Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Right now, L.A. is the most important football city on the map. But that's been true for a long time.
Los Angeles hasn't hosted a professional football home-team game since Christmas Eve of 1994. Over the two decades that have followed, that's all that anyone's been able to talk about, there or elsewhere: L.A. football. The city's never been closer to returning to the NFL—or maybe it's the other way around—than it is now.
True, the Los Angeles Times reports that one group has walked away from its long-standing vision of football in Los Angeles. Plans for Farmers Field would have seen an NFL team playing in a 72,000-seat stadium downtown near the Staples Center. The stadium's backers reiterated on Tuesday that it's never going to happen.
But pigskin fans in Southern California aren't sweating it. Even with Farmers Field off the table, there are schemes afoot that could bring one, two, possibly even three NFL teams to the city. The one that is closest to reality would bring the St. Louis Rams to Inglewood, although another plan, which would send both the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders to Carson, isn't far behind.
Those aren't the only two hypothetical stadiums under discussion, either. Right now, L.A. is the most important football city on the map. But a look back at some important moments in Los Angeles football history reveals that this has pretty much always been the case.
[Insert Team Name] Is Moving to Los Angeles
About half the teams in the NFL have threatened at some point or another to go to Cali. Bluffing about moving to L.A. just makes good business sense.
Some cities were more serious than others. The NFL warned Ken Behring, then the owner of the Seattle Seahawks, that he'd be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars if he carried through with his promise to pack up the team's equipment in vans and drive down to Anaheim in 1996. Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay parked his private jet in L.A. at Van Nuys Airport in 2002, sending a clear message to Indianapolis during negotiations with the city. And the word "ultimatum" turned up during discussions in the Minnesota Senate over subsidizing a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings.
"It's kind of like you get 15 years in and you've stopped opening the car door for her, or maybe you've stopped bringing your dishes to the sink," one sad-sack Jacksonville Jaguars fan told the Los Angeles Times when his team was talking about a move. "And then all of a sudden you wake up one day and think, 'What if she wasn't here?'"
If enterprises in other industries could threaten to move to the West Coast in routine business dealings in order to extract millions in tax incentives to stay, they of course would. In the NFL, this dynamic will stand until something changes. Two things could level the playing field between owners and cities.
President Barack Obama's 2016 budget includes an end to the tax exemption for bonds that has been used in the financing of some $17 billion in new sports stadiums. Eliminating the federal sweetener for stadium financing would make them more expensive for cities, according to Think Progress. Still, the Atlantic Ocean is a narrower gulf than the one between the White House and Congress; an NFL expansion to London is a safer bet than a new budget passing.
The more likely change would come when a team actually follows through and moves to L.A. Right now, the San Diego Chargers, the Oakland Raiders, and the St. Louis Rams are all pledging to do so if they don't get what they want from their respective host cities. All three of these teams will try to extract major concessions before one (or more?) signs a deal with L.A.
If any of them move, that is. The threats from St. Louis, Oakland, and San Diego may look more legit because all those teams used to play in L.A. But other teams have said they were ready to move in the past and meant it, too, namely Indianapolis and Minnesota. According to Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer—the best source on L.A. football rumors, bar none—the arena developer AEG got as far as a term sheet with the NFL for Farmers Field, but the downtown stadium bid couldn't attract a team.
Only one team has straight up denied Los Angeles. According to ESPN, in 2012, the owner of the Carolina Panthers rejected appeals from California politicos to move his team cross-country.
An L.A. Legend Broke Football's Color Barrier
Everyone knows that Jackie Robinson was the first black player to play professional baseball, in 1947. Probably fewer people remember all three names of the first black players to join the NBA (Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, and Nat 'Sweetwater' Clifton), in 1950. But almost nobody ever talks about Kenny Washington, the player who first broke the color line in the NFL—and in modern professional team sports in America, period.
Kenny Washington is one of the great stars in Los Angeles sports history. He won titles in baseball and football for Abraham Lincoln High School, where a trophy still stands to honor his records. Washington went on to the University of California Los Angeles, where he led the nation in rushing yards in 1939. He and Jackie Robinson in fact played together on the football and baseball teams at UCLA. Washington was on the UCLA team that played the University of Southern California team to an epic 0-0 tie in 1939, cementing the UCLA–USC rivalry.
