Raiders' relocation to Las Vegas reaffirms NFL's cold message to cities

·NFL columnist

PHOENIX – When the vote finally came down for the Oakland Raiders, it was a rubber stamp delivered with a sledgehammer. And for cities with NFL stadiums entering or exceeding their prime, it has to be worrisome.

That’s the takeaway on Monday from the NFL owners’ 31-1 vote to approve the Raiders‘ move to Las Vegas, which was an exclamation point on one 15-month message that went something like this:

Get your stadium situation handled because this fraternity of billionaire owners and their $40-million-a-year enforcer Roger Goodell aren’t playing around.

That’s the bottom line as it always is in this league. Repeat it over and over again. That’s what this is all about, the never-ending financial wooing of the NFL and its 32 cash cows. Keep them happy – because another pasture is waiting on the other side of the next fiscal impasse.

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Football fans in Las Vegas welcome the arrival of the Raiders. (AP)
Football fans in Las Vegas welcome the arrival of the Raiders. (AP)

The NFL doesn’t want that to be the implied message, of course. After all, the league can’t overtly tell its host cities that the NFL’s brand and wallet is a bigger priority than, well, everything.

No, the NFL doesn’t want that to be the title of this week. That’s the last thing it needs in an era of concussion settlements and ratings schisms and several years of negative off-field attention. The NFL would prefer everyone stay on script. Play up all the positives. Talk about the growth of the game and new market opportunities. Heck, talk about that $25 billion annual revenue goal that Goodell has his sights set on for 2027. Just don’t tie that revenue target to NFL teams relocating for bigger, richer stadium complexes, particularly the ones being sweetened with public funding and tax breaks.

Please don’t tie them together. That is not what the league wants. Cue NFL executive vice president Eric Grubman, who is the league’s kingmaker when it comes to stadium deals …

“This is not intended to send a message to any other team,” Grubman said. “Every community and every situation is different. We work hard and the teams work hard to produce as healthy a franchise, as healthy a financial picture, as healthy a stadium picture as possible. Every stadium is different. This certainly isn’t intended to send any message and I don’t believe anyone should take any message in it.”

I’ll just go ahead and note Grubman’s use of the phrase “not intended.” There is a lot of wiggle room inside that language. Are NFL owners sitting around in meetings scheming to smack down financially reticent politicians or challenge fans who already feel overtaxed in their NFL bargain? No. But the league is showing it is willing to swing a wrecking ball in scenarios where NFL owners are badly losing a fiscal battle for new facilities. Particularly when that fiscal battle has some impact (direct or ancillary) on the other owners and the NFL itself.

The past 15 months has spoken volumes about NFL ownership and the league’s bottom line. And it says more than what Grubman ever could about “intended” messages. It says the league is willing to be more aggressive than ever about offering owners alternatives to their financial hurdles, especially when clearing those hurdles benefits all the billionaires in the room.

St. Louis couldn't match the bottom line that Los Angeles offered the Rams, resulting in the team leaving the Midwest. (AP)
St. Louis couldn’t match the bottom line that Los Angeles offered the Rams, resulting in the team leaving the Midwest. (AP)

That’s what everyone should have learned from three franchises relocating to new cities in 15 months. That has never happened in modern league history. And it’s hard to believe it could have happened even 10 years ago, when moving even one team to Los Angeles – let alone two – was practically impossible to pull together. It’s even harder to believe that two of the three relocating franchises resided in California, which offers the kind of weather, wealth and infrastructure that baits professional sports teams rather than drives them away.

Turn the calendar back only a few years to 2014, when Rams owner Stan Kroenke was thinking about relocating the St. Louis Rams. At that time, a person would’ve been laughed out of the NFL’s Park Avenue offices over the suggestion that in a 15-month span the NFL would move two franchises to Los Angeles and approve a third to Las Vegas.

Yet, here we are. Intended or not, there’s a lot of subtext to all of this. And some of it isn’t subtle. Goodell, Grubman and Raiders owner Mark Davis all made a similar point Monday about Oakland’s role in this latest move. Boiled down, their consensus was that the NFL gave city officials every opportunity to advance a stadium plan. And from the vantage point of the NFL and Davis, that never happened, at least realistically.

That may be true. Perhaps Oakland had its chance and failed to step up appropriately. But it’s fair to wonder how receptive the NFL and the Raiders were after Las Vegas ponied up $750 million (and potentially more) in public funding. Once an offer like that is on the table, it becomes hard to see anything else. And it’s also fair to wonder why the league’s one dissenting voter – the Miami Dolphins‘ Stephen Ross – was also the same guy who will spend over $500 million of his own money on stadium renovations in his city.

Ross stayed put and went into his own pockets to fix a problem. Davis is leaving and taking someone else’s money to solve his. Clearly the owners believe Davis leaving Oakland and venturing into Las Vegas, the 40th largest TV market according to Nielsen, is worth more to them than either forcing him to work it out in Oakland or sell the team to someone who can.

And now? Well, Buffalo Bills fans driving by their aging stadium may wonder what saying “no” to public funding could mean to their city’s NFL existence. It’s the same deal for New Orleans Saints fans, who might be wondering how much time was purchased with the hundreds of millions in cosmetic renovations to the Superdome in 2011.

Places like Jacksonville, Charlotte, Baltimore or Tampa Bay – where NFL stadiums are either approaching the 20-year-old mark or have already exceeded it –have to be aware that something is coming in the next decade. Either expensive renovations or maybe even a new stadium altogether, like the Atlanta Falcons.

If there is anything we’re learning now, it’s that NFL owners look at their stadiums like their running backs: when that 30-year mark hits, it’s time to upgrade.

While that might not be the NFL’s intended message, we’ve learned a lot over the past 15 months. When it comes to the brand, the infrastructure and the bottom line, the league isn’t playing around anymore. That’s reality – intended or not.

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