PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- We shouldn't be able to write this feature every year, but a changing economy and a cash-hungry collection of National Football League owners unhappy with their towns make it a bit too easy.
An NFL team hasn't moved in 16 years. Even after the Houston Oilers left the AstroDome and moved to Tennessee, however, Houston was rewarded with the Texans, Reliant Stadium and Super Bowl hosting duties in 2004 and 2017. The Oilers' move ended a three-year game of football musical chairs in which the Rams and Raiders left Los Angeles for St. Louis and Oakland, respectively, in 1995 and the Cleveland Browns found a home in Baltimore and a new life as the Ravens in 1996.
Abnormal silence and stability followed as the NFL entered its longest stretch without a franchise move since the dry spell between the Cleveland Rams' move to Los Angeles in 1946 and the Chicago Cardinals' flight to St. Louis in 1960. As the 2013 NFL season approaches, however, green shoots of stability get lost in a dandelion field of continued upheaval. The Minnesota Vikings and San Francisco 49ers are eagerly awaiting the completion of new stadiums. Buffalo Bills management got the $226 million in stadium renovations it was looking for, but will still force the team to play one home game a year in Toronto and is promising to stick around its small market for only eight more years.
Now Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank wants to replace the 22-year-old, $214 million Georgia Dome that was just renovated for $300 million five years ago. He also wants the public to cough up $300 million to $400 million for it. With the promise of a stadium in Los Angeles looming, every franchise has leverage to get what it wants and every fan base knows this year could be their team's last. Whether it's an owner dreaming of greener pastures, or a team's current home dying beneath its feet, here are just five examples of teams that may want to consider moving sooner rather than later:
San Diego Chargers
Issue: Stadium upgrades
We could have just lifted last year's entry and left fans none the wiser, but it's worth noting that absolutely nothing has changed the Chargers' tenuous situation in San Diego.
The Spanos family of owners really wants a new stadium -- noting that the Chargers have played Qualcomm Stadium under each of its various names since 1967 -- but the taxpayers have absolutely no desire to pay for it. The stadium got its last facelift in 1997 just in time to host the Super Bowl in 1998 and hosted yet another Super Bowl in 2003, but the NFL has stated bluntly that San Diego will need a new stadium if it wants to host another Super Bowl any time soon.
Those pulling for the Chargers to stay have suggested redeveloping the Qualcomm Stadium site at no cost to taxpayers, but the Spanos clan is fielding better offers. Chula Vista and Escondido have made pitches, but the Chargers have been linked to at least two Los Angeles stadium proposals and spent a season there in 1960 before moving to San Diego a year later.
Meanwhile, the recent economic downturn coincided with a slump in the Chargers' play that's kept the team out of the playoffs since 2009. After selling out 48 straight games through 2010, the team has blacked out games for lack of attendance nine times since -- including half of the 2012 home slate.
Still, the Spanos family has remained hostile toward San Diego, shunning a new NFL policy that would allow teams to "sell out" home games at 85% stadium capacity and prevent those games from being blacked out on television in the home market. The worst part is that the Spanos' current stadium deal gives them the option to leave on a yearly basis, which forced the NFL to issue an announcement last year that the Chargers would, in fact, play in San Diego in 2013. San Diego taxpayers, meanwhile, responded by electing former U.S. Rep. Bob Filner as the city's mayor after he vowed not to publicly subsidize a new Chargers stadium -- though Filner's extracurricular indiscretions ended his days in office early.
The people of San Diego are showing some rare backbone for an NFL city by standing up to their needy franchise. It might cost them a football team, but general consensus is that it's still a discount compared with what the Chargers' demands may end up costing them.
Issue: Attendance and stadium renovations
If there was another Davis running the show, this might just read as a detailed plan for the Raiders' move back to Los Angeles. There might even be a joke about whether some uneaten Razzles or unopened cans of Crystal Pepsi are still in their old room after they left it in 1995.
But with far kinder owner Mark Davis running the show, it's just a depressing story about the Raiders' awful O.co Coliseum. That name is the least of its troubles, as there are only three stadiums in the NFL older than the 1966-vintage Coliseum. San Francisco's Candlestick Park, which was built in 1960, is being vacated by the 49ers after this season. Chicago's Soldier Field bears almost no resemblance to the stadium built in 1924 after getting a facelift in 2003 that makes it appear as if a spacecraft landed in it. The Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field, meanwhile, is the cathedral of the game that's been renovated several times since opening in 1957 and was paid for by selling shares of the team, giving a whole bunch of Packers fans and other like-minded Americans a stake in its history.
The Coliseum's age wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't an outright disaster. Its full capacity is 64,000, but it has trouble reaching even a reduced capacity of 53,000. Raiders fans have dealt with dozens of home-game blackouts since the team returned, while the Raiders themselves have to deal with a building in which raw sewage occasionally backs up into the locker rooms.
The Raiders' lease at O.co Coliseum ends this year, and management briefly considered joining the 49ers at their new stadium in Santa Clara and weighed building a stadium in Dublin, Calif. Davis is invested in Oakland, though, and even accepted the 85% attendance threshold for lockouts last year. The team has instead proposed building a 56,500-seat, $800 million stadium in Oakland. It's cheaper than the $1.3 billion stadium the 49ers are building, but the Raiders want $300 million in public funding to get it going.
With baseball's A's still looking for a home while weighing an extended lease at the Coliseum and basketball's Golden State Warriors already planning a move to San Francisco (though that won't take place for several years), Oakland doesn't want to see the Raiders bolt for Los Angeles or some other willing host city. Keeping all three would be costly, but staying in the crumbling Coliseum isn't doing wonders for a team that hasn't had a winning season since 2002, when they lost to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII.
