For every national sports league, the offseason brings trade speculation, discussions about draft prospects and predictions of next year’s champions. However, in the NFL, it’s likely that the most impactful off-season announcement has already been made with the St. Louis Rams’ decision to return to Los Angeles for the upcoming season.
The Rams left Los Angeles for St. Louis before the 1995 season, beginning a three-year period in which four NFL franchises changed cities. And although it’s been nearly two decades since a team in the NFL has relocated, there has been further discussion over whether the Oakland Raiders or the San Diego Chargers, two franchises previously based in Los Angeles, will join the Rams by 2017.
Most students at the College are too young to remember the Rams and Raiders leaving Los Angeles, or Cleveland and Houston losing their NFL teams to Baltimore and Tennessee. However, younger sports fans have seen examples of relocation in other major sports leagues. In particular, Seattle lost their basketball team to Oklahoma City in 2008, while in baseball the Montreal Expos moved south to form the Wash-ington Nationals.
For owners of sports teams, often the most compelling reason for relocation is the opportunity for more lucrative stadium deals. Los Angeles initially lost the Rams and the Raiders largely because residents were not willing to fund desired upgrades to luxury boxes in the teams’ stadiums. When moving the Rams to St. Louis, owner Stan Kroenke included a clause demanding that the team play in a stadium ranked in the top quarter of NFL stadiums by 2015.
This clause would come back to haunt St. Louis, as meeting these goals would require building a new stadium. Despite plans to create a new waterfront stadium that could host the Rams and a proposed soccer team, Kroenke preferred plans for a new stadium outside of Los Angeles, prompting the Rams’ return to the west coast.
Beyond expanding stadium amenities, relocation also gives owners a chance to increase attendance. In St. Louis, the Rams have consistently ranked among the bottom five teams in average attendance. The team hopes that the Los Angeles market, which consistently sells out USC and UCLA college football games, will be able to drive ticket sales for new teams.
But what does relocation mean for fans who have lost their home football team? In St. Louis, on top of the sentimental pain of losing the Rams, taxpayers must still pay off millions of dollars of debt on their existing stadium, and must do so without receiving any revenue from an NFL team.
Another common trend for teams prior to relocation is a decrease in attendance once relocation is announced. After the Houston Oilers revealed their plans to move to Tennessee, attendance dropped so low that fans near the field could hear players talking over the minimal crowd noise. The Raiders and Chargers owners surely remember this disaster, which is why I suspect it is highly unlikely either team will make a decision to relocate until next offseason.
NFL franchises frequently return to cities that previously had a team. St. Louis itself has experience with this, receiving the Rams just seven years after seeing the Cardinals franchise move from St. Louis to Arizona. With speculation about the Jaguars moving to London within the next decade, there is always the possibility that St. Louis will return as host of an NFL team. However, there is no question that the Rams’ departure will leave a devastating emotional and financial mark on the city of St. Louis.