Last year, the National Football League’s (NFL) St. Louis Rams packed up and moved to Los Angeles, returning to the Southern California metropolis after twenty years in the Midwest. Two weeks ago, the San Diego Chargers announced they would play the 2017 season in Los Angeles. And just last week, the Oakland Raiders signed papers(pending owners’ approval) to move to Las Vegas. These recent developments are part of a long history of franchise relocation in the United State’s most popular spectator sport.
As this continues to be a consistent story in sport history, we have asked several scholars, fans, and local people to discuss the issue of franchise relocation in the NFL. Frank Andre Guridy, Josh Howard, Matthew Klugman, Shawn Medow, Nick Sacco, and Alison Wrynn all have written on the subject, live in the areas affected, or are scholars/fans of the NFL in general. In the following post, each responds to questions regarding the recent flurry of moves across the league.
1) Why do you think NFL franchises keep moving?
For the same reason they have been moving since the late 1960s, when NFL franchises started to demand their own stadiums: to make their stadiums into revenue generators. Since the advent of the heavily technologized stadiums of the 1990s, the shelf-life of these arenas has gotten shorter and shorter. Stadiums become “antiquated” far sooner than in previous years. The absurd characterization of the not-even-twenty year old-Georgia Dome in Atlanta as “outdated” is a great example of this trend. The apparent signs of pro football’s decline, the slump in the TV ratings this season, and the ongoing concussion crisis is making owners more and more desperate for sources of profit.
Money. It’s clearly only about money. It is highly reminiscent of when NCAA athletic programs shuffled around a few years back. The destruction of the Big East was obviously a money grab by collegiate programs (including my alma mader(s) WVU and VT) chasing the almighty dollar. It’s incredible to me how transparent the NFL has become in this regard. Everything is a blatant money grab: London games, Mexico City games, ticket prices skyrocketing, shutting down fan & highlight .gifs, not offering a legitimate video service, more commercials than ever… I could go on. Abandoning markets with stadium “problems” for greener market pastures is the obvious next progression. I’d imagine that expansion is being discussed as well. Further relocation could continue even though news on that front is a bit quiet, but who knows what would happen if London, Toronto, or Mexico City come calling.
What I find interesting about this question is that the movement of franchises – and particularly the threat of moving for what seems like a better financial deal – appears to be a regular part of life in the NFL. Yet from an Australian perspective (and I suspect from many others living outside of the US), the notion of a high profile sports team willingly moving for a superior deal in another city is shocking. There are rare examples of it, but they tend to be scandalous, and spoken about in hushed tones. And the threat of moving cities for a better stadium deal is almost unheard of. Perhaps this speaks not only to the private ownership of most NFL teams, but also to the economics and intertwined politics of sports stadiums in the US. A further factor to consider is the relative scarce number of NFL teams compared, say, to the Association football teams in Europe where a multiple leagues tiered to a promotion/relegation system means that there are not many notable cities wishing to have their own teams, and offering enticements to facilitate this.
The three most recent moves have been made by teams who struggle (Rams, Chargers and Raiders). Markets are becoming too saturated in California, not just in the NFL but in the other major sports too. The move for the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas makes more sense than the San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles because the Raiders will own an untouched market. Teams are moving away because they struggle and fans do not care anymore. Teams are going to big markets like LA and Vegas, it’s not like they are going to a small market location.
The simple is answer is money, but how to generate more revenue through franchise relocation is a more complex question. Commissioner Roger Goodell set the league’s current financial goal in 2010 when he announced at an owners meeting that he hoped to triple the league’s annual revenue to $25 billion by 2027. A large element of this financial projection assumes that the TV market will still be strong for NFL football, which the big networks love because fans want to watch the games in real time rather than recording them for future viewing. But where the teams play is equally important because you want teams playing in large TV markets. So when your goal is to triple the league’s annual revenue and you don’t have a team playing in the second largest TV market in the country (AND you have three teams with uncertain futures in their home markets who all have historic connections to that TV market), some sort of franchise relocation was bound to happen at some point. I wouldn’t be surprised to see future relocations to Toronto, Mexico City, or possibly London someday.
