Column: Play ball with the NFL … or else

By Jim Litke - AP Sports Columnist

As the clock ticked down toward a vote, the NFL Network breathlessly reported on the long line of luxury cars idling outside a suburban Houston hotel waiting to whisk the rich and powerful back to their private jets and onto the next important task. It was not the only time Tuesday’s NFL owners’ meeting resembled a meeting of old-line mafia families.

Just minutes later, commissioner and sometimes-consigliere Roger Goodell arrived at the podium to announce the results of balloting on which of three teams — the St. Louis Rams, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders — won approval to tap the lucrative Los Angeles market.

“I started the meeting this morning by saying, ‘A relocation is a painful process. It’s painful for the fans, the communities, the teams and the league in general,’” Goodell began. “Stability is something we’ve taken a great deal of pride in.”

Considering how many times NFL owners threatened to move to LA over the past 21 years to wring concessions from taxpayers for stadiums back home, “stability” was a curious choice of words. “Dithering” or “strong-arming” or even “bait-and-switch tactic” seem like more accurate descriptions, but whatever. At least the deed is done.

The Rams and owner Stan Kroenke were given permission to flee St. Louis in time to play the 2016 season at a still-undetermined LA-area site, then move into a state-of-the-art stadium he plans to build and largely finance on a site he owns in nearby Inglewood. The Chargers were given a year-long option to become a second tenant at Inglewood — either as co-owner or lessee — and should they decide to stay put in San Diego, the Raiders would then have the same year-long option to partner with the Rams.

The new stadium at the site of the old Hollywood Park racetrack is expected to cost nearly $3 billion when it comes on-line in 2019 and Goodell — channeling his inner Donald Trump — boldly predicted “this is going to be one of the great complexes in the world.” The only thing that part of the presentation lacked was a smoke machine.

Not that there was a shortage of hot air otherwise.

Members of the league’s relocation committee followed the commissioner to the microphone and took turns congratulating themselves, each other, the league office and Goodell — “brilliant in how he led the ownership,” Dallas’ Jerry Jones said — for their collective wisdom. Even Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. earned shout-outs from Kroenke and Raiders owner Mark Davis.

But as far as sentimentality, that was about it. The NFL website has already been changed to show the “Los Angeles Rams,” and both the Chargers and Raiders were awarded $100 million consolation prizes — basically seed money to launch one final campaign to convince taxpayers back home to help finance new or improved facilities.

“The excitement that we feel being able to return the Rams to Los Angeles is balanced with the disappointment that we weren’t able to get it done for fans in St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland,” Goodell said. “But we’ll continue to try in those markets and continue to try and address those issues.”

Toward that end, Chargers owner Dean Spanos hinted the team was open to a “potential solution that can be placed before voters in San Diego,” even though he’s been repeatedly told no on sizeable public subsidies in the past. A reputable study found that the average NFL stadium received 65 percent of its funding from the public, which explains why the league remains reluctant to abandon the blackmail scheme that’s worked so well for so long in so many other cities — see: Minneapolis, Atlanta and the University of Phoenix Stadium, site of last year’s Super Bowl — without another fight.

Kroenke, who happens to be the billionaire son-in-law of Walmart co-founder Bud Walton, doesn’t need other people’s money. He boasted at one point, “You do not want to come into Los Angeles without something that’s really first-class,” then struck a civic note by saying the new stadium “would benefit a lot of people with lower incomes.” And in the breath after that, Kroenke noted it was also conveniently close to one of his homes, a compound in Malibu, a detail that no doubt made him seem more normal to at least 31 other guys in the room.

But give the owners credit. Goodell was tasked by his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, with finding a replacement for Los Angeles shortly after the Raiders and Rams (then based in Anaheim) both played their last regular-season games there on Christmas Eve 1994. But it wasn’t until Kroenke and Spanos — and Davis to a lesser degree — forced the commissioner’s hand and their lodge brothers to take sides that a deal finally got done.

The one they crafted lines their own pockets with a relocation fee estimated in the neighborhood of $500 million, and it gives the Chargers and Raiders some leverage when they go back to the bargaining table in San Diego and Oakland.

As if those municipalities needed reminding, Cowboys boss Jones assured the residents there that St. Louis “is certainly an NFL town,” even if the stadium they helped build to lure the Rams there in the first place is no longer good enough.

By Jim Litke

AP Sports Columnist