By Jason Notte
The last time an NFL team relocated, Bill Clinton was just starting his second term in the Oval Office and the two biggest songs of the year were memorials for Princess Diana and Notorious B.I.G. Get ready for an update.
Fifteen years ago, the Houston Oilers left the AstroDome and moved to Tennessee. The would-be Titans' two-step out of Texas ended a three-year exodus in which the Rams and Raiders left Los Angeles for St. Louis and Oakland, respectively, in 1995 and the Cleveland Browns found a new home in Baltimore and a new life as the Ravens in 1996. Abnormal silence and stability followed as the NFL entered its longest stretch without a franchise move since the dry spell between the Cleveland Rams' move to Los Angeles in 1946 and the Chicago Cardinals' flight to St. Louis in 1960.
As the 2012 NFL season approaches, the moving trucks' long-dormant engines shift to a heavy idle. The Minnesota Vikings used a potential move to Los Angeles as leverage for a stadium deal approved by the Minnesota Legislature in May. The Vikings' more than 50-year history in Minnesota remains intact, but at a $500 million to $678 million cost to taxpayers.
At least Minneapolis gets to keep the Vikings. The San Francisco 49ers just broke ground on a $1.2 billion facility that not only moves the team out of San Francisco proper but dumps it 45 miles away in Silicon Valley in Santa Clara where the team is already headquartered. It's not a "move" in the true sense, as the team will keep the San Francisco name and "SF" logo, but the 49ers' relocation puts the team roughly four times as far from San Francisco as the New York Giants' and Jets' Met Life Stadium is from Manhattan.
For fans of teams still angling for stadium deals or being not-so-subtly wooed by the promise of a stadium in Los Angeles, each season is potentially their team's last in its current home. With ownership openly toying with fans' emotions in several NFL cities, we've put together a list of five NFL franchises that should either commit to their cities if they want to upgrade facilities or just move and get it over with. Considering the NFL's last batch of moves in the '90s eventually resulted in expansion teams for Cleveland and Houston, fans won't miss out for long if these franchises take off:
San Diego Chargers
Issue: Stadium upgrades
The Spanos family of owners is nothing if not clear about its desire for a new stadium. The Chargers have played at Qualcomm Stadium under each of its various names since 1966. It got its last facelift in 1997 just in time to host the Super Bowl in 1998.
It last hosted a Super Bowl in 2003, and the NFL's stated bluntly that San Diego will need a new stadium if it wants to host another Super Bowl any time soon. Unfortunately for the Spanos clan, the recent economic downturn coincided with a slump in the Chargers' play that's kept the team out of the playoffs since 2009. The Chargers have failed to sell out home games five times in that stretch and have received pushback from San Diego on plans to finance a downtown stadium.
The Spanos family has since listened to offers from Escondido, National City, Oceanside and Chula Vista, which wants the team renamed the Chula Vista Chargers as part of its proposal. The most intriguing scenario for the team, and perhaps the most troubling for fans, is a move to Los Angeles. The Chargers have been linked to at least two Los Angeles stadium proposals and spent a season there in 1960 before moving to San Diego a year later. If any fans still think the Spanos family will offer a hometown discount to keep the Chargers in San Diego, consider the family's explanation for shunning a new NFL policy that would allow teams to "sell out" home games at 85 percent stadium capacity and prevent those games from being blacked out on television in the home market:
"We're in one of the oldest stadiums in the league, and don't have opportunities that other teams have to increase revenue with things like a bigger naming rights deal or digital signage," executive vice president and CEO A.G. Spanos told the North County Times a few weeks before blacking out a preseason home game. "We rely heavily on ticket sales as a primary revenue stream. This market has shown an ability to sell out games over the last 10 years, and we need to take advantage of that."
Issue: Stadium renovations
If you're a Buffalo Bills fan, what's your motivation for putting tax dollars into a proposed $200 million upgrade for Ralph Wilson Stadium?
Is it the team's insistence that one "home" game a year be played in Toronto for each of the past four years? Is it 92-year-old owner Ralph Wilson's assertion that he can't guarantee the team's future in Buffalo, N.Y., after he dies? Is it the team's demand that fans fill 73,000-seat Ralph Wilson Stadium - which seats one-quarter of Buffalo's entire population -- in the dead of winter while the Chicago Bears need to draw fewer than 62,000 to sell out Soldier Field in a far larger market? Or is it the team's losing record since 1999?
