Albeit different dynamics, L.A. connects Vikings, Rams, Raiders & Chargers

MINNEAPOLIS – The early fall Minneapolis chill in the air in did little to put the freeze on the irony of the Rams visit to play the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium on Sunday.

In the game within the game that is the National Football League’s quest to get back to Los Angeles, the Vikings and Rams have a lot more in common than just a rich rivalry history dating back to the Purple People Eaters and Fearsome Foursome.

The Rams have assumed the the most recent position on the L.A. merry-go-round, joining the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders in a three-team, two-stadium push to Tinseltown that is equal parts bold ambition, desperation and high-stakes poker.

In other words, somewhat familiar ground to where the Vikings stood three years ago.

Back in 2012 it was the Vikings using Los Angeles as leverage – if not refuge – in a maddeningly frustrating fight to get a new stadium deal in Minneapolis.

Now that their long-range future in Minnesota is as certain as January snow in the Twin Cities, it’s easy to forget just how dire things were and how close the Vikings came to needing a new home.

Most likely Los Angeles, which was pushing through Tim Leiweke and AEG’s grand Farmers Field vision in hopes of luring the NFL back to downtown L.A.

It’s easy now to just dismiss it all as a perfectly orchestrated leverage play.

After all, next year the Vikings will move into their brand new downtown stadium three miles from their temporary home on the campus of the University of Minnesota, and all that talk of moving to Los Angeles has floated away like a barge down the nearby Mississippi River.

That doesn’t mean Los Angeles wasn’t emerging as a very real possibility for the Purple People Eaters.

In fact, had it not been for an 11th hour visit to Minnesota by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney III, the chairman of the NFL’s Stadium Committee, to convince state leaders to revive a dead-in-the-water stadium bill, Sunday’s Rams-Vikings game might actually have been played at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum rather than TFC Bank Stadium.

“I think (Vikings owner) Zygi (Wilf) would not have moved (them),” said an NFL executive involved in the negotiations. “But (he) might have sold it to people who would have tried to move them.”

Actually, that is exactly what might have happened according to Vikings vice president Lester Bagley, the point man in the team’s nearly 15-year battle to replace the old Metrodome.

“I don’t know that our owners had the stomach to move the team, but I do think there was some question about the state of Minnesota and if we couldn’t resolve this issue the team would have gone up for sale,” Bagley said. “That’s seemed to be the path we were on.”

Bagley confirmed there were multiple buyers interested in acquiring the Vikings if things didn’t work out in Minnesota, including some in Los Angeles.

“There was interest, no doubt about it,” Bagley said.

And wouldn’t that have altered the history of the NFL and Los Angeles forever?

The Rams might actually be taking seriously St. Louis efforts to help build them a new stadium – if not looking at Toronto or London to fulfill owner Stan Kroenke’s big-market aspirations – and the Chargers or Raiders might already be stadium mates with the Vikings at Farmers Field.

Instead, the commissioners visit to Minnesota convinced state leaders that L.A. was a very real possibility and if they didn’t act quickly they might just lose their beloved Vikings.

A few days later a dead stadium bill miraculously sprang back to life, and soon the Vikings and their passionate fan base were renewing their vows with a brand new stadium.

“Ultimately the bill passed after 12 years trying to get something done,” Bagley said. “And by the time it opens next season, it will have been a 16-year endeavor that a lot of people poured their hearts and souls into.”

With a big assist from Los Angeles.

By simply sitting vacant, the second-biggest market in the country helped push Minnesota business and political leaders into action.

“It was the dynamic of L.A. not having a team, our national and our very public story of no lease and a long-time effort to try to get this thing over the top,” Bagley said.

Which brings us back to whole irony thing.

By locking down their future in Minnesota, the Vikings kept open Los Angeles to others. And the longer L.A. remained vacant, the more Kroenke’s wheels turned.

A year later he bought 60 acres in Inglewood on the site of the old Hollywood Park Race Track. A year after that he gained control of the remaining 238 acres and announced plans for a privately funded $1.7 billion stadium as part of a mega entertainment, retail and residential development.

The Chargers and Raiders, both embroiled in long fights to secure new stadiums in San Diego and Oakland and desperate to create spots in Los Angeles in case local plans didn’t materialize, soon teamed up on a joint stadium project in Carson.

In the ensuing 10 months, the three teams, two stadium proposals and three home markets have have navigated there ways to a virtual stalemate.

The Chargers are not on board or confident with the Mission Valley stadium plan in San Diego, and fear aligning themselves with it will result in no stadium in San Diego and no spot in Los Angeles.

In Oakland, there is no plan on the table for the Raiders.

And the Rams desire to return to Los Angeles, coupled with their free agent status based on a breech of the original lease agreement upon moving to St. Louis 20 years ago, has left them uninterested in St. Louis efforts to help finance a new stadium.

All three teams are full steam ahead to Los Angeles.

