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Kicking It in LA?

It’s been two decades since an NFL team called Los Angeles home. That might change soon.

Author Joe Delessio Illustration Daniel Downey

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On Christmas Eve 1994, the NFL’s Los Angeles Raiders ended their season with a loss to Kansas City at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Some 35 miles away, at Anaheim Stadium, the Los
Angeles Rams were also wrapping up their season with a loss, to Washington. The Rams and Raiders walked off their home fields within five minutes of each other that afternoon—and the NFL hasn’t been back to the LA area since.

It may be stunning that the most profitable sports league in America has gone 20 years without having a team in the country’s second-largest metropolis, but there are myriad reasons for the continued absence. First, the fiscal and political situation in California makes it nearly impossible for teams to get public funding for stadiums. The Rams and Raiders hit the road in 1995 largely because their owners got sweetheart deals from, respectively, St. Louis and Oakland (deals neither city—especially Oakland—is likely to repeat).

Furthermore, while the NFL hasn’t actively denied Los Angeles a team, the league could have pushed harder to get a team there than it has. Somewhat counterintuitively, there has been a financial incentive for the league to keep the giant market open. Other franchises—including the Seattle Seahawks and the Minnesota Vikings—have been able to leverage the threat of a move to LA when negotiating for better stadium deals in their current homes.

“Historically, the NFL’s ability to help teams in other markets extract billions of dollars in subsidies for stadium initiatives has really been founded in, among other things, having LA vacant,” says David Carter, an associate professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business and the executive director of the school’s Sports Business Institute. In turn, he notes, that helps raise the value of NFL franchises.

While such economic factors may be a positive for the NFL, they’re not much consolation to Angeleno football fans. Los Angeles, mind you, is something of a unique market. Many of the city’s residents are transplants who already follow other teams, college football has a passionate following thanks to the UCLA-USC rivalry, and there’s plenty of competition for the entertainment dollar. But most experts believe the area is ripe for a successful professional team—or two.

“There’s a huge appetite for professional football in Los Angeles, whether you’re talking about old Rams fans, LA Raider fans that are still around or football fans in general,” says Vincent Bonsignore, a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News who has covered the potential return of the NFL.

“The relocation of the Rams and Raiders had nothing to do with whether the NFL can succeed in this town,” Carter adds.

Stadium proposals—still a requirement for luring any team back, as none of the venues in the area have the luxury boxes and other amenities that NFL owners now demand—have come and gone over the years. The NFL nearly awarded Los Angeles an expansion franchise in 1999, but it went to Houston instead when an agreement for a stadium and ownership group couldn’t be reached. At one point, there was talk of building a stadium at Exposition Park; at another point, there was talk of doing it in the City of Industry. In 2010, AEG, the sports and entertainment behemoth, unveiled plans for a stadium in Downtown LA, near the Staples Center. It had even sold the naming rights for the much-hyped venue, but without a team to move into it, the plan died.However, 2015 sees Angelenos’ hopes for an NFL return higher than ever, as three different teams are believed to be exploring a move to the area. As of this summer, two stadium proposals were still alive—the two most promising ones yet. The Raiders and the San Diego Chargers, both of whom are threatening to leave their current cities for Los Angeles if they don’t get what they describe in a statement as “permanent stadium solutions that are publicly acceptable,” have partnered on a plan for a privately financed $1.7 billion venue in Carson, south of Downtown, which they would share. Meanwhile, Rams owner Stan Kroenke has a plan for a privately financed $1.86 billion stadium in Inglewood, and though he hasn’t publicly said it’s a potential home for the Rams, it’s believed he’ll move the team there if he can’t reach a deal for public funds to renovate the team’s current stadium in St. Louis.

Everything seems to be falling into place for at least one team to move to Los Angeles, according to Bonsignore. Both proposals have the support of the local municipalities, and in each case, there’s an association with existing NFL owners, who can get out of their current cities relatively easily if they want to.

“I think it’s going to happen,” Bonsignore says. “I think there will be a team here in 2016.”

Joe DeLessio covers sports for New York magazine’s website. He’d be happy to relocate to Los Angeles if someone built him a new $1.7 billion home.

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