"You are educated when you have the ability to listen to almost anything
without losing your temper or self-confidence." - Robert Frost

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NFL Business 101

How the NFL can solve the Los Angeles dilemma

The NFL is dead set getting back into the Los Angeles market with a franchise.  This has been stated numerous times by both Roger Goodell and the more influential owners in the league.

The question becomes whether this will be accomplished with or without expansion over the next three to five seasons.

In my opinion expansion is not the best move for the league.  We have seen the effects of these money-grabs by owners in the past (and believe me, we are talking $50-60 million per owner in CASH if they choose to expand to 34 teams).    The diluted rosters of teams, combined with the potential for a longer season (and larger rosters) could severely impact the quality of play.

Expansion has had huge negative impact on both the NHL and NBA and both leagues are struggling to find ways to backpedal from those decisions.

The key to finding a good solution using the existing 32 franchises is to follow the signs of stadium construction and local revenue.  A list of current NFL stadiums can be found here:

If you sort the list by “date opened” you clearly see the franchises most mentioned when discussing relocation.  And you clearly see a major problem in California; as Candlestick Park (49ers), O.co Coliseum (Raiders) and Qualcomm Stadium (Chargers) are in the bottom five oldest stadiums in the league.

All three of these franchises need new stadiums that will require some amount of public funding (even if they say otherwise).  Combine that with trying to build a new stadium in Los Angeles and you quickly realize the problems facing these organizations and their state/local governments.  The fact of the matter is California is not going to help fund FOUR new stadiums, through taxes or infrastructure improvements.  Neither will the league (through their stadium fund) pursue this option.

The solution lies in building only TWO new stadiums in California and getting maximum use of them by sharing each (similar to how the Giants and Jets share MetLife Stadium).

This has been discussed already in the Oakland/San Francisco area and will likely happen in the next five years by building a dual occupancy, state of the art facility that will replace both Candlestick and Oakland Coliseum.  It makes too much sense and helps too many entities moving forward.

The other stadium will be built in Los Angeles.  This means San Diego is on the short end of the stick as their request for public funding will likely fall on deaf ears after millions are spent in San Francisco and L.A.

The solution of course is to move San Diego north and make them one of two teams to call the new Los Angeles stadium home.  There is history here as well as the Chargers actually started their franchise in Los Angeles in 1960.  If the likely site for the new stadium is in Diamond Bar, CA (Rt. 58 & Rt. 60), then this is less than 2 hours from downtown San Diego and not a hard drive north on Route 15.

The Chargers, if they wanted, could even keep their name, practice facilities, headquarters and everything else in the San Diego area, only traveling on game days.  I would not even be opposed to someday moving back to San Diego if a new stadium could be financed when economic times are better, but that just looks unattainable in the short term.

Another obvious advantage is that the San Diego Charges can remain in the AFC West division and maintain all rivalries with Oakland, Denver and Kansas City.

The second team to move to Los Angeles and share the new stadium with the Chargers should be the St. Louis Rams.  The Rams organization has been in a state of flux for a while now.  They have a new owner and have just hired Jeff Fisher (who happens to be a west coast guy).  The Rams were also in Los Angeles from 1946-1994 and have a long-standing fan base (particularly south and east of center city).

With this move, the Rams can remain in the NFL West with the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals.

This opens up St. Louis as a relocation spot for a current unviable market.  Edward Jones Dome is not the best of facilities (having already been through upgrades in 2007 and 2010), but the St. Louis market remains vital to the success of the NFL (being the 18th largest metropolitan market in the U.S.)

Three cities are currently unviable either because of stadium, economic or market issues.  These are Minnesota, Jacksonville and Buffalo.  I propose to resolve each of these situations as follows:

The Minnesota Vikings are currently in do-or-die end negotiations to build a new, partially public funded stadium to remain in Minnesota.  I believe a new stadium will be agreed upon in the next six months and the Vikings remain in Minnesota.  This is what is best for the community, franchise and league as a whole.  There is a strong history of football in Minnesota with the Vikings and I would hate to see that franchise move.