Figuring out who relocates to L.A. and what stadium plan wins out is the task facing the NFL over the next six weeks.

A vote is expected by January.

“There don’t seem to be any easy answers,” said Bagley, who concedes the time seems ripe for one or two teams to make the move to L.A.

Thankfully for the Vikings, they are out of that game.

“In the end, in that last legislative session, a lot of things happened to coalesce everything,” Bagley said. “It was go time in our market. The business leadership, the political leadership, the labor leadership and our fans and the commissioner and Mr. Rooney, who came out to meet our legislative leaders and Governor to say we have to solve this problem. And we did.”

With a significant assist from Los Angeles.

From the NFL lens, St. Louis stadium plan has issues

For months now the future of the National Football League in St. Louis rested on the stadium plan being put together by the St. Louis Stadium task force appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon.

But based on some recent poking around, it’s questionable whether the stadium bill St. Louis hopes to deliver will be sufficient enough to compel the NFL to block a proposed Rams move to Los Angeles.

And with St. Louis leaders preparing to present the plan to the NFL’s Los Angeles owners committee next week in New York, that could be a major issue moving forward.

But more on that in a bit.

It’s no secret Rams owner Stan Kroenke wants to move his franchise back to Los Angeles, where he is proposing a privately financed $1.7 billion dollar stadium in Inglewood. It’s one of two Los Angeles-area stadium plans the NFL is considering, along with the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers joint stadium proposal in Carson.

The NFL hopes to decide what team or teams will relocate to L.A. and which stadium site they’ll call home by next January.

Back in St. Louis, local leaders and fans are counting on NFL owners blocking Kroenke’s move based on the merits of the privately/privately financed $1 billion dollar stadium being proposed along the banks of the Mississippi.

The argument being, how can the NFL allow the Rams to move when St. Louis is putting so much public money into a new stadium?

On the surface, St. Louis has a valid argument. No NFL team has ever relocated to a new market when the current market is offering a viable stadium plan.

But along with being viable, a stadium plan also has to be compelling and attractive. And that is where St. Louis might encounter some problems.

After doing some poking around the last few days, some serious concerns are growing in the NFL that any owner – let alone Kroenke – would sign off on what St. Louis is proposing.

In other words, not only is it insufficient to potentially block a Rams move to Los Angeles. But also to eventually lure another team to St. Louis should the Rams leave.

One of the primary issues, according to sources, is how St. Louis views the public/private split for stadium costs and how the NFL looks at things.

And without trying to validate one argument or the other, it’s imperative to keep in mind the math book being used to figure this out was written by the NFL. Their book, their rules.

And considering part of the team and league’s contribution for the stadium – roughly $450 million of it – comes in cold hard cash as opposed to the various mechanisms used by states and cities to be paid out over time – the NFL believes it has every right to to recoup its investment as quickly as possible.

Which means controlling all stadium related revenue, such as naming rights fees, game-day revenue and game-day tax revenue on items like ticket sales, food and beverage and on-site parking.

Which brings us to the St. Louis proposal, and the misgivings the NFL has with the public/private contribution split.

The breakdown of the St. Louis plan is approximately $610 million from the team and league (counted as private, and includes a $160 million Personal Seat License projection) and $390 million in public contributions.

The issue is, St. Louis is using the naming rights deal with National Car Rental to finance $75 million in bonds to go toward its share of construction cost. And since the NFL counts naming rights money as team revenue, the city will rebate the team a percentage of game-day taxes – such as levies on tickets, parking or merchandise.

The plan raises NFL eyebrows for a couple of reasons.

Not only is St. Louis tapping into the naming rights deal – or team revenue – to pay part of its portion, it’s then using team revenue in the form of game-day tax rebates to pay it back.

When viewed through an NFL lens, the $75 million should count as team money, which brings the private contribution to $685 million.

As a result, what St. Louis currently sees as a $610 million dollar private to $390 million dollar public split, the NFL sees as a $685 million private to $315 million dollar public split.

And that is a huge issue.

Especially when the most recent public/private stadium bill agreed to and passed – between the Vikings and Minnesota – broke down as $498 million from taxpayers and $477 million from the team/league on a $975 million stadium.

That doesn’t mean the Rams are a sure bet to Los Angeles.

But it’s obviously not a slam dunk the St. Louis stadium deal will be the major hit with NFL owners that local leaders hoped.

As Rams eye Los Angeles, their St. Louis fans hold onto fading hope

ST. LOUIS – The atmosphere at Baer Park across the street from the Edward Jones Dome was festive on Sunday. It was a glorious fall afternoon, the Rams were about to play one of their biggest games in years, and as fans tossed footballs, downed beers and shared laughs a country band offered a soothing, soulful beat in the background.

In a word, it was perfect.

Yet anxiety hung in the air as thick as the smoky aroma of a tailgate party.

And it had nothing to do with the hated San Francisco 49ers being in town or the how the Rams were on the brink of moving over .500 for the first time this late in a season in nearly a decade.