In the first part of the 20th century, it may have been that a franchise was languishing in a particular town or city and needed to move to grow a new fan base. For the past several relocations, the impetus seems to have been demands for a new stadium, paid for by the city/county or financed with lots of tax breaks. As soon as non-NFL cities figured this out, they were able to draw teams in with the promise of a big, modern stadium.
2) Which NFL relocation do you see as most significant to the history of the sport? Why?
This is a tough one. I’ll cheat and say two relocations were profoundly significant: the Rams’ move from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946 and the Cowboys moving from inner city Dallas to suburban Irving, Texas, in 1971. Like the moves of Major League Baseball’s Dodgers and Giants to California twelve years later, Dan Reeves’s decision to move the Rams nationalized pro football and made Los Angeles central to the league’s growth. It is not by accident that two profoundly influential figures in NFL history: the eventual Dallas Cowboy executive, Tex Schramm, and longtime commissioner and Southern Californian native Pete Rozelle got their starts as executives with the Rams. Moreover, the Pro Bowl, which began as a Los Angeles Times charity game and was played at the Los Angeles Coliseum, showcased the league’s stars in the 1950s and 60s in a large market before television popularized the sport. If the Ram move to the West Coast contributed to the League’s growth, in my mind, it was the decisions of the Cowboys to move out of the Cotton Bowl to suburban Texas Stadium and the Chiefs’s moving from Municipal Stadium into Arrowhead Stadium which signaled the growing political power of NFL franchises to demand their own stadiums, rather than share their home fields with Major League Baseball franchises and other sports. This revolution would come to full fruition in the 1990s, when both baseball and football teams compelled municipal governments to abandon the supposedly “ugly” “cookie cutter” multipurpose ballparks that were built in the 60s and 70s. The construction of Texas Stadium and Arrowhead in the early 70s enabled the Cowboys and Chiefs to be the primary tenants of their stadiums and, as more importantly, they both featured the center piece of recent stadium construction: luxury suites for privatized spectating for affluent fans and corporations. Both Arrowhead and the (now defunct Texas Stadium) provided the blueprint for the football-only mega-stadiums that were built in subsequent years, especially during the stadium boom of the 1990s.
I’d say the Chargers as of right now. It seems to be the clearest example of a city and fan community who outright reject the notion of publicly-funded stadiums. Hopefully, that is a trend that stays since it has been generally proven that public stadiums are a massive money sink. Also, there will be an interesting precedent set with their two-year stint in the LA Galaxy’s smaller StubHub Center. The Galaxy will retain primary rights of use for the stadium, which is the first time since the days of multi-use stadiums that an NFL franchise will play second-fiddle in their home. It will also be interesting to see how an NFL franchise adjusts to a stadium with just a ~30k capacity, and to see if the Galaxy launch complaints about ruined field conditions. The latter may not be an issue, given most MLS games are on Saturdays, but a part of me wants to see the Galaxy and Chargers spar a bit in the media.
There are so many ways of answering this question, but I’m going to go with the current relocation of the Chargers from San Diego to Los Angeles. For me the significant of this relocation lies in a few factors. Not only did the Chargers spent 56 years in San Diego, longer than any other NFL team to relocate, but their relocation has fueled very contrasting narratives:
- That the city of San Diego was right to refuse to give in to the success demands of the Chargers owner and that other cities will follow them, heralding the end of relocations;
- That San Diego is the “smoking gun” which other NFL teams will point to as a lesson in what happens when a city does not provide them with the stadium that they desire.
There is a chance then, that this might become a landmark relocation that becomes a key factor in shaping the behavior of both NFL teams and the cities that host them, or seek to host them.
For me, it has to be the Raiders move to Las Vegas. With Vegas not having professional sports teams in the past, this is an untouched market. The downside to the Raiders moving to Vegas is that the players will need to be watched because the gambling and betting scenes of the city, which was a reason no teams played there before. The Rams and Chargers moving to LA is not significant because LA has been home to the Raiders and the Rams in the past and is accustomed to franchises playing there. If all goes well with the Raiders in Vegas, it would not be surprising to see an NBA team follow the NHL and NFL to the desert.
