An NFL return to L.A.? There’s a lot of smoke but still no fire


The three most common ways to begin a joke:

Two guys walk into a bar . . .

A traveling salesman spends the night at a farmer’s house . . .

The NFL is coming back to Los Angeles . . .

Since the Raiders and Rams uprooted and moved in 1995, the football world has predicted and projected and pontificated on when the nation’s No. 1 sport would return to its No. 2 market.

If this game were being officiated, we’d be knee deep in false-start flags.

And here it comes again, competing stadium proposals elbowing for the spotlight, teams making it known they are unhappy in their current cities, and now the head of the league’s stadium committee, Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II — typically shy to crank up the hype machine — predicting an imminent NFL return to L.A.

“I would think that, within five years, L.A. would have a team,” Rooney recently told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s two teams.”

Those of us who have covered this saga for a decade or more have come to expect relocation talk every spring — “If it’s May, it must be L.A.” is our saying — but the volume of rumors and rumblings this summer has not only continued but increased.

So what gives? Is an NFL team in L.A. right around the corner? To cover a lot of strands of this story, here are answers to some of the primary questions:

Are we thisclose to getting a team?

No. Until the right deal’s on the table, the NFL isn’t putting a team here. And the right deal is not on the table.

What are the two deals?

In the most basic terms, developer Ed Roski is telling prospective L.A. owners, “I control 600 acres in City of Industry. Come build the stadium I’ve proposed, at your expense, and the land is yours. Oh, and sell me a piece of your team at market price.”

Roski’s competitor, AEG, is saying: “We’ll build a downtown stadium and upgrade the convention center. Come play here — and sell Philip Anschutz a piece of your team at a discount price — and we guarantee you’ll make big bucks.”

Roski has had lots of tire kickers but so far no takers. AEG hasn’t gotten environmental clearance for its plan but hopes to by late September (with a 175-day period to follow during which all legal issues must be resolved). Backers of both proposals say they are flexible and willing to configure their deals to whatever reasonably works with the NFL and an owner.

Are there any other stadium sites the NFL is considering?

The league will look at Dodger Stadium and Carson, but if either of those were to emerge as a serious candidate, you can bet the process will be pushed back another five years or longer.

Which teams are in the mix?

The top three relocation candidates are the Chargers, Rams and Raiders, all of whom played in L.A. at one point in their histories. All are unhappy with their stadiums. As long as specific criteria are met, the Chargers can leave after this season, the Raiders can leave after 2013 and the Rams can leave after 2014.

So why does L.A. suddenly feel like a front-burner issue?

Because those burners were available. The league got its 10-year labor deal done, then extended its TV contracts. L.A. is the next initiative in line, but that doesn’t mean it will get done. In fact, the new collective bargaining agreement makes it easier for “struggling” teams to stay where they are, because now they’re making more money. So there’s not the urgency to skip town.

But there is reason for unhappy teams to look around. With new stadiums in the pipeline for the Vikings and 49ers, those teams in old venues are getting even more antsy. Part of the reason the Vikings got their deal was the threat of the team’s moving to L.A. hovered like a hammer over the heads of the Minnesota legislature.

NFL owners had dollar signs in their eyes when the Cleveland Browns sold for more than $1 billion this month. In last year’s list of franchise valuations, Forbes had the Browns 20th.

Why did NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell send a letter in June to all teams outlining the rules of relocation to the L.A. market?

The league wanted to emphasize that it — and not an individual team — will control the process. An unspoken concern was that the Raiders might try to move to L.A., hang around by playing their games in the Rose Bowl or Coliseum, then slide over to whichever stadium is built. Not happening on Goodell’s watch. That’s why the league created specific rules to regulate the process, among them a requirement that a team must submit its application for relocation between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15, 2013.

Will any teams submit that application in the 2013 window?

Doubtful. Why would a team rush to submit an application, thereby poisoning the water in its current market, before the L.A. picture was fully in focus? Focus comes only when the downtown option has cleared all of the necessary hurdles.

AEG’s Tim Leiweke believes he can get everything checked off his list before the application deadline in five months. He has momentum with the city and a track record of getting venues built, but that’s still a tall order.

Where are the Raiders going to play?

Here’s predicting they investigate their options for staying in Alameda and relocating to L.A., but ultimately wind up sharing a stadium with the 49ers in Santa Clara.

And what about the Chargers?

They’re looking into a stadium concept in downtown San Diego, but that feels like another dead end. The city is broke and — as in L.A. — no one is interested in committing public funds to help build an NFL stadium.

If the Chargers truly liked the Industry deal, they would have moved by now. As for the AEG deal, assuming it clears the necessary hurdles, it still doesn’t work for Chargers owner Dean Spanos in its current configuration. The Chargers are not in discussions for the stadium in downtown L.A.

Spanos is notoriously slow to act. Consider how patient he’s been with Coach Norv Turner. The Chargers have been looking for a stadium solution for a decade and haven’t jumped at anything so far. They aren’t losing money where they are, and their franchise has only increased in value. Patience has its benefits.

So that leaves the Rams?

Yes. As it currently stands, the most likely scenario featuring a team relocating to L.A. is the Rams moving after the 2014 season to a downtown stadium, and playing in the Rose Bowl or Coliseum while the new venue is constructed.

A team could make a surprise announcement, of course, or the landscape could shift again if a franchise were to announce its intentions. Like gunslingers in the Old West, once one owner makes a move to draw, others may follow suit.

Do L.A. fans really care?

Ah, there’s the question. NFL fans in L.A. have grown accustomed to getting their games on TV. Although people occasionally pine for a team of our own, there’s no groundswell for one.

And with fantasy football so popular now, a fan’s “team” might be Peyton Manning at quarterback, Adrian Peterson at running back, and Detroit’s defense. So that has further diminished the desire of many fans to attend a live game.

Tex Schramm, longtime president of the Dallas Cowboys, once warned that the league can never allow itself to become a studio game.

The NFL has become a studio game.

Who wins the L.A. race?

This has dragged on for 17 years and counting. Can it really be called a race?