“I think it’s on everyone’s mind, just kind of the ‘what ifs’ and all that, but we don’t really talk about it a lot as a team,” Rams quarterback Austin Davis said this week. “It doesn’t really matter right now. We’ve got this season in front of us ; we’re trying to focus.”
The “it” lurking in the Rams’ locker room is the Los Angeles region and whether the Rams will be playing there soon, possibly next year.
Los Angeles, of course, has begun to feel like a mirage when it comes to the NFL – it’s enticing but never seems to materialize. The lure of L.A. has existed since the Rams and Raiders bolted 20 years ago. Despite annual rumors and reports, despite the fact that it’s the nation’s second-largest city, no team has been back, and no stadiums have been built.
The NFL also has been well served by not having a team in Los Angeles. After all, what better way to extract public money for a new stadium in, say, Indianapolis or Minneapolis than by threatening to leave for Southern California, something more than half the league – including the 49ers – has done in either thinly veiled or overt ways in the past two decades.
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But there are reasons to believe it’s more serious this time.
* Two other big-ticket items for the NFL – labor and television deals – have been completed in recent years. Tapping lucrative markets is next on the league’s to-do list.
* Three teams soon will be on year-to-year leases at their current stadiums: the Rams, Raiders and Chargers. All three are eyeing the L.A. market.
* Two of those teams are bad.
Don’t discount No. 3 on the list of criteria. It’s harder for losing teams to squeeze money out of cities, counties and states and easier for those entities to let them slip out the door.
The Raiders have excelled at losing in the past 12 years. They’re currently winless and have exactly one opponent with a sub-.500 record remaining on their schedule. (Side note: Tickets still remain for the Raiders at Rams on Nov. 30.)
But the 2-5 Rams also have plenty going for them in this department – devastating injuries, a grisly division, a three-game stretch of road games – and they appear to hit more of the critical buttons when it comes to moving to Los Angeles.
A big one: Owner Stan Kroenke last year bought 60 acres at the former Hollywood Park race track in Inglewood, one of the prime spots for a new stadium.
The purchase certainly could be a ploy to get something done in St. Louis, the real estate equivalent of parking your team jet, logo on the tail fin, at a Southern California airport. It makes the folks back home nervous.
But even with all the feints toward Los Angeles over the past two decades, no owner until Kroenke has bought enough land in that region to build a stadium.
Kroenke, whose net worth is estimated at $5.7 billion, also is the type who wouldn’t blush at the relocation fee and whom the other owners likely would trust to set up shop in such a lucrative market.
The Rams, of course, also have nostalgia on their side, having played in Southern California for 48 years before their exit in 1994. That gives them an automatic fan base, a concern in a market teeming with entertainment options and transplanted fans who brought previous NFL allegiances with them.
And it would be a move the rest of the NFC West – especially the 49ers – would support.
The 49ers would love to trade a 45-minute plane ride for the annual two-time-zone trip to a domed stadium. It also would add a dash of S.F. vs. L.A. spice to a rivalry that went flat when the Rams moved 1,500 miles east.
“It’s the Bay against L.A.,” former Rams running back Eric Dickerson told the Los Angeles Times this month. “It ain’t St. Louis against the Bay. It’s L.A. against the Bay. That’s what it’s all about.”
Sure, the NFL might lose a valuable bargaining chip if the Rams return to Los Angeles. Then again, the league has been careful to let everyone know there’s room for two teams in the region.
And there’s always London.
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.