I think the Baltimore Colts overnight relocation to Indianapolis in 1984 is extremely significant because it set the stage for the way negotiations between teams and cities are conducted in the modern NFL. Indianapolis was a city in ruins by the 1970s, and city leaders like Richard Lugar and William Hudnut crafted plans to revitalize the city through the expansion of its sports market. They laid the foundations to build a football stadium (the Hoosier Dome) before any NFL team agreed to come there and then shrewdly used that stadium to lure an existing franchise to the city. Today Indianapolis is the 14th largest city in the country, the city recently hosted a Super Bowl, and the downtown area is thriving due in part to the Colts presence there.
Another significant relocation—and I am biased on this one—was the Rams relocation from St. Louis back to Los Angeles last year. As I wrote for this website at the time, this relocation marked the first time that the home market had a tangible plan for building a new stadium funded in part through public money, and the first time in which the NFL effectively said no, we don’t want your money and we’re moving your team. The move gives leverage to the owners and less stability to home markets in the future because it now offers a precedent for the league to relocate teams even if the home markets offer public money to keep the team in its current location.
Pottsville (PA) Maroons to Boston where they became the Bulldogs in 1929 (just kidding)!
Since 1946, there have been 10 franchise relocations, and Los Angeles has been involved in six of them. I would contend that the moves in and out of Los Angeles are among the most significant. The lack of a modern football stadium has overshadowed the lure of Los Angeles as an NFL city. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (built for the 1932 Olympic Games) and the Rose Bowl (built in 1922) are both National Historic Landmarks and cannot be remodeled in a way that would provide the amenities that current NFL owners require. Now we are getting a new stadium, on the site of the former Hollywood Park racetrack (which closed in 2013 because the owner determined that there was “now simply a higher and better use” for the land; which at the time meant housing, business and retail but now has become the NFL.) The temporary quarters for the two teams who will share the new facility (opening slated for the 2018 NFL season) are a stadium they once rejected as inadequate (Rams/Coliseum) and a soccer stadium (Chargers/Stub Hub Center).
3) Over the next few years, how do you see the Rams and Chargers faring in Los Angeles? If approved, how do you see the Raiders working out in Las Vegas?
As I like to say, I am a historian so I do not know anything about the present and future, but I will go out on a limb and offer some predictions. I suppose the Rams will get an energy boost from their new stadium in Inglewood when it opens in 2019. But as I said above, stadium buzzes don’t last and they do not translate into winning teams on the field, notwithstanding Dean Spanos’s claim that his team will “get back to winning” now that his team is moving to Los Angeles. The luster generated by the Rams return to Los Angeles will fade if the concussion crisis continues to linger over the sport and if the Rams do not do well on the field. Los Angeles and Southern California as a whole have rich sporting traditions (collegiate, high school, Olympic, beach volleyball, etc.), but only part of it is tied to the NFL. The NFL needs Los Angeles more than the city needs the league. Overall, the city did not miss the NFL too much between 1995-2016 and I suspect the Rams will struggle to compete with the plethora of sport and entertainment options in the region. Meanwhile, I cannot see the Chargers doing well in Los Angeles. They do not have a large following in the city and they seem to be a poorly managed franchise that is simply going for quick profits. At least the Rams have a history in the city. It is for the same reasons that I have doubts about the Raiders being successful in Las Vegas. The only other city where the Raiders could have possibly succeeded was in Los Angeles, which has diehard members of the “Raider Nation,” but the league disallowed that option last year. Contrary to what most owners think, I actually think fanbases and history matter. If youth participation in the sport continues to decline, then all these franchises will have left are older fans rooted in local traditions and history.
Out of the three teams, I see the Rams as the safest in terms of stability. The Rams still had some fans left over from their LA days, so marketing can easily play the homecoming angle. Now that they’ve fired Jeff Fisher, perhaps they’ll put a decent product onto the field and bring those fans plus a new generation out to games. The Chargers could be a disaster with the smaller stadium, secondary stadium access, and an unhappy San Diego fanbase just a stone’s throw away. Still, the Chargers will likely move forward successfully because LA seems to want the franchise. As for Vegas… that is a complete unknown. We have no idea how the city will handle a major sports franchise. The AAA minor league baseball Las Vegas 51s averaged 4,882 fans a game in 2016, which places them 14th out of 16th Pacific Coast League teams (ironically, 7th on the list with about 7,000 fans/game are the Nashville Sounds, Oakland’s AAA affiliate). This places Las Vegas behind cities like Reno, El Paso, Omaha, and Tacoma. Not particularly inspiring for a city with zero major sports franchises.
