back home.

It seems the chances of the Rams getting a new stadium in St. Louis are as remote as they are for the Chargers in San Diego. Having the Chargers and the Rams relocate to Los Angeles would be the most ideal scenario for the league, which would like to see one AFC West team and one NFC West team move to Los Angeles (preferably with Los Angeles ties) so the geography of the current divisions still work and each of the conference's television broadcasters (currently CBS and FOX) will get a team in the country's second-biggest media market.


Jaguars

Jacksonville Jaguars

Lease: Despite making the most sense to relocate considering its market size and low attendance figures, the Jaguars' lease is the longest and hardest to break of the seven prospective teams. The Jaguars' lease to play at EverBank Field runs through the 2029 season, and if the Jaguars wanted to leave before then, they would be required to prove they had lost money in three consecutive seasons or convince a local judge that the city was failing to properly maintain the stadium. The odds of any NFL team losing money in any year, let alone three consecutive years, or a judge allowing the local NFL team to leave town are remote. Of course, leases can usually be broken for a negotiated price, but it seems the penalty would be too steep considering the other candidates available on this list.

Ownership: Wayne Weaver, 76, has been the owner of the Jaguars since their first year in 1995 and has no plans to sell the team.

Stadium: EverBank Field opened in 1995 and has quickly gone from one of the league's newest stadiums to one of the oldest after 21 new stadiums were built for 22 teams beginning in 1995. The stadium, however, isn't the issue. It's the fan support in Jacksonville. After a five-year honeymoon period after the team's debut, when they were a perennial championship contender, the Jaguars have won only one playoff game since 1999. They have failed to make the playoffs the past three seasons and the team has had a hard time selling tickets while covering up empty sections of the stadium to avoid blackouts.

Outlook: As long as Weaver is the owner of the Jaguars, he has reiterated the team will remain in Jacksonville. Not only does Weaver want the team in Jacksonville, he structured the lease in such a way that makes it impossible for the Jaguars to leave before 2029.

Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com.

Arash Markazi

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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