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by | CBS Sports NFL Insider

NFL will return to L.A. but loose ends remain; who arrives first? Rams? Chargers? Raiders?

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Los Angeles Football Stadium would actually be in the City of Industry, 22 miles from downtown. (US Presswire)  
Los Angeles Football Stadium would actually be in the City of Industry, 22 miles from downtown. (US Presswire)  

The NFL is coming back to Los Angeles. It's known and accepted leaguewide, and a staple of conversations during owners meetings. It's going to happen. The only questions remain when, and precisely where within the region.

But the issue is only going to gain pertinence at the upper echelons of the game. At the macro level, so much has already been accomplished. There is a 10-year CBA in place. The television contracts have been extended into the next decade. Attention is now focused on taking over the last top American metropolitan market without a team, and then, ultimately, developing strategies for expanding the brand globally, which very well could include a franchise in London at some point.

Of course by that time, L.A. will already have two teams. To many high-ranking team officials I spoke to, it's a foregone conclusion that once whatever new L.A. football facility is built, it will surely end up housing more than one team. But first things first. Who moves there initially, and how quickly?

Well, as commissioner Roger Goodell spelled out in his recent letter to owners, nothing will happen until after the 2012 season, and we'll know by Feb. 15 if a team is planning on moving to L.A. for the 2013 season. And make no mistake, according to sources, Goodell has made it abundantly clear to owners at meetings that no side deals will be cut, no secret handshakes will be made, outside the league office. The NFL will be directly involved in any franchise relocation.

"The road to L.A. goes right through 345 Park (Ave., the league's Manhattan headquarters)," as one ownership source put it. "There is no way around it. It's been made clear. It's in the minutes from the [ownership] meetings." The source also added that even though Goodell's memo last week spelled out several directives regarding football in L.A., that having a team there in 2013 "while not impossible, seems ambitious."

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Conversations with various sources, including some connected to the two current proposed L.A. stadiums (real estate mogul Edward P. Roski Jr.'s location in City of Industry, and AEG's downtown spot), continually pointed to three teams as the most likely to be first to L.A.: the Rams, the Raiders and the Chargers. Several sources, if they had to handicap the field -- and it remains murky due to pending results of an arbitration issue on the Rams' lease and a possible San Diego vote on a stadium referendum in 2013 -- leaned to the Rams as being the team they would pick if they had to.

The Rams' lease indicates the Edward Jones Dome must be in the top quarter of the league in several categories or the team could exit following the 2013 season, and the team and local government are at odds over the amount of money required to upgrade the facility in order to do so. Precisely, they're probably a good $500 million apart, and the sides have entered binding arbitration that could extend through the year. Owner Stan Kroenke has ties to L.A., the team still has an office in the area, and Kroenke has been noncommittal at best about any long-term future in Missouri.

"If the arbitrator comes back and says 500, 600 or 700 million, then, yes, they're the prime candidate if they aren't already," one league source said. "But if he comes back and says 250 million, then St. Louis stays. They could go from being the frontrunner to being out of the running."

Still, several high-ranking league sources believe Kroenke would love to be in the Southern California market, and, should the arbitrator rule the Edward Jones Dome requires a half-billion or more in upgrades, they wonder if the sides work out a deal for the Rams to split after this season rather than play through what would be an ignoble lame-duck final season in St. Louis. They also mention, however, that Kroenke can be very difficult to strike a deal with when it comes to negotiating with either of the two parties currently trying to build an L.A. stadium.

Chargers owner Dean Spanos, according to some who know him well, would ideally love to stay in San Diego. Getting a stadium built there in this climate is obviously a huge challenge, but unlike, say, Kroenke, perhaps, Spanos isn't seen as having the same kind of wanderlust. The Chargers know that given the climate, wealth and location of their current market, that, if current ownership ever left, it would be coveted by others.

The team extended its lease through this season and, though getting sufficient public funding won't be easy, the Spanos family might also believe that being the only team in San Diego in a better facility might be better than ultimately sharing L.A. "If there is a way to make it work where he is, that's what Dean wants," the ownership source said.

The Raiders have a history of jumping to and from Los Angeles already, and that's only one of many reasons the league would prefer they remain in the Bay Area, sources said. The NFL knows this is the last chance for a generation or more to get it right -- finally -- in L.A., and repeating past mistakes won't be tolerated.