I think that the Rams have a chance at being relatively successful in LA, both because they already have a relatively significant fan-base, and the owner is likely to benefit financially from the new stadium.
In contrast I think that a lack of fans and the inability to generate much revenue from the new stadium is going to greatly reduce the chances of the Chargers being successful – at best they will be the 5th most popular NFL team in LA, and it’s probable that they only games that they sell out will be against the Raiders, with Raiders fans purchasing most tickets.
I’m not convinced that the Raiders will be successful in Vegas, but I think they have a greater chance than the Chargers in LA. They will likely gain large crowds but many of these might be tourists who support the opposing team, and I am not sure that they will build a big enough local supporter base to keep them in Las Vegas.
The Rams and Chargers need support in LA to do well. The Rams have received that support already but it is not the same for the Chargers. The Chargers are not getting the reception in LA as they hoped for with Staples Center crowd booing the new logo when shown on the screen at a Clippers game. They will have to play at the StubHub Center for the time being, which has a current capacity at about 27,000. The Raiders in Vegas can be a success because the team is getting better but there is no way of knowing how they will fare in the new environment of Las Vegas.
With all due respect to the people of Los Angeles, I don’t see the Rams or Chargers faring very well there for the near future, at least. The LA market is a different entity than others. Many people who live there have relocated from other cities and have allegiances to non-LA teams. Plus, there are so many other professional teams and other attractions to occupy your time in the city that there’s no need to waste time supporting a bad team. After the Rams dreadful home opener last year Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Plaschke already had an essay titled “Can We Return them to St. Louis?” But beyond all of these considerations is the fact that you need a dedicated, intelligent ownership group to lead your franchise. Good teams like the Steelers, Patriots, Broncos, Packers, Chiefs and others have stable, committed ownership; neither the Rams or Chargers have that group in place. Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s NHL Colorado Avalanche are currently the worst team in the league, his NBA Denver Nuggets have been mediocre for more than a decade, and his English Premier League soccer team, Arsenal, is decent but hasn’t won a championship since 2004. Coincidence?
I think the Raiders will be fine in Las Vegas. The Raiders have a strong, national fanbase that travels well and has been accustomed to franchise relocations in its past. They will continue to support the team. I have a friend who’s a Raiders fan and he suggests they call themselves “The Oakland Raiders of Las Vegas.”
Long time Raiders owner Al Davis said it best: “Just win baby!” If any of these teams starts to win, the fans will come. The Raiders are in the best position after an outstanding season cut short by an injury to Derek Carr. The Rams are rebuilding and I am not sure what the Chargers are up to! The sports media has embraced having the NFL back in Los Angeles. During the 2016 football season, there were segments on sports radio each day on the Rams; these will probably continue and expand to include the Chargers.
I will probably try to go see a Chargers game at the Stub Hub Center as it is a unique location for an NFL game. I am sure the Raiders will thrive in Las Vegas. It is a great tourist destination already so it shouldn’t have trouble attracting fans.
4) How do you evaluate the impact of relocations in the NFL?
Franchise relocations—what historian Neil Sullivan called the “stadium game”—have been happening for decades, but the Ram and Charger moves strike me as evidence of the fledgling nature of the sport in this historical moment. Most fans of the NFL will disagree with me, but I do see the sport going the way of boxing—a formerly nationally significant phenomenon that becomes a “niche sport,” in the not-too-distant future, perhaps even in my lifetime. Dean Spanos’s decision to throw fifty years of history away looks like more of the same, but it may actually suggest that some cities, such as San Diego, are no longer willing to play the stadium game with pro football teams. Until the building of Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California’s NFL teams have been stuck in older venues because most Californians reject the notion of public financing of stadiums and have done so for decades. If television revenues continue to slump, and as other sports continue to grow in popularity, then the league and professional football will continue to decline.
Every time a team moves, I feel so horrible for the abandoned fans. This time seems especially bad considering there are three solid fanbases that are being abandoned as a clear money-grab, be it the second largest media market or the hypothetical promise of Vegas glitz and glam. As for long-term impact, we will probably see even more relocations or expansions in coming years. Dominos won’t stop falling until every penny has been stretched to its limit. If I were in Jacksonville or Buffalo I’d be getting a little nervous right about now.
