Will California’s four National Football League teams – the 49ers, Raiders, Rams, and Chargers – win big in the new season?
Who knows? But we already can identify the losers: California cities foolish enough to host teams.
In other states, major cities build NFL stadiums because they see football franchises as providing a publicity and economic boost. But in California, with its nation-sized economy and globally famous big cites, major cities have been shedding their football teams, and avoiding the headaches of devoting valuable California real estate to stadiums.
In this contest, the biggest winner is San Francisco, which got free of its NFL headache by “losing” the 49ers to Santa Clara. Across the Bay, Oakland, which resisted building a new stadium for the Raiders, will win by shipping them off to Las Vegas in three years.
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San Diego registered its civic triumph when – after its voters defeated a proposed new stadium – the Chargers left for a temporary home in the L.A. County city of Carson. In 2020, the Chargers, along with the Rams – who relocated to Southern California in 2016, from St. Louis – will move into a new, shared stadium in the city of Inglewood.
The destinations of these teams are telling. The only places in California to risk permanently hosting an NFL team are smaller and poorer, cities in the shadow of global municipalities. Desperate for high-profile development, such cities devote land and resources to teams that won’t even incorporate their names.
(It’s the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Rams, not the Santa Clara 49ers or Inglewood Rams.)
That’s the least of the indignities of being an NFL city. Economic studies show that sports teams merely siphon dollars from other entertainment-oriented businesses. And then there’s the costs of civic conflict that greedy NFL teams can engender.
The Santa Clara stadium, while billed as privately financed, required a hotel tax and $600 million in construction loans by a city-related entity.
Three years after it opened, city and team are fighting about everything from the 49ers’ use of local soccer fields for parking to whether the team lives up to its promises on financial disclosure and stadium spending.
“We learned we cannot trust the 49ers,” Santa Clara’s mayor told the San Francisco Chronicle this spring.
Things aren’t that bad in Inglewood yet, where the opening of the stadium, part of a larger entertainment complex, is three years away. But construction is already a year behind schedule, and community opposition is growing. The stadium, sold as a totally private project, could cost the city an estimated $100 million in tax breaks.
None of this should surprise. Most NFL teams are profitable, so those teams that must relocate – including all four of California’s – carry the stink of failure. It’s no coincidence that California’s NFL owners show up in rankings of the worst owners in pro sports.
These include the Rams’ owner, Stan Kroenke, who has produced teams with losing records for a decade. The Spanos family, which owns the Chargers, alienated San Diego with poor management. Raiders owner Mark Davis, perhaps the NFL’s poorest owner, inherited the team from his late father, Al Davis, a litigious scoundrel who moved the team from Oakland to L.A. and back.
And USA Today said 49ers owner Jed York had turned the team into “the NFL’s biggest joke.”
Meanwhile, life after NFL football looks pretty good. San Francisco, sans the 49ers, is more prosperous than ever, and is using Candlestick Park, its former home, for developments more valuable than the stadium was. San Diego, still wrestling with the costs of the Chargers’ old stadium, is imagining happier development possibilities in replacing it.
Oakland should find that the departure of the Raiders opens up transformational opportunities for land next to a transit center.
But enough about the winners. NFL football in California is for losers.
Pity the home teams.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.