With a vote of NFL owners slated for Monday at the Annual League Meeting, the Oakland Raiders are expected to receive approval to relocate to a stadium to be built in Las Vegas.
The potential move by the Raiders is expected to dominate the meeting of owners, coaches and general managers, which begins Sunday in Phoenix. If 24 of the 32 clubs agree -- they almost certainly will, although reluctantly -- the Raiders will play two more years, the 2017 and 2018 seasons, in Oakland before packing up. They would have to play an additional season in an interim stadium -- the league has already looked into which adjustments would be needed to make the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's stadium a viable host for NFL games -- before the new stadium is completed.
"I think in the end there will be a vote and I think it will pass," one team owner said. "I haven't had people lobbying me, so I don't know if [opposition] is out there, but I don't see it."
There are still stumbling blocks that could emerge that would force a vote to be delayed until the Spring League Meeting in May. The biggest potential one: the setting of the relocation fee for the Raiders, which two owners indicated could be a source of contention for some owners. The Rams and Chargers must pay between $550 million and $650 million, depending on financing, for their moves to Los Angeles. Because the Las Vegas market is much smaller and would not boost the valuation of a franchise as much as a move to Los Angeles would, it is expected that the Raiders would pay considerably less -- perhaps half as much. If the vote goes ahead as scheduled Monday, owners could approve the move, contingent on the final setting of the fee at a later date.
Owners and the league had hoped the Raiders would find a way to formulate a stadium deal in Oakland, a much bigger and more lucrative market than Las Vegas. But Raiders owner Mark Davis has had his sights set on Las Vegas for at least one year, starting soon after the Raiders, in a joint effort with the Chargers, lost out in a bid to build a stadium in Los Angeles. And early-stage proposals by Oakland civic leaders and a third-party investment group, which included Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, were viewed dimly by the league. The idea of having the league build a stadium for the Raiders in Oakland on land the city would lease to the team similarly stalled. Now, say three people familiar with the owners' thinking, owners are resigned to the idea that no viable plan from Oakland is coming anytime soon, so they will reluctantly support the move.
"The complete lack of any realistic alternative in Oakland is just as big a factor, because nobody really wants to see them move -- you'd really prefer to see them stay in Oakland," a second team owner said. "It just hasn't worked. I don't think there is much, if any, opposition."
The Raiders would be the third NFL team approved for relocation in less than 18 months. The Rams moved from St. Louis to Los Angeles last season and the Chargers surprised the league by announcing they would leave San Diego to join the Rams in Los Angeles for this season. Even though the league hoped to avoid so many relocations, with a Raiders move, the NFL will have solved one of its most intractable stadium problems and, it hopes, put one of its shakiest franchises on more solid financial footing.
"This is a chance to take the worst financially run operation and put it in a place to get it economically sound," the first owner said. "It should take them from the fourth quartile to up around the middle."
The uniqueness of the Raiders' opportunity is driving a good deal of the ownership support, even though there remain some lingering concerns about the size of the Las Vegas market. The stadium deal revolves around $750 million in public funds that would go toward the construction of a new $1.9 billion, 65,000-seat stadium. The presence of so much public money made the proposal compelling, even after casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and investment bank Goldman Sachs pulled out of a deal to be part of the stadium financing (Bank of America later came in to pick up the slack).
"I can't get one dollar here [in my own market]," one team owner said, about the scarcity of public money elsewhere.
Other than the Raiders, the dominant theme of the meeting will be improving the pace of games. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made it clear to the Competition Committee that he wants games to have fewer extended interruptions after an internal assessment of how fans watch determined they wanted unnecessary game stoppages to be minimized.
Owners will vote on a proposal to have centralized replay review, in which officials headquartered in New York will make the final decision on instant replay reviews, taking the decision out of the hands of the on-field officials. The league hopes that the change will provide more consistency on reviewable calls and speed up the review process. Among other ideas: institute a play clock after an extra point is scored -- perhaps 40 seconds -- to encourage the teams to line up more quickly for the next kickoff. The number of commercial breaks will also be reduced and a focus will be on eliminating a particular annoyance to Goodell -- the commercial breaks that often bracket a kickoff.
"I think particularly today you see the changing consumer behavior," Goodell said in an NFL Network interview Thursday. "I think you have to make sure you make everything as compelling as possible. You don't want to give them an excuse to step out and do something else. You want to make it -- the game is fantastic, we had the most competitive season we've ever had since 1932. And we think we'll continue to do that by focusing on the quality of the game. But here is what do we do to try and make sure that we don't interfere with that great game. That we don't have too many interruptions."
The committee is also expected to propose shortening overtime during the preseason and regular season to 10 minutes from the current 15 minutes. New York Giants owner John Mara, a member of the Competition Committee, said the league is concerned about the additional wear and tear on players when their teams play a full 15-minute overtime, particularly if that team then has to play a Thursday night game. Another player safety-related initiative was first proposed by members of the NFL Players Association: eliminating leaping by defensive players on field-goal attempts and extra-point kicks. And owners are likely to discuss a proposal to make referees full-time employees, with a phase-in plan beginning for the 2017 season with the intention of having all referees be full-time for the 2020 season. The league wants to assess whether making officials full-time employees improves their performance, with the expectation that if it does, more members of the officiating crews could be made full-time in years to come.
Finally, the crackdown on celebrations might actually be easing up. Goodell will talk to the competition committee on Sunday about easing restrictions on some celebrations, though this would be a likely point of emphasis this year, not a rule change.
"We did hear this in our fan research very clearly, we heard it in general last year," Goodell said. "The fans do want to see our players be able to celebrate. What we've always tried to do is find a line between that natural celebration and something that's prolonged in the way where it could be taunting, it could be an unsportsmanlike act or somebody responding to it on the field in a negative way and it escalates. We had it as a point of emphasis in the Competition Committee report last year. Quite honestly I think we should revisit that and bring that back a little bit and provide a little bit more movement there. I'd like to see some players and sort of hear their views on that and try to get a good place. That might be sometime this spring, but just find that balance between good sportsmanship and allowing our players to really show who they are and how excited they are when they do score."