Analysis  

 

NFL's return to L.A.: Business deal smiles on Rams, hurts others

HOUSTON -- The most evocative moments of the NFL's return to Los Angeles came just slightly off center stage, while Commissioner Roger Goodell completed the swift coronation by announcing that owners had approved the return of the Los Angeles Rams.

It was as if the NFL map was written on an Etch A Sketch and the day of shaking in a meeting room had already erased St. Louis from the picture. That was a verbal dagger to the heart of fans there, but at least their agony wasn't in front of us to witness at that moment. Instead, we had San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos and Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis in the roles of the scorned. They, alone on that stage, knew what St. Louis Rams fans were feeling Tuesday night, because they had just endured a day in which the people they thought would have their backs had instead rejected them -- dramatically, stunningly, but soundly.

The NFL finally returning to Los Angeles was a cause of celebration and maybe a little relief for plenty of people who had been vexed by the league's inability to figure out a solution there for two decades. Rams fans in Los Angeles -- and there are plenty of those -- get their team back and the NFL gets the revenue/buzz-generating venture it hoped for. And Stan Kroenke even mentioned that his planned multi-use project might help low-income people in the area. If that turns out to be true, and the NFL's staggering cash register would open for those who are least likely to be able to afford a seat in Kroenke's envisioned palace, it would be difficult not to applaud. But for now, the Rams to Los Angeles was a victory for Kroenke and his billions and for people in Los Angeles who were tired of watching everybody else's teams on television each Sunday.

For fans of palace intrigue, this was a delicious spectacle, but it also had something for those who revel in a bit of schadenfreude. Spanos called the entire process of seeking relocation excruciating and that was certainly true. But when he and Davis exited the dais without a word Tuesday evening, as Kroenke's coronation continued apace, fans who still wake up startled to learn that big-time sports is a ruthless high-level business could take comfort in knowing that they finally had something in common with the men whose teams have them wrapped around their fingers. Sports can be cold and cruel, nearly as often in the boardrooms as on the playing fields.

In solving a two-decades-long problem by allowing the Rams to move to Los Angeles -- and whatever else you might think about how this played out, it is inarguable that it was ridiculous that the nation's most popular sport and entertainment property did not have residence in the entertainment capital of the world -- the NFL allowed two others to fester. A large part of the appeal of the rejected Carson proposal that would have paired the Chargers and Raiders in a stadium in that Los Angeles suburb was that it would have solved the NFL's two most intractable stadium issues in one fell swoop. It had the support of the stalwart owners on the relocation committee because it was the more practical, level-headed approach.

But this was not a decision that would be carried by the practical, level-headed ones. From the start, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had championed Kroenke's vision for a stadium and multi-use complex in Inglewood. It is not hard to see that it was the scope of Kroenke's ambition -- the razzle-dazzle that accompanies the idea of a glass-roofed stadium that could host everything from Super Bowls to political conventions -- that delighted Jones. Jones knows something about the appeal of spectacle and shiny objects but he is also a visionary. Early in the fall, in discussing Los Angeles, he told me that he felt Kroenke was the right man to take the NFL into Los Angeles because he had the vision and business acumen to do it. Kroenke, after all, has the unique and fortuitous background in global sports and real estate, a handy combination to shepherd through a mammoth stadium project. His Inglewood proposal offers the NFL the greatest revenue-generating opportunities and that, in the end, is what carried the day.

Left unsaid, but certainly understood, in Jones' assessment was that he feared that Spanos and Davis simply did not have the skill or the ambition to maximize Los Angeles for the NFL. There is much personal sentiment among NFL owners for Spanos -- the owners who sat on the relocation committee repeatedly referenced that owners thought he was a good partner and did not want to leave him out. But that is ultimately what they did, when a secret ballot -- that was a critical decision because it allowed the old alliances to fall away -- revealed that while owners might like Spanos, they love Kroenke's plan.

If that meant Spanos and Davis were left twisting in the wind, well, this is just business. Want to know how many of the owners viewed this transaction? Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, a real estate mogul himself, declared that everybody won. When asked if St. Louis fans won, his response was simple: "Well, somebody had to lose." Tone deaf, but accurate.

Striking during this entire episode was how NFL fans viewed it, through the prism of team popularity and potential success on the field. That Derek Carr gives the Raiders more upside than the quarterback-less Rams was irrelevant to the conversation in Houston. Davis does not have Kroenke's money or the confidence of ownership.

There was more than just one somebody who lost, though. Fans of the Chargers and Raiders are left to wonder what the future holds. In San Diego, there might be one last gasp to get stadium funding passed this summer, but that might prove to be a final raising of hopes before Spanos ultimately chooses over the next year to swallow his disappointment at how this played out and go into business with Kroenke, a man he rather clearly does not like or trust. Chargers fans can spend the next months wondering if this is just an estrangement or a coming divorce or -- perhaps a longshot -- the shove Spanos needed toward a reconciliation. Only Davis had not burned bridges on his way to Houston, although his statement that Raider Nation would be looking for a home probably did not warm hearts in Oakland, even if it was the smart play to maintain what little leverage he has.

But as owners left Houston, Spanos and Davis appeared to be the only two people who were unhappy. There is the promise of new riches to come from Los Angeles for the other teams to share in, and Kroenke got what he wanted all along -- at least for now, Los Angeles all to himself. Rams fans in Los Angeles get their team back, and that's good news for them.

But no, Stephen Ross, everybody did not win here. One look at the faces of Spanos and Davis told you that. The celebratory mood among owners -- and in Los Angeles, where finally the NFL returns -- was about a business deal finally completed. Emphasis on business.

There will be other days for those who think with their hearts and not their heads, but as the votes shifted to Inglewood, this was not that day. The rarity of it was that there were those few owners who finally felt what so many fans did, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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