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When the NFL Returns

Proposed Inglewood stadium

The geographical footprint of the NFL continues to be reshaped, as this is the second consecutive winter in which a team has moved to Los Angeles. After the Houston Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997, there no were relocations in the league until last January, when the St. Louis Rams returned to Los Angeles. One year later, the San Diego Chargers made the move to the City of Angels after another failed run at a new stadium in San Diego.

Another potential move could be in the offing, as the NFL must soon decide on the proposed relocation of the Oakland Raiders to Las Vegas. These stories have contributed to what is undoubtedly the busiest period for NFL relocations since the 1990’s.

In the coverage of these stories, it has been noted that the nature of NFL moves tends to go full circle. One city will lose a franchise, only to eventually rebound and secure another team in the ensuing years or decades.

When looking at the facts, this narrative holds true. Since the AFL-NFL merger, every city that lost a team (save for St. Louis and San Diego) has eventually seen a team return. Timing on the league’s return has varied, but the longest wait was in Los Angeles, where 21 years passed before the Rams’ departure and their eventual homecoming.

Generally, the roadmap to reentering the NFL has been standard in most cities. Public support for a stadium, combined with a willing owner or owners, build a mass of attention that attracts the NFL and eventually leads to a new team.

When delving into the specific cases, however, certain nuances and differences among the plans stand out. While there is a general understanding of how a city should go about obtaining a new franchise, each case is unique, thus warranting a closer look.

In November 1995, when the Cleveland Browns announced their move to Baltimore, it brought the end of a long pursuit for a city that had not gotten over the loss of the Baltimore Colts. There were signs of a serious effort to replace the Colts in the 1980’s, but the blueprint for the NFL’s return truly took shape after the city secured a new ballpark for the Baltimore Orioles.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, though a baseball-only venue, had enough land to the west to give city and state officials the perfect location for a new football stadium. For a while, Orioles owner Peter Angelos was directly involved in the effort, as he attempted to partner in a move of the Rams to Baltimore, and made a run at purchasing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

While the Cincinnati Bengals also flirted with Baltimore before leveraging a stadium deal in their own city, it was a failed 1993 expansion bid that represented the city’s biggest near miss. Two years later, when the Browns confirmed their arrival, the NFL was left to fill a void in Cleveland, another storied football city.

Eventually, the NFL and Cleveland reached a settlement that allowed the Browns to move and became the Baltimore Ravens. The agreement included two notable contingencies—the branding and records of the Browns had to remain available to the next franchise in Cleveland, and the league promised that it would return by 1999.

Once it was understood that Cleveland would only obtain a team through expansion to 31 teams, the NFL made it known that a 32nd could be added in the future. Three cities—Houston, Los Angeles, and Toronto—made high-profile runs at the NFL, with Los Angeles emerging as an early victor until stadium financing issues and conflicts between competing bids doomed the city’s pursuit.

That left Houston as the next leading contender. Bob McNair, who was just coming off of a failed attempt to land an NHL expansion franchise, made the case for a retractable-roof stadium in Houston, which had been a solid football market until the Oilers’ departure. The NFL decided in October 1999 to officially award its 32nd team to Houston, with the franchise eventually becoming the Houston Texans.

The fates of Baltimore, Cleveland, and Houston also resembled what played out in Los Angeles, Oakland, and St. Louis. Despite several attempts to land a team, Los Angeles was on the outside looking in for two decades.

The city lost its two teams before the 1995 season—Georgia Frontiere pushed for the move of her Rams to St. Louis, which had lost out in the 1993 expansion bidding. Despite early concerns from NFL owners over the loss of a team in Los Angeles, Frontiere gained permission to move her franchise after an April 1995 vote.

Meanwhile, Raiders owner Al Davis spent years trying to move his Los Angeles Raiders, with the end goal being a replacement for the venerable Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. In 1995, Davis finally followed through, agreeing to a deal with Oakland that included renovations to the team’s former home, the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum.

While that move left Los Angeles without professional football for the first time since 1945, it seemed that the league was close to returning. “The Arizona Cardinals have already indicated some interest in moving to Los Angeles and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Minnesota Vikings are also possible candidates for a franchise shift that could come as early as 1996,” The Los Angeles Times reported on June 24, 1995. “The NFL ideally wants two teams in this area, which means one probably will be an expansion club.”

Of course, it took much longer than anticipated. Los Angeles spent years trying to line up a stadium effort to pique the league’s interest. It was evident that the NFL was interested in return, but it took until Rams owner Stan Kroenke—whose 30% investment helped facilitate the team’s move in St. Louis—acquired land in Inglewood for Los Angeles to land a team.

That move approved in January 2016, during which the NFL laid the groundwork for a second team to relocate to the city. The Chargers—who pursued a new stadium in Carson with the Raiders—were granted the option to move, which had to be exercised by January 15, 2017. Within days of that date, the Chargers announced that they would move to Los Angeles and eventually join the Rams at the new stadium.

Looking at this history, it is conceivable that St. Louis and/or San Diego could land a new team, particularly San Diego, where there will likely be growing sentiment for the league’s return. For now, however, both cities have to wait and see if all of the pieces for the league’s return fall into place, just as several other cities did before reestablishing themselves in the NFL.

This article first appeared in the weekly Football Stadium Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Football Stadium Digest newsletter.

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August Publications