LOS ANGELES -- Say what you will about him -- and he's heard it all over his 25 years in the league -- but there aren't many owners in the NFL who are as well respected and well connected as Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
When it comes to influence at the annual NFL owners meetings, Jones is at the head of the table.
That's why Jones' comments this week that the NFL is "closer than ever" to returning to Los Angeles represent more than just the opinion of one of the league's 32 owners. It's the opinion of a man with intimate knowledge of how and when the league might return to the second-biggest television market in the country after nearly a 20-year absence.
Jones went on to say, "I think we're closer. I say that not just wishing. I say that, technically, because I'm aware of some things that make sense." While Jones wouldn't give a timetable on the league's return, in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King on Monday, Jones said, "I wouldn't be surprised if within months … I don't know … that you'd have an announcement of intent to come to Los Angeles."
While Los Angeles collectively rolls its eyes at yet another promise of the league's imminent return, the stars seem to be aligning for the NFL to be back in Los Angeles within the next two years.
And if it's not coming back by then, well, it could be another 20 years before Hollywood gets a pro football team in its backyard again.
Let's first start with what we know. Yes, it recently has been quiet on the NFL-to-L.A. front, before Jones' comments, and that's for good reason. Arguably the two most-viable candidates to move to Los Angeles can't move to Los Angeles yet.
Those two teams, as bad stadium luck would have it, were also the last two teams to play in Los Angeles: the Oakland Raiders and St. Louis Rams. Both teams played their last games in Southern California in 1994 and could be back 20 years later.
The Raiders' lease to play at the O.co Coliseum, formerly known as the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, expires after the 2013 season. Meanwhile, the Rams can get out of their lease agreement with the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission to play at the Edward Jones Dome after the 2014 season.
The third team in play for L.A., the San Diego Chargers, can announce their intention to leave San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1 of each year through 2020 if they pay an early termination fee tied to the bonds used to expand Qualcomm Stadium in 1997.
There also has been a lot of talk about the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the Jaguars' lease to play at EverBank Field runs through the 2029 season, and if the Jaguars wanted to leave before then, they would be required to prove they had lost money in three consecutive seasons or convince a local judge that the city was failing to properly maintain the stadium. After announcing $63 million in enhancements to the stadium last month, neither is happening anytime soon.
So the only team that was really able and considering a move to Los Angeles over the past five years -- during which multiple stadium projects in L.A. were announced and talked about -- was the Chargers. After this season, however, the Raiders will be able to move, and after the following season, the Rams will be able to move. Suddenly, there will be three teams vying to become Los Angeles' NFL team, or, as Jones called it, "the most attractive sports opportunity in the world."
The common thread tying these three teams together, other than the fact they all called L.A. home at one point, is they all play in outdated stadiums and are looking for new stadiums but have hit a wall after seeking public funding to help pay for their new facilities.
St. Louis Rams
Earlier this month, the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, which runs the Edward Jones Dome, announced the facility would not get the publicly funded, $700 million upgrade that the Rams requested. The announcement opens the door for the Rams to break their lease with the Dome after the 2014 season and possibly return to Los Angeles.
The Rams called Southern California home from 1946 to 1994 but bolted before they could celebrate their 50th anniversary in the Southland because then-Rams owner Georgia Frontiere, who died in 2008, got a sweetheart deal in St. Louis by which the city would pay for a brand new dome stadium and promise that the stadium would be ranked in the top quarter in the league 20 years later or the team could break its lease and move. Well, nearly 20 years later, St. Louis is still paying off the original construction debt of the Dome, which has now become one of the league's older venues, can't afford the renovations to make it a "top-tier" facility and the Rams are looking to move again.
Stan Kroenke, who owns the Rams, lives in Denver and has a beachfront home in Malibu, Calif. He is a longtime friend and business partner of fellow Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and is behind the company's proposed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles, Farmers Field. Kroenke made a failed bid to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers and has been seen courtside at several Los Angeles Lakers games and frequently talks with Anschutz, raising the possibility that the Rams could be coming home after the 2014 season.
The Raiders are currently trying to get a new stadium in Oakland, a city which seems to be on the verge of losing all its pro sports teams. The NBA's Golden State Warriors plan to play in a new arena in San Francisco by the start of the 2017-18 season. The Oakland Athletics are currently trying to move to San Jose, Calif., where the A's owners have an option on some land in the heart of Silicon Valley. And the Raiders, well, they're waiting patiently for a new home, but that patience is running thin.
After longtime owner Al Davis passed away two years ago, his son, Mark, took over the team, and one of his main goals has been to get the team into a brand new stadium. He has refused to sign another short-term lease to play in Oakland without an agreement on a new stadium. The Raiders recently commissioned a study that found enough demand in Oakland for a 56,500-seat football stadium, which would easily be the smallest stadium in the NFL. The problem is the team isn't in position to cover even half the costs of a proposed $800 million stadium that size, and there's basically no chance of the team getting public funding from a city in debt.
There has been talk of the Raiders possibly moving to Santa Clara, Calif., to play in the San Francisco 49ers' new $1.2 billion Levi's Stadium, which is set to open in time for the 2014 season, but at this time, that doesn't seem like a plan that either team is comfortable with.
Mark Davis spends a good amount of time in Los Angeles and was a courtside fixture at Los Angeles Clippers games last season. He has said publicly his goal is to keep the team in Oakland, but if a decision on the NFL to Los Angeles happens "within months," as Jones said, it might come as a result of Davis selling the Raiders to Anschutz. The two have talked in the past, but sources say Anschutz continues to lowball owners in his negotiations, and Davis seems reluctant to part with controlling interest of the team.
San Diego Chargers
The Chargers have tried unsuccessfully to build a new stadium to replace Qualcomm Stadium for about a decade, and they are no closer to getting one now than they were when they first started. That's partly because they've had more stadium proposals over that time than Los Angeles. They've looked at options in Chula Vista, Escondido, Oceanside, Mission Valley and are now looking at downtown San Diego.
Their most recent proposal to build a stadium in downtown San Diego, which would be a part of an expanded San Diego Convention Center, seems destined for the same fate as its predecessors for a variety of reasons. The San Diego Convention Center wants nothing to do with a Chargers stadium, and the City of San Diego isn't offering any public funding to build the stadium. Even if it was, the commitment certainly wouldn't be enough to fund more than half of the facility.
Earlier this month, the Chargers' chief marketing officer, Ken Derrett, said in addition to the $200 million the NFL would contribute to a new stadium, Chargers owner Dean Spanos would contribute only $100 million, which would leave a gap of about $1 billion to get the project completed.
The aforementioned three teams have two proposed stadium sites in Los Angeles to choose from: Farmers Field, a stadium proposed by AEG in downtown Los Angeles, and a competing stadium proposed by real estate magnate Ed Roski in the City of Industry. Both are "shovel ready" but need a long-term commitment from a team before construction can begin.
Any NFL team that relocates to Los Angeles would play in either the Los Angeles Coliseum or the Rose Bowl until the new stadium is built. Neither stadium proposal will be around forever, though. Roski's 600 acres in the City of Industry could be used for commercial development if nothing happens by 2015, and before former AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke left the company in March, he said AEG would not be chasing Farmers Field if nothing happened by 2015.
If the NFL is serious about returning to Los Angeles, it could and should happen within the next two years. If not, another generation of pro football fans in the country's second-biggest TV market will have to be content cheering for fantasy players on fantasy teams instead of an actual team of their own.