The Raiders could benefit from a change of scenery. How far they'll have to travel to get it is anyone's guess.
St. Louis Rams
Issue: Stadium upgrades
Yet another return candidate from last year's list, the Rams are the only team whose stadium situation got worse since 2012. Back in July, the Rams got the word from the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission that they weren't going to get the $700 million they were seeking for renovations to the Edward Jones Dome.
That presents a huge problem for the Rams and the city, which promised to make the building into a "first-tier" stadium by 2015. That's basically like a middle-class parent showing a high school freshman a Lamborghini and telling him or her that it's theirs on graduation day.
In this case, however, St. Louis not coming through with that shiny new toy allows the Rams to get out of their lease in 2015. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon wants to open up talks with the team, but right now the Rams look like they might be eyeing a return to Los Angeles as well.
In fairness to the Rams, it's in their nature to bolt from their hometown every few decades or so. The franchise left Cleveland for Los Angeles in 1946 and left L.A. for St. Louis nearly 50 years later. Meanwhile, it's been more than a decade since the Kurt Warner "Greatest Show On Turf" Super Bowl years and, despite a promising showing last season, the team's still waiting for Sam Bradford to emerge as a savior and already wasted star running back Steven Jackson's stint. The Rams haven't made the playoffs since 2004 and haven't won more games than they've lost since 2003.
Rams ownership wanted a roof with a sliding panel, a glass front instead of a brick exterior and the re-routing of a nearby street, but wanted their home city to shell out the approximate worth of the Jacksonville Jaguars franchise to get it. A move to Los Angeles would put the team much closer to just about all of its NFC West rivals, but the line of teams with stadium troubles is already getting fairly long.
Right now, there isn't even a remote chance this team is going anywhere.
Ford Field just opened in 2002, the team playing in it is just a year removed from its first playoff appearance in more than a decade and Lions fans have been especially forgiving since the team went 0-16 in 2008. It takes a lot for them not to show up to a game.
"A lot" is pounding at the gates, however. The surrounding city declared bankruptcy last month. A full 40% of the city's street lights have been turned out. Roughly 120,000 of its buildings sit empty. Response times for 911 calls extend to nearly an hour, while fewer than 9% of crimes are ever solved.
What does that have to do with football? The Lions would argue not a whole lot. They actually left their former home, The Silverdome, vacant in Pontiac, Mich., to move back into the city. They're trying to generate some revenue eight days out of the year, bring folks into the city and give it something to rally around. Taking out an NFL team and the jobs that come with it to leave another empty building just isn't an option.
Yet. Bankruptcy wasn't supposed to be on the table for Detroit, either, but here it sits. The town's steady decline has taken everything else down with it. The Lions are to be commended for not giving up on Detroit, as are the Tigers and the Red Wings -- who just announced plans for a new downtown arena in June. Whether those teams can continue to prosper as the city around them collapses depends on whether Detroit's hit bottom or still has a way to go.
Any team in Florida
Issue: Economic conditions and attendance
Every Florida team can claim it's been picked on in the wake of the recession, but all are suggesting collectively that NFL demand in the state is too soft to support three teams.
So who goes? The favorite target in recent years has been the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team tarps off nearly 10,000 seats in 76,900-seat EverBank Field on the flimsy premise that it's a "college stadium" that needs expanded capacity for bowl games. Well sorry to break this to you, Jacksonville, but there are about 19 stadiums in the league with an NFL capacity greater than the 67,246 you let into Jags games. Your 2005 Super Bowl was roundly panned, your new owner hasn't committed to a future in town and your city hall still needs to organize ticket-buying drives.
Even so, even though they've had help from sponsors, the Jaguars haven't had to black out a game in years. The Miami Dolphins can make a similar claim, but they've needed sponsor help in recent years as well. The team has been flailing (three winning seasons since 2003 and none since 2008), owner Stephen Ross had his request for publicly funded stadium renovations shot down by lawmakers and their odds of finally wresting an AFC East title from the New England Patriots this season seem as unlikely as a Golden Girls reunion.
Yet a rich history, deep-pocketed sponsors, celebrity co-owners and a city on the rebound will likely keep the Dolphins in place for a good, long time.
Nope, the one team in Florida that might be the best candidate for packing its bags is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The team blacked out six out of eight home games last season and 25 out of the past 29 overall. Management accepted the new blackout threshold and tweaked ticket prices. Granted, attendance for a majority of the team's blacked-out home games in the two seasons before this fell below the new 85% mark, but all the better for deflecting blame to the NFL itself.
Never mind that the team's $69.72 average ticket price is still the costliest in Florida despite being $10 below the league average, according to Team Marketing Report's Fan Cost Index. By comparison, Seattle Seahawks fans in a far more economically stable city paid $2 less to see their team play each Sunday last year. The Seahawks made the playoffs, while the Bucs didn't even make their local affiliate's broadcast most of the time.
So where would the Bucs go? Ask the Glazer family of owners, who punted Bucs home games to London in 2009 and 2011 because they were more profitable than playing them in Tampa. The Glazers are a bit preoccupied by England, what with owning one of its more storied Premier League franchises in Manchester United, so the NFL to them is a bit like their "football" is to the average Bucs fan -- an afterthought at best.
You have an ownership too rich and preoccupied with international wins to care and you have a local fan base too rattled by the recession and put off by years of mediocrity to make an investment. The result is a halfhearted attempt to field a competitive NFL team and a half-interested fan base almost hoping this week's Bucs game doesn't sell out so Fox can show the far superior NFC game of the week instead.
NFL owners don't usually put up with this kind of brazen apathy, but the Glazers would have to stay in Tampa long enough to notice. If the Glazers are trying to create enough institutional disinterest to move the team to London without generating so much as a belabored sigh, they're doing a brilliant job.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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