"The league is going to want someone [an owner] in that market who has strong local connections," one team official said. "This is someone who has to understand the marketing, the branding, and have the financial wherewithal and experience to pull it off."

And, Mark Davis, so soon after taking over control of the team from his late father, does not fit that bill. And, as far as selling off a chunk of the team right away and trying to be first to L.A. in that regard ... well, sources caution it won't be so easy.

Again, the league will have to approve whoever enters the market and, given the past litigation over team relocations with Al Davis, the league maintains the ability to prevent the franchise from ending up there if need be, according to a source with knowledge of the situation.

It's widely known the NFL strongly believes the best economic solution for the Raiders is for them to share the facility the 49ers are building in Santa Clara. While that might end up being the only real option for the Davis family, sources said they did not expect the league to try to force them to do so. However, if Davis cut a deal to sell and relocate the franchise without league approval, it could result in him losing control of the franchise. "The league holds the hammer here," as one ownership source put it.

The only option that makes financial sense here could be Santa Clara, and that's the odds-on favorite. Getting a stadium built in Oakland seems impossible in this climate, and no doubt the league would prefer others to be in Los Angeles. Raiders fans would relish the trip ... but Santa Clara is certainly closer than Southern California.

Some will mention the Jaguars as being possible candidates, but people I talk to in the league don't see it, at least not in the next few years. Shahid Khan wants to try to make it work in Jacksonville and only a sometimes-overbearing local government is seen as a potential problem. Should they get a little too pushy, perhaps things get interesting, but no one I talk to sees the Jaguars as the first team to L.A., if they end up there at all.

And the Bills are a regional franchise, drawing from a wide geographical swath, much like the Vikings. They aren't going anywhere, except, say, maybe at worst a few hours away. There will be sufficient local ownership options when Ralph Wilson passes, and the NFL believes among Western and Central New York, Southern Ontario and Toronto, there is sufficient support to make it work with a new facility. Rogers Communications in Toronto would surely be interested, and building a world class facility in Canada would make things interesting. Regardless, the Bills aren't going to California.

As for the existing prospective stadiums in L.A., a source close to Roski maintains one current team would sell a minority interest to that group in time for the 2013 season, and there is a strong confidence they will ultimately prevail. They continue to doubt the downtown stadium will be built, with issues of parking and tailgating part of the concern, and believe their facility will ultimately house two teams (sources believe potential issues with the Rose Bowl's environmental study, as well as local opposition, make the L.A. Coliseum the more likely temporary home of any team there while a new facility is built).

Sources close to AEG point to their knowledge of a very tricky L.A. real estate market and success building top-notch facilities. And sources said the league greatly prefers the AEG location. However, few current majority owners would be comfortable playing in a facility they don't control and striking a deal with AEG, which would likely want a discounted price given the value of the land it's on.

Roski is seen by the league as being more ready to go -- shovels could hit the ground the moment he gets a team -- but the location is so far from, say, downtown or Orange County, and even with improved public transportation, is there enough around for, say, a Super Bowl? And there is also an abundance of land to try to develop around the stadium.

And that's the rub. A combination of the two proposals, and someone would already be headed to L.A. As it stands, we know that it's going to happen, and certainly it's getting closer. And, ultimately, it could be another proposal from another owner that carries the day.

The wait already goes back to 1994, so at this point the NFL won't rush, but football in L.A. will be a reality.

"Is there a deal out there right now? No," said Marc Ganis, president of SportsCorp, a sports consulting firm, who is very plugged into the situation. "There is no acceptable deal in the L.A. market right now. Neither of the deals proposed (Roski or AEG) is acceptable right now and there are issues with both from a league level, and with potential ownership partners.

"You can't look at this as being limited to these two groups. A third party could emerge as another option as well. Maybe someone purchases 100 percent of an existing team and has the ability to move to L.A. in an alternate location. As it stands right now, there are still too many uncertainties to say who will move there, and when, but if the right deal was out there right now, that satisfied all lease requirements, it would have happened."

I'm thinking it will be the Rams in time for the 2014 season, but for a market that's already seen the Chargers and Raiders and Rams go, you can't help but wonder what unforeseen twists and turns are to come before someone kicks off back in L.A.


Before joining CBS Sports, Jason La Canfora was the Washington Redskins beat writer for The Washington Post for six years and served as NFL Network's insider. The Baltimore native can be seen every Sunday during the season on The NFL Today.
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