By Dennis Bateman
As the saga of the National Football League’s (Will they or won’t they?) return to Los Angeles continues into its 20th year, football fans in Southern California put up with many promises, and many reassurances. Since the Rams and Raiders fled for their not-so-greener pastures in 1995, we’ve experienced aborted relocation as well as an impressive debacle as L.A. fumbled away the 32nd franchise that the NFL had practically guaranteed.
Recently Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross chimed in with the most positive comments in quite awhile regarding the restoration of the NFL’s brand in the region, and speculation continues. His remark that he expects the league to return to Los Angeles within five years echoes similar sentiments expressed by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones last year. The field is now narrowed down to three teams, the Rams, the Raiders, and the Chargers, all of which have dwindling commitments to their stadium situations that leave each eligible to make a move following the upcoming season.
Some supporters of keeping those teams in their current locations, disdaining such a shift in their favored franchise, have instead proposed expansion as the cure-all for the football forlorn in SoCal. But other than an offhand (and misinterpreted) remark by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in an interview three years ago, no one has talked, or even suggested that expansion is anywhere in the NFL’s near future. In fact, it has been 12 years since the Houston Texans took the field, and not only is another new NFL team not coming soon, it can’t even be seen on the distant horizon.
During an interview with Goodell on his TV show “Costas Tonight” in 2012, before Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, noted sportscaster Bob Costas asked a hypothetical question about adding a 33rd franchise, to which Goodell said that an odd number wouldn’t work, and that if you were to expand, you’d have to make it 34 teams. The next day, Costas made a bold prediction on a St. Louis sportsradio talk show that the NFL would place not one, but two expansion franchises in Los Angeles. The notion was so asinine that Goodell quickly walked back any suggestion that the league had any plans to expand. (http://blogs.wsj.com/dailyfix/2012/02/03/roger-goodell-nfl-expansions-a-longshot/)
But Costas isn’t the only one, as expansion is often suggested as if it were a realistic prospect (most vociferously by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz). In fact, it is not, and as history shows, the NFL is very particular, and very reluctant, to expand membership into its exclusive ownership.
Here are some reasons the NFL has not (and is not) going to expand:
1. 32 is enough – The NFL already has the most franchises of any of the four major sports leagues in North America. Since 2002, the league now fields 32 teams playing 16 games, divided into 8 divisions with 4 teams each paired into 2 conferences. That, football fans, is the definition of perfect symmetry.
In this way, every team in the league is guaranteed to play every other team in the league at least once every four years. It was because of this arrangement that finally allowed Jacksonville and San Diego to meet on the field in 2003, eight years from the time the Jaguars joined the NFL. In another quirk of the old scheduling method, the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles first met on the field in 1972. They would not meet again until the 1992 season, and the Chiefs wouldn’t play the Eagles on the road until 1998.
With an assymetrical number of teams and uneven divisions, would anyone want a recurrence of the infamous “doghouse doubleheaders” in the pre-free agency era, often pitting cellar dwellars like Tampa Bay and St. Louis in home-and-away series every other year, as well as one game each against the teams in the 4-team NFC West (that, Ram fans, is why we constantly had the mediocre Detroit and Green Bay on our schedules on a regular basis).
Expanding beyond what is now a perfect arrangement would upset that carefully laid-out alignment, which goes hand-in-hand with Pete Rozelle’s dream of parity, now realized in the era of free agency. Any additional franchises would upset that apple cart, and the NFL likes ‘dem apples the way they are.
2. Historical Reluctance – Throughout its history, the NFL has shown a reluctance to expand. Prior to 1960, the last time the NFL voluntarily expanded was when they granted a franchise to Baltimore businessman, Carroll Rosenbloom, and the NFL’s Baltimore Colts began play for the 1953 season, bringing the league’s membership to an even twelve teams. In fact, its unwillingness to open to new markets provided the impetus for Lamar Hunt and his fellow “Foolish Club” members to create the American Football League. While the NFL did add four teams during the 1960s (Dallas, Minnesota, Atlanta, and New Orleans), it only did so to counter the AFL’s growth.
The conclusion of the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 is an anomaly not only in league, but in professional sports history. Where the NFL absorbed all 10 of the AFL’s teams, the NBA allowed only four teams of the rival 10-team ABA, while the NHL (after considerable resistance) took in just four of the six teams from the WHA. Even after that, the NFL only added two teams in 1976 (Seattle and Tampa Bay) and two again in 1995 (Carolina and Jacksonville). The addition of the new Cleveland Browns in 1999 came about to resolve the former Cleveland Browns’ messy franchise move to Baltimore in 1996, and the addition of the Houston Texans was made to return the league to its much-desired symmetry.
3. Cutting up the pie – While NFL owners are pleased to see the league’s revenues continue to rise, they are also casting a wary eye the long-term implications of expanding. While the NBA and NHL are profitable, both leagues have struggled with maintaining some smaller market teams that entered their respective leagues during periods of aggressive expansion. This has put the kibosh on any future franchise growth, even though each league has at least one city primed to return to the pro circuit (Seattle for the NBA, Quebec City for the NHL).
The NFL is a large and profitable pie, but it is still only one pie, and divvying up the pie further would make for further diminishing returns for the exclusive club that comprises the NFL’s owners. If, as Bernie Miklasz insists, the NFL is controlling the Los Angeles market to add two expansion teams there, why would NFL owners publicly throw cold water on the notion? If expansion were seriously being entertained, would not Ross and Jones (arguably the NFL’s most influential owner of the past 25 years) hedge their bets on the possibility? Allegedly, they and the other existing NFL owners would reap massive rewards from the “billion-dollar expansion fee” tossed about by the ignorant and less-informed. Another contradiction of the expansion stance is the insistence that L.A. is being reserved for two expansion teams, yet is somehow completely unsuitable for an existing franchise whose lease is about to be declared void due to the host city’s failure to fulfill its obligations…
4. Diluting the product – Those same NFL owners are also sensitive to the dilution of their product that is an inevitable consequence of future expansion; this has been an issue with every pro league and has led to a disparity between perennially competitive and non-competitive teams.
If the NFL were truly set on expansion, it would be encouraging both publicly and privately for ownership and stadium groups, not only in Los Angeles, but in other sizable markets like San Antonio or Portland. No such expansion groups exist anywhere, and this is in stark contrast to the 1995 round of expansion, which saw the NFL courting ownership groups in as many as 11 cities before awarding teams to Carolina and Jacksonville, both of which established their ownership groups at least six years before any vote ever took place.
The return of the National Football League to Los Angeles will be no small affair. But if it’s going to be done, it will be through a relocation. As Jerry Jones said around this time last year, “There won’t be any expansion. So it will be teams that move.”