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Volume 23 No. 13
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Owner power shifts in NFL’s L.A. decision

Kroenke’s vision, finances push old-line names aside

About halfway though the news conference late Tuesday to announce the return of football to Los Angeles after 21 years, two sons of longtime NFL team owners abruptly departed the dais, ceding the stage to the owner of the now-Los Angeles Rams: Stan Kroenke, their conqueror.

San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos and Oakland Raiders boss Mark Davis, whose dream of a shared stadium in Carson, Calif., had died hours earlier, looked pained for their few, awkward moments on the stage. A sense of frustration, anger and disappointment could be felt in the room and even by those who were watching live on TV. After a few questions were directed to the day’s victor — who never acknowledged or thanked the duo — they could no longer be part of the photo op.

The Raiders’ Mark Davis, the Steelers’ Art Rooney II and the Rams’ Stan Kroenke.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
And in a sense, as they left unannounced, so too went a historic era in the NFL in which key owners dictate policy.
For much of its history, the NFL has been led by a tight-knit group of powerful and largely family-based owners who have laid the foundation for league bylaws and decisions. But on this January evening in Houston, such protocol was ceded to a new generation of deep-pocketed owners with a different vision and viewpoint on the future of the league.

Perhaps nothing showcased this more than Kroenke later sharing a boisterous celebration with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder and Buffalo Bills owner Terry Pegula at a nearby steakhouse. Twelve years earlier, Jones had feuded with Bills owner Ralph Wilson over helping smaller markets. Now, the billionaire Pegula, the late Wilson’s successor who bought the Bills for $1.4 billion, was breaking bread with Jones over moving a team from a small market to a mega one.

For the past year, the committee the NFL created to study its Los Angeles opportunities — a group that included old-line owners bearing the names Mara and Rooney — researched the prospects of the league’s return to the nation’s second-largest market. As this owners session in Houston neared, hours were spent meeting with fellow owners outlining a recommendation of a stadium site and Los Angeles plan.

Normally, the committee’s vote to recommend Carson, a 5-1 vote by the group last week, would have sealed the deal and been rubber-stamped by full ownership. But showing that this is no longer their fathers’ NFL, the committee members’ peers, led by Jones, trampled that recommendation, instead blown away by the $2.66 billion palace Kroenke has promised in Inglewood, Calif. The vision of an NFL playground on the West Coast — with NFL Network studios, additional space for digital operations, and a site that could host events from the NFL combine to the Pro Bowl — trumped Carson and even the charisma of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger, who would have led that stadium effort.

Hearing the comments afterward, it was evident that this was as much a real estate play as a franchise relocation, and the man with the most capital won.

The Chargers’ Dean Spanos
Photo by: AP IMAGES
Including the $650 million relocation fee, Kroenke’s privately financed tab for moving the Rams to Los Angeles will exceed $3 billion, though the stadium cost could come down. It left the 65-year-old Spanos — with all his relationships and 15 years spent working to meet the spirit of the NFL’s relocation bylaws, fruitlessly trying for a stadium deal in San Diego — standing outside of Kroenke’s spotlight. Kroenke’s money spoke, and the fact that he made minimal efforts in St. Louis, where Mayor Francis Slay said he had never even met the man, did not bother the owners, even though his home market offered $350 million of public funds for a new Rams stadium there.

“Well, I mean someone has to lose, obviously,” said a blunt Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner, when asked to square his description of a “win win” with how St. Louis assembled the only stadium deal of the three markets looking to keep their teams but had been left behind.

New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, when asked as he left the meeting if he had a message for St. Louis, kept walking toward his waiting car, never looking back.

Few owners went on the record after the meeting, knowing the sensitivities around the issue. And even fewer expressed insight into how and why ownership would ignore the recommendation of a committee that had been created to study the issue and was filled with such respected names: Robert Kraft, Jerry Richardson, Bob McNair, Clark Hunt and the aforementioned John Mara and Art Rooney II.

“It’s unusual,” New York Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said of ignoring the recommendation of the committee.
When asked about the incongruity of a 5-1 committee vote for Carson but then Inglewood getting 20 votes from full ownership on their first ballot (four shy of passage), Tisch responded, “I can’t answer that. I am not on the committee. I really haven’t spoken to any of the committee members. That’s a good question, and I don’t have [an answer].”

League observers and insiders were hard-pressed to cite another example of a committee getting rebuffed, and overwhelmingly so. Few details are known about how the power play of the Kroenke supporters was able to win the votes needed for Inglewood. But the swift decision to leave a long-standing market that had shown a willingness to fund a new facility for its team while leaving two longtime owners, Spanos and Davis, with an uncertain future likely will create a bifurcated ownership group for Commissioner Roger Goodell to manage — something that was evident in his body language at the press conference last week, as well.

Where does the league go from here? It is possible the old rules revert on more mundane matters and the old guard regains its mojo. But hard feelings are sure to fester. The Los Angeles committee members are all chairmen of other key committees for the league.

One keen observer of league politics, who requested anonymity because of his role in the Los Angeles process, asked whether ill will could sprout and affect upcoming policy.

Richardson and Mara left Houston with no comment, while Kraft said only, “This is a great solution.”

The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones backed Kroenke.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
But clearly it’s not for the Chargers and Raiders. Davis stood next to Goodell on the stage and declared it a bad day for the Raiders. Spanos, sources said, was shocked to find the votes he had been promised evaporated when the ballot became anonymous. Traditionally, owners’ votes are not secret to their peers, but the league chose to cloak the ballot here in anonymity.

Asked if all three owners who sought relocation to Los Angeles were pleased, Tisch smiled, paused and then replied, “No.”

Spanos in particular confronts tough decisions. He must decide within a year whether to relocate to Inglewood, either as a tenant or partner in Kroenke’s stadium, a prospect he had widely rejected last month. In San Diego, the owners vote had barely ended before harsh statements came out of politicians lecturing the team to bargain in good faith.

Spanos does have the promise of another $100 million, on top of $200 million in league stadium funds, if he builds in San Diego. But the chances of public funding in San Diego hinge on a referendum, and Spanos needs to decide if he can thrive south of Kroenke’s palace in Inglewood when that venue figures to soak up commercial inventory and events.

The Raiders, meanwhile, have to fall in line behind the Chargers; they can’t move to Inglewood unless the Chargers pass on the opportunity that was given to them last week. Davis, also promised an extra $100 million if he builds in Oakland, can try for a deal again in his home market. He can look to other cities to relocate, as well.

“We’ll see where the Raider Nation ends up here,” Davis said last week before he left the press conference stage. “We’ll be working really hard to find us a home, and that’s what we’re looking forward to.”

One league insider noted how different last week’s development might have turned out had Davis been willing to give up control of the Raiders. The owners’ disdain for the Davis family is little secret given the litany of lawsuits filed by Mark Davis’ late father, Al, against his peers.

“Imagine how this would have turned out had Davis sold controlling interest to Larry Ellison,” this insider said. Davis had talks with the Oracle founder in recent months but wouldn’t give up control of the franchise. Had he agreed, there very well could have been a different NFL reality last week.

But what couldn’t be debated was that the NFL witnessed last week a changing of the guard, where a new generation of ownership is dictating the league’s future, charting its course back to Los Angeles and beyond.