I think relocations have a very significant impact in the NFL. Partly this is due to the enormous heartbreak that they cause the communities who lose a beloved team – as the dominant spectator sport in the US, the NFL and in particular its teams, are the site of intense love which can then lead to devastating feelings of loss that can shape the lives of many (former) supporters. The second part of the impact of relocations, is the role that threats of relocation play in the relationships that many more teams have with the cities that they currently inhabit. At issue are not only important questions of economics but also the dreams and nightmares of the many fans who have given their hearts to an NFL team.
The relocations in the NFL mean that the league is, like the teams that have moved, is struggling. The teams are not winning, though the Raiders had a better season this year. The Chargers struggles have been consistent and the people of San Diego are sick of it. However, many wanted the Chargers to stay. The Rams move hurt St. Louis but there is excitement about them in LA. Overall, the NFL is clearly in trouble with teams’ fan bases losing interest and teams packing up and leaving. But, with the moves, new markets will be tapped and for the league’s sake, regain its popularity.
From a financial perspective, the numerous franchise relocations over the years have been amazingly successful to the NFL’s bottom line. The league will face challenges in the future as more research is done on the negative health effects of playing football and TV revenues potentially sag, but the league is in a good place right now. Since the 1990s the league’s following has skyrocketed and football is now the country’s national past-time. Relocated franchises like the Cardinals, Colts, Lions, Titans, and Washington have done well for the most part and have dedicated fanbases.
Fans who have had to endure the wrong end of a franchise relocation have long memories, however. People in Baltimore and Cleveland still remember their old, beloved teams being relocated. We here in St. Louis have now lost two NFL franchises in fifty years and have essentially moved on from the NFL. When the league rejected the city’s plan to inject $400 million into a new stadium last year, it signaled to me that they weren’t worried about earning my money. I haven’t watched a full game since.
I am not a sport economist, or historian of football, so I view this through the lens of a fan.
For Los Angeles, the loss of both the Rams and Raiders in 1995 was viewed as temporary (“How will the NFL survive without the Los Angeles television market?!”) But the NFL thrived for more than 20 years without a team in Los Angeles, and Los Angeles got along just fine too.
It must be hard on fans and on cities when their team moves. Could a fan of the Baltimore Colts become a fan of the Indianapolis Colts in 1984 or did they just wholesale adopt the Baltimore Ravens (the previous year’s Cleveland Browns) in 1996?
I asked my sister-in-law, a diehard Raiders fan, what she thought of the impending move from Oakland (where she first became a fan) to Las Vegas.
I will always be a Raiders fan. I love the history and the traditions the fans have built over the last few years. I meet a lot of Raiders fans that are second tier Raiders fans to me (from the LA days) and Las Vegas fans might be third tier to me. But I just don’t see the craftsmanship in fan gear on any other team than you see on die hard, scary Raiders fans. Plus, we are really putting the nation in this Raider nation, as we plug away at different locales trying to find a home.
For her, the location is not that important, but that could be in part due to the peripatetic nature of the Raiders.
Frank Andre Guridy is Associate Professor of History at Columbia University. He is currently at work on two book projects: Assembly in the Fragmented City: A History of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and When Texas Sports Became Big Time: A History of Sports in Texas after World War II (Under contract with the University of Texas Press).
Josh Howard is an Assistant Professor of Public History at Lamar University and Founding Director of the Public History Program. He is a lifelong Atlanta Falcons fan and still proudly sports his #21 Deion Sanders jersey on gamedays.
Matthew Klugman is the Deputy Director of the Sport in Society Research program and the leader of the Sport, Heritage, and Cultures Research Group at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. His research interests include those who loves and hate sport, and the intersections of sport, passions, bodies, race, gender, sexuality, religion, and migration. He was a fan of the San Diego Chargers.
Shawn Medow- Shawn is an aspiring sports journalist at the University of Oregon. He is a broadcaster, writer and reporter for a multitude of sports.
Nick Sacco is a public historian and Park Guide with the National Park Service at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri. He is an avid St. Louis sports fan.
Dr. Alison Wrynn is the State University Associate Dean, Academic Programs for the California State University system. Prior to this, she was a professor of Kinesiology at CSU, Long Beach. She attended her first NFL game in 1970—Boston Patriots vs. the San Diego Chargers at Harvard Stadium—it rained the whole time.