America's most popular sport is in the midst of its greatest migration since the mid-1990s. In a little over a year, three NFL franchises have moved , announced a resettlement or filed paperwork seeking to relocate .
California is once again at the heart of this shift. That was the case in 1958 when the Giants and Dodgers brought big league baseball to the West Coast, two years later when the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles and again in 1995 when the Raiders and Rams abandoned L.A.
The Rams returned last year, ending the NFL's 21-year absence from the nation's second-largest media market. They were joined by the Chargers this month, and the Raiders could be on the move again soon, too.
Las Vegas is no longer a pariah for pro sports leagues, and Mark Davis wants in on the action.
So, the Raiders asked the league for permission to move to a new $1.9 billion domed stadium in Las Vegas, which welcomes the NHL's expansion Golden Knights to the Strip this fall.
Unlike the Chargers, who will play in a 30,000-seat soccer stadium until 2019 when Rams owner Stan Kroenke's $2.6 billion two-team stadium opens in Inglewood, the Raiders plan to play a few lame-duck seasons in Oakland while a new home rises in the desert.
Until recent years, Las Vegas was off-limits. But society's de-stigmatization of gambling and the NFL's embrace of daily fantasy sports companies have combined to create an environment where the city of blackjack tables is a viable option for the silver and black.
"I think the understanding that Las Vegas is a growing, booming town and an acceptance that gambling is not much of an image deterrent as it might have been in the past" makes Nevada a desired NFL destination for the first time, suggested Denver Broncos president Joe Ellis, who sits on the league's stadium committee.
Marketplace realities have long interfered with fan loyalties in this country's four major sports leagues.
"It's very hard when teams move," Ellis said. "It's tough on fans. It's tough on ownership. It's tough on the league. It's not anything the league advocates. They want teams to stay where they are."
Unless they can make more money somewhere else.
St. Louis had a plan for an open-air $1.1 billion stadium along the Mississippi River north of the Gateway Arch to replace the Edward Jones Dome. But Kroenke mostly ignored the city's overtures, saying St. Louis' economy made it difficult for an NFL franchise to thrive there.
Kroenke won owners' approval last year to build a stadium on the sight of the old Hollywood Park racetrack about 10 miles from downtown L.A. The Raiders and Chargers had a competing proposal to share a new stadium but when Kroenke's project prevailed, the league said those teams could also move if they couldn't get new stadiums in their cities.
A ballot measure to replace San Diego's aging Qualcomm Stadium failed in November, and Chargers owner Dean Spanos announced he'll exercise his option to join the Rams in Los Angeles after 56 years in San Diego.
That also meant the end of the Poinsettia Bowl because the city is considering tearing down the stadium rather than continuing with costly maintenance. The Holiday Bowl might have to move to baseball's Petco Park to survive.
The Raiders have been seeking to replace their dilapidated home they share with baseball's Athletics for years. The Coliseum lacks many of the modern, money-making features of new or recently refurbished stadiums and has suffered from sewage backups and other infrastructure problems.
Despite Davis' application to relocate, Oakland civic leaders and investors continue to negotiate with government officials, the team and the NFL to build a $1.25 billion, 55,000-seat stadium.
Oakland's mayor supports the bid by an investment group that includes Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, but has said public financing isn't an option. The city and Alameda County still owe a combined $100 million for upgrades to the stadium in 1995 to lure the Raiders back to Oakland. Personal seat licenses failed to cover the cost of the $220 million renovation that added more than 10,000 seats and luxury boxes.
The Las Vegas plan calls for $750 million in hotel room tax revenue, $650 million from billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson's company and $500 million from the Raiders and the NFL. No site has been selected for a stadium, which would likely open in 2020.
"I think we continue to offer a far superior deal," said Scott Haggerty, president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and a member of the board that manages the Coliseum. "I think that Mark Davis has been very patient in trying to come up with a stadium plan and I don't blame him for keeping his options open. But the Raiders belong in Oakland."
League owners are expected to vote on the proposed move in March.
Approval would mark the league's biggest migration in such a short span since the 1990s. The Rams and Raiders abandoned L.A. in 1995. A year later, the Browns bolted Cleveland for Baltimore and the Oilers left Texas for Tennessee a year after that.
Those teams saw the benefit at the box office, at least for a while, but had mixed results on the football field.
The Rams went to two Super Bowls while in St. Louis, winning one before the team's fortunes faded and crowds dwindled. The Raiders went to one Super Bowl before a 15-year playoff drought that ended this month. The Browns-turned-Ravens won two titles and the Titans played in one Super Bowl.
The Browns were reincarnated in 1999 and the NFL returned to Houston in 2002 with the expansion Texans. Those teams are two of the four franchises that have never made it to the Super Bowl, along with the Lions and Jaguars.
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Associated Press Writer Paul Elias in San Francisco contributed.
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