“We’re pretty nervous, to be perfectly honest” said 56-year-old Rams fan Jim Freymark.

There is a clock ticking right now in St. Louis, and it could mark the end of the Rams 20-year existence along the banks of the Mississippi.

It’s no secret Rams owner Stan Kroenke has his heart set on moving his franchise back to Los Angeles, where it played from 1946 to 1994.

And he believes has the legal freedom and justification to pursue his dream.

The multi-billionaire and Missouri native is making a $1.7 billion dollar bet that the mega-entertainment vision he has for a privately financed stadium/development in Inglewood will convince fellow owners to grant him his wish.

Inglewood is one of two Los Angeles area stadium proposals the NFL is considering along with the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers joint plan in Carson.

The NFL hopes to decide what team or teams and which site by next January.

With Kroenke essentially turning his back on the stadium plan Missouri leaders are putting together to keep him in St. Louis, local hope rests with NFL owners.

Do they agree with Kroenke, who believes St. Louis’ refusal to honor the original lease the Rams signed upon moving here in 1995 gives him free agent status, eligible to look elsewhere for a long-term home?

Or do they side with St. Louis, which insists the stadium plan it hopes to deliver makes any Rams move illegal by virtue of the NFL’s relocation guidelines?

Complicating matters is the Raiders and Chargers L.A. plan, the result of each teams frustration over years and years of fighting for new local stadiums in Oakland and San Diego.

“It’s an extremely difficult situation,” said 49ers CEO Jed York, who holds one of the 32 votes that will ultimately decide who stays and who goes. “And there are no easy answers.”

And let’s not forget that the future of professional football in Los Angeles rests in the balance. It’s been two decades since the NFL resided in the second-biggest market in the country. Depending on who you talk to, getting back to L.A. – and doing it right – trumps everything else in this complex situation.

“There is no doubt L.A. is a huge priority,” said York, who also stressed the importance of giving all three home markets a fair, honest look over the next three months.

“This isn’t a decision we can take lightly,” York said. “We’re talking about something that affects multiple fan bases and relocating teams from one market to another. The NFL has to be extremely prudent, and while it might seem like it’s taking longer than people would like, this isn’t a decision you can rush. And that’s why the NFL wants to take its time with it, to make sure the right decisions are made. These are long-term decisions.”

Rams fans hope the NFL has their back. But they are nervous.

“They have all these relocation guidelines, but will they actually follow them?” wondered 27-year-old Rams’ fan Mike Sparks. “Just look at Deflategate. The NFL flipped flopped a thousand times on that. We hope for a fair shake. But how can we be sure we’ll get it?”

This much is certain: The Rams want out of Missouri, and it doesn’t matter much what St. Louis ultimately delivers on a stadium plan.

The argument they make to fellow owners, and one they will continue to stress moving forward, is they’ve been free agents ever since St. Louis decided against paying the $700 million dollars an arbitrator ruled was necessary to upgrade the Edward Jones Dome. In doing so, it triggered a clause allowing the Rams to go to a year-to-year lease with the right to relocate.

Furthermore, they believe they meet the relocation guidelines. Yes, St. Louis is presenting a stadium plan. But if it isn’t compelling to the Rams it shouldn’t bound them to St. Louis.

And as a high-ranking NFL executive pointed out, a home markets obligation isn’t simply coming up with the best plan it can. It’s coming up with a plan a team is excited about and on board with.

If the Rams aren’t compelled by what St. Louis is offering – and there is nothing to suggest they are – can fellow owners force them to accept a deal they don’t believe is worthy?

Of course, the Chargers and Raiders point out their own local stadium issues as justification for a move to L.A.

But with room in Los Angeles for a maximum of two teams and one new stadium, who gets the nod?

“I can see validity in all the arguments, and that’s what’s so hard,” York said, “You have three markets that might not be the best markets in the league and you have L.A., a potentially great market.

“So there’s a lot of things to weigh and hopefully we’ll have a good answer in a couple of months.”

Meanwhile, the fans in the home markets wait in angst.

“It’s terrible because one day you think they’re going to stay then the next a different story comes out and they’re gone,” Freymark said.

And while he looks to the NFL for support, he isn’t sure St. Louis will get it.

“I don’t know, I don’t trust them. I know I should. But I don’t know,” Freymark said. “One minute they say they have (relocation) guidelines the next they say they’re only suggestions. So what are they, exactly?”

If it makes fans feel any better, York insists he doesn’t know yet which way he’ll vote.

“I honestly don’t,” he said. “Some people, obviously, have their staunch opinions on what is right but I still think there’s information we need to dig into. I want to make sure my vote truly counts. And that means putting everything into it. I don’t want to have a preconceived notion going into a vote of this magnitude.”

As decision day looms, St. Louis Rams fans soak in a season that is shaping up as one of the best in years.

The reality is, it might be the last one ever.