This society's barometer
Ever since The Betrayal, I became resigned to the fact that ardent fan loyalty to a team and deep community roots by said team pale in comparison to the almighty dollar in the eyes of NFL owners. How else can the football fan explain the move of the Cleveland Browns franchise to Baltimore to become the trendy, purple-clad, carrion-eaters? The Browns arguably had the deepest of any team's roots in their community, and the fans responded with strong support for the better part of 50 years. What the Browns did not have, however, was a brand-spanking new stadium that would line The Creature's pockets with cash and more cash. Because The Creature did not feel the love (in the form of a new stadium and money) he felt he was entitled to after years of owning the team, he and his son, El Cigaro, consummated a deal with Maryland officials to move the franchise to that state in exchange for the sweetest of sweetheart stadium deals.
I do not want to rehash the past or unearth painful memories for Browns fans, but the recent talk among NFL owners about relocating an existing franchise to Los Angeles is causing me to ruminate about what occurred in Autumn 1995. At the most recent owners meeting in Houston, much of the discussion centered around how the NFL needs to be in Los Angeles and how the league is not complete without a team in the city of Angels. Consider the following quote from Jerry Jones: "It would surprise me if you don't have a playing team in Los Angeles sooner than [five years], given the current economic framework…Certainly we need [L.A.] in the NFL, and it's very important to our sport to have a team in Los Angeles." Jones the oilman and entrepreneur, of course, has never been opposed to a team making a quick buck at the expense of the fans or tradition. But when someone like Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who has been opposed to franchise relocation in the past and was one of the only friends the Browns franchise had in Autumn 1995, intimates support for franchise relocation to Los Angeles, you know this NFL-in-LA talk is more than just talk. "I know this, with the people I've talked to from L.A., there seems to be a lot more interest there for the NFL than when those teams (Rams and Raiders) left…I think it's going to have to take a lot of conversation about what's best for the league," Rooney said at the owners meeting. "I've been one who's not for moving teams. But there might be a case that qualifies." The league even created a "commissioner's working group" (consisting of Rooney, Carmen Policy, Carolina owner Jerry Richardson, Miami owner Wayne Huizenga, and New England owner Bob Kraft) to study the available options for placing a team in Los Angeles.
This pell-mell rush to place a team in Los Angeles is confusing to me because what I remember about football in the city where image is everything are half-empty stadiums and an apathetic fan base. Small fish, big pond. L.A. folks seemed too cool to care. However, there is rampant speculation that "the current economic framework" that Jones is referring to are the TV contracts with CBS and Fox. The networks are taking a bath with their current contracts with the NFL, and the speculation holds that the NFL wants a team in L.A. when the time comes to renegotiate with the networks. Owners are afraid that without a team in the nation's second-largest television market, the networks will not be willing to pony up nine, possibly ten, figures to secure the rights to televise the NFL. Similar to what happened in Autumn 1995, it seems the NFL and its owners are willing to screw over a team's fans and community for the sake of money. Furthermore, Denver billionaire Phillip Anschutz has informed the league that he heads a group that is ready and willing to construct one of those new stadiums with all the modern amenities that is all the rage near the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The team and owner that moves to Los Angeles would be moving into a situation similar to what The Creature enjoyed in Baltimore, with a sweetheart stadium deal with plenty of luxury boxes and personal seat licenses. Ayn Rand once said, "Money is the barometer of a society's virtue," and it's clear where the NFL owners place their priorities and what they hold virtuous.
Sadly, there is little the NFL, its commissioner, or its fans can do to curb what Pete Rozelle coined "franchise free agency." In the 1980s, the NFL fought the good fight to keep the Raiders in Oakland, but it was to no avail and the league spent approximately $50 million in legal fees trying to keep the Albola virus from infecting Los Angeles. When Georgia Frontiere (aren't these owners a fine, upstanding, likable bunch?) wanted to up and move the Rams to St. Louis, the NFL owners vetoed the move in an attempt to show a modicum of a spine. In response to the NFL's vote, the City of St. Louis and the state's Attorney General threatened to file lawsuits seeking billions of dollars in antitrust damages. The NFL, remembering the ultimately futile attempt at keeping the reigns on Al Davis, subsequently acquiesced to Ms Frontiere's wishes out of fear of public embarrassment and monetary losses and allowed the Rams to move. In other words, if you are a fan of the Chargers, Vikings, or Cardinals and you are seeking assistance in keeping your team from relocating to Los Angeles, don't expect help from the NFL or its owners.
Other recent events make it readily apparent that money, not fan base or loyalty, is a primary (deciding?) factor in franchise placement. I was aghast and confused when the NFL placed expansion franchises in Charlotte and Jacksonville instead of Baltimore and St. Louis. The latter two cities had lost franchises a decade earlier because their carpet-bagging owners had chosen to take the money and run, but each city contained rich and storied sports histories; on the other hand, Jacksonville had humidity and Charlotte had Mugsy Bogues, but there was little else in the way of sport history in either city. However, speculation persists that the NFL wanted to place franchises in the Sun Belt, where the population is growing by leaps and bounds as opposed to Baltimore or St. Louis, where the population cannot get away soon enough. The new Panther and Jaguar franchises also sported spiffy, futuristic uniforms so that the casual fan could buy plenty of team paraphernalia.
I have already mentioned the birth of that team that currently resides in Baltimore and the Rams' move to St. Louis, each of which were fueled by the prospect of more money at the end of the trail for the franchises and the potential monetary losses for the NFL if the league had decided to fight. More evidence of how little fan passion matters to the NFL is found in the city where the owners conducted their meeting. The city of Houston did not put up much of a fight to keep the Oilers, yet the NFL placed a new expansion franchise in that city (after trying its darnedest to find someone in Los Angeles) because Bob McNair had the financial wherewithal. For a city that managed to gather up only a few dozen protesters when it was announced the Oilers were moving to Tennessee, the awarding of a franchise to Houston was surprising to me, since the fans did not seem all that upset when the team left for greener pastures.
A most sincere love
The awarding of franchises to the cities of Houston, Charlotte, and Jacksonville and the push by owners to get a team in Los Angeles is compelling evidence that fan loyalty is not nearly as important to the NFL as money. I cannot recall any massive or organized protests conducted by fans of the Oilers, Rams, or Raiders when word leaked that the respective franchises were leaving town. Yet, franchises are awarded (or will soon be awarded) to such cities because money is the language that NFL owners speak. That's what they understand.
As a lifelong Browns fan who participated in the Internet Day protests in 1995 by faxing, emailing, and writing letters to scores of media outlets, congressmen, and NFL officials, it is somewhat disheartening that cities that did not conduct any protests on the level of Browns fans are tossed bouquets in the form of expansion franchises. When the cities were home to NFL franchises, the fans of Los Angeles and Houston were lukewarm in their support and did not vehemently protest the relocation. I want to believe that my protests and the protests of Browns fans around the world made a difference in securing an expansion franchise with the name and colors of the Browns for the city of Cleveland. However, I cannot help but experience this nagging feeling that the NFL placed the Browns in Cleveland not because of anything the fans did, but because the NFL knew that Browns fans would sell out a new stadium year after year, lead the league in Nielsen ratings, and gobble up team merchandise. Add in a half-billion dollar expansion fee for the prospective new owners and you can see that the owners clearly benefited monetarily from the city of Cleveland's settlement with the NFL. I foresee a similar scenario playing out in Los Angeles, with a prospective Los Angeles franchise owner paying out an exorbitant franchise fee to the other owners. More money.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote "there is no love sincerer than the love of food." I wonder if he ever met an owner of an NFL franchise.