Maybe it's the Bills' refusal of NFL's offer to lift blackouts at 85 percent capacity because they didn't want to pay $90,000 per home game into the league's anti-blackout revenue pool. That decision already blacked out one preseason home game and has done little to assure hometown fans they won't be watching the Toronto Bills (T-Bills?) in a decade or so.
Issue: Worst stadium deal in America
The last time the Bengals threatened to move in 1995, they told the folks in Hamilton County a new stadium would create jobs and bring boatloads of money into the area.
The county ponied up $540 million for Paul Brown Stadium without help from the state or any other willing donor and waited for the returns to roll in. They never materialized, and the recent recession turned all the stadium's modest benefits into hemorrhaging losses. Stadium debt created a $30 million budget deficit this year alone, while annual stadium costs to county taxpayers rose from $29.9 million in 2008 to $34.6 million in 2010.
Sales taxes have sputtered over the past decade, enhancing that debt and eliminated funding for programs such as a juvenile court and a property tax cut promised as part of the stadium deal. Last year, the team sought $43 million from the county for stadium renovations despite blacking out 10 home games in the past two years. In fairness, the Bengals haven't threatened a move or even hinted at one.
Still, when a team that made the playoffs last year asks for a multimillion-dollar handout from a cash-strapped county and doesn't get it, what's the next logical step?
St. Louis Rams
Issue: Stadium upgrades
The Rams franchise isn't exactly built on a legacy of loyalty.
It left Cleveland for Los Angeles in 1946 and left L.A. for St. Louis nearly 50 years later. Meanwhile, it's been more than a decade since the Kurt Warner "Greatest Show On Turf" Super Bowl years and the team's still waiting for Sam Bradford to emerge as a savior before star running back Steven Jackson runs out of gas. Ownership's getting itchy.
Despite the fact the Rams haven't made the playoffs since 2004 and haven't won more games than they've lost since 2003, the owners are seeking a handout. It's partially St. Louis' fault for promising to make the Edward Jones Dome a "first-tier" stadium by 2015, but the team's definition of "first-tier" differs from the city's by more than a few hundred million dollars.
The team's seeking a roof with a sliding panel, a glass front instead of a brick exterior and re-routing a nearby street. Those plans, combined with luxury boxes, scoreboards, concessions and offices could bring the total to $700 million, with St. Louis on the hook for more than half of it. That total cost is almost what the entire Jacksonville Jaguars franchise is worth, and ownership knows it. The talks are still in early stages, but if the team doesn't get its wishes and games start getting blacked out, we're guessing the Rams can think of at least one of their former homes that hasn't had a team since they left.
Speaking of the Jaguars...
Issue: General small-market uncertainty
The fans don't want it to happen, people within the Jaguars organization such as former Jaguar Tony Boselli don't want it to happen and the staunchly proud city of Jacksonville, Fla., really doesn't want it to happen. The NFL and the Jaguars' new owner haven't put a move out of the question, however, and that has to trouble Jacksonville fans most.
The Jaguars and their fans have done everything in their power to keep the stadium full and the team in town. The Jaguars tarped off seats in EverBank Field, hosted ticket drives on their website and convinced sponsors such as Anheuser-Busch to buy up tickets and keep games on television.
That may not be enough, though. The one Super Bowl that Jacksonville hosted in 2005 was considered an off-field disaster, with floating hotels brought in to make up for Jacksonville's lack of accommodations and festivities kept to a dull roar by the city's low-key nightlife. The team itself has never made the Super Bowl and hasn't played a playoff game since since 2007. Last year's 5-11 season was bad enough to cost coach Jack Del Rio his job.
That wasn't even the worst news Jaguars fans got last year. The team was sold by longtime owner and Jacksonville loyalist Wayne Weaver to Illinois auto parts mogul Shahid Khan for $760 million. That solidified Jacksonville as one of the league's least-valuable franchise by making the entire brand worth less than most NFL teams' stadiums. Khan has since refused to commit to a future in Jacksonville and refused the NFL's offer to lower the team's blackout threshold to 85 percent capacity.
Khan hasn't made any noise about moving the team and poured $3 million of his own money into a new locker room for the team. Beyond that, he has a lease at EverBank Field until 2029 that the city's lawyers nearly terminated this spring over a misunderstanding about the team's search for a facilities manager. That default letter gaffe and the team's attendance struggles amid a tough economic climate don't bode well for Jacksonville, however. Despite fan efforts and Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown's door-to-door campaign to fill seats for Sunday home games, the Jaguars' struggles indicate that a move to Los Angeles is possible, if not inevitable. If that's the case, stringing Jacksonville fans along for seasons at a time is crueler than any home game blackout could be.
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