Despite his accomplishments, Washington wasn't immediately drafted into the NFL as a first-round pick, because of the color of his skin. He went on to play for a few years in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, which was home to many great black players at the time. But when the Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles in 1946—on the condition that the team be integrated—Washington became the first African-American player to sign a contract to play in the NFL. He and another black Bruins alum, film actor Woody Strode, played for the L.A. Rams in 1946 (Washington continued through 1948).
Washington was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1958. He went on to serve with distinction in the Los Angeles Police Department before his death in 1971. It's hard to explain how history has forgotten him. It's not for lack of attention to the history of the game. (A blogger has even written some close analysis of the placekicking in games Washington played at UCLA. The placekicking!)
Football was nowhere near as visible as baseball in the 1940s, but it's different today. One reason it would be great to see football return to L.A.: It would be an opportunity to honor an overlooked legend for his contributions to the game and to his city.
L.A. Made This Historic Football Rap Video
This one speaks for itself, but you owe it to yourself to also read Rembert Browne's "Ram It" explainer. This video is the single best reason to hope that the Rams emerge as L.A.'s next football team. Frankly, any team that moves to L.A. should adopt it.
L.A. Football Got Its Start in Chicago
Back in professional football's primordial past, commercial passenger flight over the Rocky Mountains was considered both a luxury and not very safe. So the first teams to claim the mantle of L.A. football—the Los Angeles Buccaneers and the Los Angeles Wildcats—were actually traveling teams that both played out of the Windy City. Back in the 1920s, it was far easier for teams to travel from the Midwest to the East Coast to meet teams from the leagues cropping up at that time.
More Football Teams Played in L.A. Than You Might Guess
The history of the evolution of the National Football League is littered with teams and leagues who competed for dominance across the American football landscape. Some of those pre-professional football leagues included teams based in Los Angeles, including the afore-mentioned Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Five stadiums hosted football teams from different leagues over the course of the 20th century. Six stadiums have been proposed as the home of L.A. football for the next century (or at least for the next umpteen years).
Some of these stadiums were fields of glory. Non-NFL football reached its zenith in Gilmore Stadium. That's where the Three Stooges recorded Three Little Pigskins; there's no topping the Stooges.
The shortest and sorriest season of L.A. football may have been played in 1967 by the Long Beach Admirals. The team was suffering an 0-3 start—including a season-opening loss to the cross-town Orange County Ramblers—when the train came off the rails. If the Greater Northwest Football Association's records are accurate, the team requested to move to Portland, citing low attendance at games (around 950 fans). Instead, the Continental Football League dissolved the franchise. (The team fled to Portland, but failed there, too.)
But the single worst day in L.A. football history was December 24, 1994. On that day, both of the city's NFL teams played and lost their final games—simultaneously. Back on the 20th anniversary of the date, Sports Illustrated reporter Emily Kaplan recounted all the ways that Christmas Eve went wrong.
The Rams lost 24-21 in a game against the Washington professional football team at Anaheim Stadium. The matchup was so poorly attended that it "drew a smaller crowd than a high school game played in the same stadium eight days earlier," according to Kaplan.
The Raiders lost to the Kansas City Chiefs at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum, 19-9. The game was better attended—eminent 1990s stars Whoopi Goldberg and Vlade Divac were both on hand. Frasier's Kelsey Grammer sang the national anthem. Also, no one knew the Raiders were leaving.
Kansas City running-back (and former Raiders legend) Marcus Allen played one of the last game of his career that day, a grudge-match against Raiders owner Al Davis; Joe Montana threw the last touchdown of his career in L.A. Meanwhile, in Anaheim, Rams fans booed their owner, wore bags over their heads, and handed wrapped Christmas presents to their departing players.
A brighter day is almost certainly in store for Los Angeles. It's hard to imagine interested parties in San Diego, Oakland, and St. Louis all consenting to the absurd pressure imposed by a three-team race for two stadiums. One of those cities is bound to let its team go.
It would better for almost everyone involved for a team to hurry up and move to Los Angeles. That would take some of the pressure off cities everywhere in increasingly expensive (and ever-more-frequent) stadium negotiations. But it would also help to restore some continuity to a great football city.
On the other hand, there's always London. . .