Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney II, chairman of the NFL's stadium committee, had a simple message this week for St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who has announced plans to build an 80,000-seat football venue in Inglewood: Not so fast.
"There are still cards to be played," Rooney told The Times in his first public comments since Kroenke unveiled his vision for a state-of-the-art stadium on the Hollywood Park site. "There's still a process that has to work its way out, and we don't know what the outcome's going to be yet. That's why we have league committees and approval processes."
Rooney's words were measured but his message was clear that the NFL is going to make the decisions on stadiums and relocation.
"I think we're comfortable that we could stop a team legally from moving if it didn't go through the process," Rooney said.
The NFL does not have a strong track record in blocking teams from relocating. The only instance in the modern era of a team moving to a new city, then reversing its decision after pressure from the league, came in 1996, when the Seattle Seahawks set up operations for one week in Anaheim. But Ken Behring, who owned the team at the time, immediately moved back to Seattle when then-Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threatened to fine the franchise.
In all other cases, teams that have moved have either been successful in litigation or have reached settlements with the league enabling them to stay. However, since the Raiders and Rams left Southern California after the 1994 season, the NFL has strengthened its relocation guidelines, and won a legal battle with late Raiders owner Al Davis regarding his claim he owned the rights to the L.A. market.
Rooney said he wanted to clarify the league's position after reading the comments of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones that Kroenke would be able to unilaterally move the Rams without league approval. Under NFL bylaws, such a relocation would require a three-quarters-majority vote of the 32 team owners.
"I don't agree with Jerry on that point," Rooney said. "The majority view is that there's a process the teams are going to have to go through, and I think everybody understands that in terms of the teams that may be interested, I expect that the process will be observed, and hopefully it will be an orderly process."
The Rams have not indicated they intend to circumvent the league's relocation process. Team officials declined to comment.
In a New York Times story on Monday, Jones said Kroenke had the ability to move his team even if the league attempted to block him.
"As it would turn out now, apart from the league saying no, you can move there," Jones said. "Keep in mind that teams have moved without the permission of the league. They just have."
In a separate interview with The Times, Jones said any relocation would be a league decision, but added: "It always was and always will be the decision of the individual to take the risk, pull the trigger, and give his energy and talent through the franchise. That's the real decision maker. And we've got a guy that's made the decision to be involved in some way in Los Angeles, and that's Stan Kroenke."
The Rams, San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders are all unhappy with their current stadium situations and have the yearly option to get out of their leases. L.A. is held up as a relocation option. Chargers owner Dean Spanos contends his club would be significantly damaged if another franchise moved to L.A., where he said at least one-quarter of his season-ticket holders live. He has said he would attempt to block any team from moving there, something that would require nine no votes from fellow owners.
The counterargument is that Spanos, who has worked 13 years to find a stadium solution in San Diego, has had his chance to make an aggressive move for L.A. yet hasn't taken it. What's more, the NFL has controlled the process for two decades and there is still no team in the market. In December, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell informed teams the league would not be accepting relocation applications in 2015, meaning the earliest a team could be in the L.A. market is 2016.
If three teams apply for relocation, but there are only two vacancies in L.A., one of those franchises would have to go back to the city it tried to leave, with severely diminished leverage for getting a new stadium.
"That's why we have a process and why it's incumbent on the league's committees and league staff to manage the process so that, to the greatest extent possible, we exhaust the possibility of a team remaining in its home market," Rooney said. "We don't want to have a team that gets itself in a situation where it has to file an application and go through a process where at the end of the day it could wind up being a lame duck, or even worse, having to go back to a city it attempted to move from."
Rooney also said a team that moves to L.A. must have a solid stadium plan in place, one that has cleared all the required political, environmental impact and financial hurdles.
"I don't think any of us are interested in having a team moving to a temporary facility without any of us understanding what the ultimate permanent location is going to be," he said. "That's one of the reasons why we put the relocation process on hold and closed the window this year."
Officials in St. Louis have met repeatedly with the NFL in recent months in New York and St. Louis, and the stadium proposal they unveiled last week was designed in part to persuade the league that a good option exists for the Rams to stay put. If St. Louis can execute its plan, said Dave Peacock, a local business leader who's heading the project, the league rules stipulate the city should keep its team.
"The NFL bylaws are very clear," Peacock said. "I believe in those bylaws, and I have confidence that we're an NFL city. We hope the Rams are playing here for a long time."
The league has also been in negotiations with AEG about a potential deal at Farmers Field, a proposed downtown stadium next to L.A. Live. In the 20 years since the Raiders and Rams left, the NFL has fostered the idea of competing sites to get the best deal. Rooney said that continues to be the case.
"I think next year is a time frame that I would hope that we at least go through a site-selection process and at that point are in a position where we have a site where we'd all feel comfortable putting a stadium," he said. "Then we'd be ready to go through a relocation process where we all understand that there's a first-class NFL stadium for a team to move to."
Times staff writer Tim Logan contributed to this report.