This has not been the best year for the National Football League. Combine the public relations disaster of the domestic abuse scandals with the growing public recognition that, as a result of playing the game, retired players suffer debilitating medical and mental conditions, the League is quite fortunate that the public still adores the game. Now comes word that NFL clubs are up to their old tricks - extorting public money from cities to pay for their stadiums.
Public financing of sports stadiums first began in Los Angeles with the construction of the Coliseum in the early 1920s. Baseball clubs perfected the process of feeding at the public trough - first in Milwaukee in 1953 and then virtually everywhere across the country. Now two California clubs have teamed up to use the threat of relocation to Los Angeles as a lever to pry public funds out of limited public budgets for the construction of football stadiums.
The National Football League and its clubs have been leaders in this process of exacting tribute from the cities where their game is played. It starts when a club makes a demand on a city or county to improve its stadium or else! The "or else" is always the threat to relocate its franchise to another city. The problem NFL clubs face, however, is that the number of available options for a relocation has diminished. It takes a major city to fill the stands of a football stadium for ten events each season - eight regular season and two pre-season contests.
The Oakland Raiders taught the NFL how to play the relocation game. When Alameda County would not (or could not) meet Al Davis's demands for stadium improvements, he sped south to Los Angeles. Years later when Davis had tired of the bright lights, he brought his roughnecks back to Oakland to a much-improved stadium. Now the new leadership of the Raiders has demanded a new facility.
The San Diego Chargers find themselves in the same situation. Its stadium is also in need of replacement and the city does not appear willing or able to meet the Chargers' demands. The solution to the Chargers and Raiders woes lies in an instant replay of the extortion strategy. They have jointly announced plans to build a $1.7 billion privately-financed stadium in Carson, California, a southern suburb of Los Angeles, unless their present landlords build them new stadiums. The clubs are negotiating to acquire a 168-acre parcel at the intersection of the 405 Freeway and Del Amo Boulevard, the land they would need to construct a new playground they will share.
It is important in carrying out the extortion to make the threat to move as credible as possible. That is why principles with both clubs keep making threatening announcements. They jointly announced this week: "We are pursuing this stadium option in Carson for one straightforward reason. If we cannot find a permanent solution in our home markets, we have no alternative but to preserve other options to guarantee the future economic viability of our franchises."
Sports franchises pitch for public funding based on the assumption that jobs and economic redevelopment will follow from the expenditures. The problem in Oakland and San Diego is that the new stadiums those clubs seek will simply replace their old stadiums and thus create no new permanent jobs. There will be some short-term construction jobs as with any government project, but these could be obtained by building schools or infrastructure rather than sports stadiums.
Neither Oakland nor San Diego should doubt the credibility of the clubs' threats. Oakland learned the hard way when it lost its Raiders from 1982-1994. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer appreciates the credibility of the Chargers' threat: "It's now abundantly clear that while we have been working here in San Diego to create a plan for a new stadium, the Chargers have for some time been making their own plans for moving to Los Angeles."
The wild card in this game of finance comes out of the Midwest where the St. Louis Rams have announced plans to build a stadium in the Los Angeles area at Hollywood Park and return to the region it called home from 1946 to 1994. The more viable the possibility of a Rams return, the less credibility the joint Raiders-Chargers threat has. In the short-term, however, all the cities in play must be aware they could end up team-less. That is incentive enough for them to act. It would take enormous political courage to resist the shakedown. Meanwhile, LA appears in good shape. After twenty years without an NFL franchise, the City of Angels now has three suitors, but, as of yet, no wedding is planned.