After two decades away, the NFL is closer than it has ever been to returning to Los Angeles.
The early January announcement that Rams owner Stan Kroenke is planning an extravagant Inglewood stadium sent shockwaves through NFL circles, but -- according to those with direct knowledge of the proceedings -- was met with quiet applause at the league office, which has been waiting for a powerful plan like this one to get behind. And despite St. Louis and Missouri officials responding quickly with their own stadium vision, the momentum here has very clearly shifted west.
The bottom line is, this L.A. proposal is not like its predecessors. It's the first led by a team owner, blowing up the league's long-held belief that juggling the task of running a team with managing such a project in the nation's second biggest city would be too big a burden. It's on the largest plot of land of any of the proposed L.A. sites. It's in a more desirable end of the region. It's to be privately funded by a man who can afford it.
It's not done, of course. But the idea that the Rams could be playing at the Rose Bowl, L.A. Coliseum or Dodger Stadium in 2016 and 2017 and in Kroenke's new Southern California football palace in 2018 is not at all far-fetched. In fact, it's trending toward becoming a likelihood.
"It's a bold move by Stan," said one source who has worked with the league on Los Angeles. "Whether it results in a stadium at the site billed by the parties, whether it's the Rams going in, or a different team, or two teams, that much we don't know."
There is more certainty here than meets the eye, though.
According to two involved sources, the Rams presented the project to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell before the December owners meetings in Dallas. As it worked out, that was as Goodell and the league were getting the new personal conduct policy ready for voting. And the plan had always been for the commissioner to turn more attention to L.A. once the policy was done. Suffice it to say, Kroenke gave him plenty to chew on.
Two big steps are expected this week. The Rams will provide notice to St. Louis that they're going year-to-year on their lease before Wednesday's deadline to do so. And they'll likely turn in to the city of Inglewood the 8,500 signatures necessary to set up a public vote, which will most likely take place in the spring, to re-zone the land where the stadium will be built. According to a source, the team already has the signatures in hand. *UPDATE: The team informed the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission on Monday about its decision to change the lease to year-to-year. Also on Monday, per a source, 20,000-plus signatures were delivered to Inglewood in support of bringing the matter to a vote. *
The 60-acre plot Kroenke bought in January 2014 is approved for a stadium, but the adjacent 238-acre area owned by the Stockbridge Capital Group isn't. Once all 298 acres are zoned properly, shovels can break ground.
And therein lies the other difference in Inglewood: the size of the area where the stadium would go up. By comparison, the NFL's largest physical structure, Cowboys Stadium, sits on a plot of just 73 acres.
NFL officials deferred comment on the recent developments to the Rams, who declined to discuss their plans. But no matter how you chop all this up and put it together, St. Louis is on the clock. A St. Louis stadium task force presented its plan to Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this month. It included the dream of an open-air, 64,000-seat stadium on the banks of the Mississippi River that could also potentially be home to a Major League Soccer franchise.
Two things need to happen for that stadium -- which, on paper, isn't as modern as projects in Minneapolis or Atlanta, though that could certainly change -- to go forward, and neither step will be simple. First, the land needs to be acquired. Second, financing needs to be secured, with the expectation being that it'll be a 40-60 public-private split. It's unclear at this point if it'll take a vote to get there.
How that plays out will determine whether or not the club meets the league's relocation guidelines, which call for a team to demonstrate that the existing market has failed. If the financing includes an eventual public contribution, that will make it tougher for the Rams to qualify for relocation, but if the St. Louis plan does not end up including much public money, that could grease the skids for a move. In any case, the Rams have been less successful than the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders when it comes to demonstrating that their market has failed.
But all of that might not matter. Remember, the league has a huge interest in making Los Angeles work, one way or another, and this project seems to meet the right-team, right-owner, right-stadium threshold.
The way it's been laid out to the clubs, the league wants the L.A. stadium to be an iconic venue that's a sports and entertainment destination. This vast property would satisfy that, with a number of projects expected to pop up on the periphery within the grounds around the team's home, creating a West Coast headquarters of sorts for the league.
Kroenke is also amenable to the idea of having a second team as part of the project, according to a source, which would help the NFL make the most of the effort.
At the very least, Kroenke's bombshell accelerated the L.A. timeline and put pressure on a number of entities with an interest in the market -- on the cities of Los Angeles (proper) and Carson to push their projects forward, on the cities of Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis to ramp up efforts to keep their own teams, and on the Raiders and Chargers to figure out their futures. The movement on the St. Louis stadium effort is proof positive of that.
The NFL does still have some control here. Three-quarters of the owners must vote to approve the move, as is required in the bylaws for relocation, and some league waivers and funding likely would be needed to make the project right. Also, Kroenke still hasn't satisfied the league's cross-ownership rules by divesting himself of the NBA's Denver Nuggets and NHL's Colorado Avalanche, something he has until the end of the calendar year to do.
But what's really important here is much simpler than that: The powers that be on Park Avenue have been waiting a long time for the right roadmap to get back to L.A.
It seems like Kroenke gave it to them.
And if they see it like that, it's unlikely anything will stand in the way.