The Future of Team Relocation Lawsuits
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The whole relocation lawsuit fiasco started with the Rams relocating to Los Angeles, and there being a problem with the fact that the Rams did not leave the city of St. Louis on good terms. There seemed to be a split ever since 2013, when Stan Kroenke, the owner of the Rams, purchased the Hollywood Park Racetrack, and the other 260 acres of space that came with it. Pair this fact with the news that the Rams refused to sign a long-term deal with St. Louis to stay in the city, and it is easy to see that there was a bad breakup incoming. Long story short, the Rams leave for Los Angeles, leaving St. Louis with nothing but the outstanding financial debt and the overall depression of losing another franchise to sunnier states out West.
Then, in came the lawyers.
Bob Blitz and a team of attorneys representing the city of St. Louis filed suit against the Rams for misrepresenting their intentions in terms of wanting to leave St. Louis. They claim that the Rams organization as well as the NFL knew that city officials were spending lots of time and money trying to make plans for a new stadium to keep the Rams in St. Louis, and the Rams kept encouraging these efforts to be made despite having simultaneous plans to leave the city and move to Los Angeles. This lawsuit dragged on, with the conclusion being that the NFL, as well as the Rams organization, would pay a compensatory fee of $790 million. Not much in the grand scheme of things, considering Stan Kroenke’s net worth alone is in the range of $12 billion. So overall, it seemed to be a slap on the wrist.
So, since this occurred, there have also been two other teams that have relocated. The Raiders relocated to Las Vegas, and the Chargers joined the Rams in Los Angeles. The trouble is, each relocation has led to a separate lawsuit on behalf of the city that was deserted against the NFL. This is a trend that may lead to teams being hesitant to move their teams to separate markets, in fear of the league or the organization being sued.
On one hand, it can be easily understood that it is wrong to misrepresent your opinions and values if you are an organization. On the other hand, a city full of people may respond very poorly if you make an announcement as an organization that you are leaving the city and relocating come to the end of the season. There seems to be an argument for both sides. The issue is, if a team announces that they are leaving, they will, for obvious reasons, lose a percentage of ticket sales because people are upset that they are leaving. So there is a fine line that needs to be walked in terms of trying to uproot a team from its community. The fact that the lawsuit filed against the Chargers for relocating is the same at its core (the lawyers representing San Diego have stated on the record that “Chargers' statements suggesting the Chargers Football was looking for a way to stay in San Diego in and after 2006 were false”) just goes to show how difficult it is and how careful an organization must be if they plan to try to change markets.
Other leagues have had teams relocate and have not had an issue with it. In 2008, the Seattle Supersonics moved from Seattle, Washington to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma with no issue. There was no lawsuit filed, there was no financial penalty levied against any party, the only damage was seemingly the emotional toll that losing a franchise puts on a community. In 2005, the Montreal Expos relocated to Washington D.C., with no issue. The examples go on and on, with no legal arguments being made that anything was ever done wrong. The fact that this trend of legal troubles surrounding the relocation of franchises is completely unprecedented, and it does not seem to be stopping.
As a result, we may see fewer relocations in the NFL, now that every single relocation or rebranding will be looked over with a fine-toothed comb. This is a problem because relocating to a major market is one way to increase revenue for a team, however, if a team finds itself underwater financially, relocating in this current climate may hurt a lot more than it could help.
Jon Trusz is a Junior at the University of Connecticut studying Political Science and Communications, and can be reached on LinkedIn under his name, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.