The same history can be said for Buffalo, but unlike Minnesota (which has remained a stable economy and population), the city and community have been declining in size and relevance over the past two decades (in fact, Buffalo has fallen in population each decade since 1950).

I know this upsets the western New York faithful, but unless the Buffalo franchise embraces Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, the Bills as a franchise cannot compete with their divisional rivals in New York, Miami and New England.  The economics of their city just don’t add up.

Moving to Toronto tomorrow isn’t really a solution either as the SkyDome isn’t an upgraded NFL ready stadium (seating only 50,000 and privately owned).

The Bills are a tough organization to predict in general because it is doubtful the franchise remains in the Wilson family after Ralph Wilson’s death (he is currently 93 years old).  Ideally the NFL needs a new owner, with cash and Canadian connections that is willing to invest in and try and tie together the Toronto market and the western New York market in a non-adversarial way.  This will involve a new state of the art arena in the next decade, the location to be determined.

Does this mean the team official “moves” to Toronto?  I don’t know.  But Bills fans should be very careful to fight this plan because the other option might be moving the franchise to London and that’s not what anyone really wants (including this writer).

The last team to discuss is the Jacksonville Jaguars.  In my opinion, the Jacksonville market has never been a good location for an NFL franchise.  While the city itself has the largest metropolis population in Florida (850,000), the problem is really the size and wealth of the regional market.  For example Miami (pop. 400,000) has a regional population of 5.5 million and Tampa-St. Petersburg a regional population of 4.5 million.  Both dwarf Jacksonville’s 1.5 million area residents.

The Jacksonville area is also highly devoted to Florida Gators athletics much more so than professional sports.  In recent seasons attendance to Jaguars games has been problematic and failed to reach expectations.

Jacksonville is the logical franchise to relocate.  A new owner from Illinois (Shahid Khan) further helps the idea of moving the Jaguars to midwest St. Louis.  The Jaguars also have no iconic history in the NFL and could more easily be renamed and marketed in the St. Louis area.

If the Jaguars move they could also remain in the AFC South division as they actually generate less travel miles from St. Louis than Jacksonville.

The only other unviable market that should be discussed is the New Orleans Saints.  The New Orleans regional market is currently the smallest in the league (approximately the same size as Buffalo and ranked 46th in the U.S.).  Ten years ago, I would have strongly argued for relocation of the Saints franchise.  But recent success of the club has re-established their foothold in the Louisiana area and has staved off talks of relocation.  However, if New Orleans ever does decline in success and attendance they will always be a viable franchise for relocation.  A possible landing spot being somewhere in Mexico if and when the league decides to move that direction.

So in conclusion the ideal redistribution of franchise would move the Chargers and Rams into a new dual occupancy stadium in Los Angeles.  The Vikings and Bills remaining in their respective regions (with the Bills possibly moving to a new stadium in Hamilton) and the Jaguars franchise relocating to the vacant St. Louis market.

This really makes the most sense both long term and short term for the league.  And certainly is a better option than keeping Jacksonville afloat and fully paying for a new stadium in San Diego (or relocating them to an unknown location).

The truth is any expansion to 34 teams will eventually involve one or more overseas franchises. Thirty-four viable, available metropolitan areas just don’t exist currently in the U.S. (see list here:  United States MSA)

I would argue California could maintain two new franchises in L.A while keeping San Diego in San Diego, but stadium-wise, that becomes an enormous short-term expense for the league and ownership (as new stadiums would have to be built in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the next 5-8 years).

I do worry the NFL and Roger Goodell see expansion to 34 teams as a way to move overseas in the long run by starting in the U.S. then transplanting them when they fail.  This is an easier “sell” to the American public than expanding into London, Mexico City or Tokyo immediately.

Overall, I think overseas franchises would be a bad idea.  It would be combined with additional bye weeks, a new 18 game schedule and expanded rosters.  Just not what I think is best for the league.  There is symmetry in 4 teams in 8 divisions playing 16 games that I hope remains for some time.

The NFL is a multi-billion dollar organization and the carrots of expansion can be tempting.  But ownership and the commissioner must maintain reason to protect the golden goose.  Major reorganization, expansion or overseas games could do more harm than good.

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