The league is nearing a vote to decide which one (or two) teams will get to call L.A. home. Plus, the ‘coaches v. quants’ conflict, and the elimination of a nonsensical rule regarding draft picks
The NFL’s 20-year endeavor to return a team—or teams—to Los Angeles is approaching a couple of inflection points. Let’s examine.
Last week I attended the third NFL owners meeting in six months devoted almost exclusively to relocation to Los Angeles (L.A.). There is a certain nostalgia here for me, as the first owners meeting I attended, in 1999, also featured L.A. as an agenda item. Although there were no votes taken last week in Dallas, the clear feeling is that we are fast approaching, as one owner told me, “nut-cutting time” to get resolution by early 2016.
As my saying goes, “deadlines spur action,” and there are now two deadlines ahead. The first, December 30, is the date by which the NFL must receive firm proposals on stadium financing from city leaders from St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland (although Oakland admittedly has no plan). Both Commissioner Goodell and owners on the L.A. committee—Robert Kraft, Robert McNair, Jerry Richardson, Art Rooney, John Mara and Clark Hunt—were adamant that these proposals should not have any contingencies or loose ends which is, of course, impossible for a proposal such as that of San Diego, where a referendum vote is scheduled for June. Indeed, at this time none of the three markets have the type of airtight financing plans the NFL is seeking. Again though, deadlines spur action.
Once these plans are parsed, I would expect they will provide cover for all three owners—Stan Kroenke in St. Louis, Dean Spanos in San Diego and Mark Davis in Oakland—to apply for relocation when that window opens on January 4th. At that point the politicking (already in process for months, if not years) will intensify toward the second deadline of January 12-13, the meeting in Houston.
I would expect the first day in Houston will apprise the full ownership on the continued problems of three home-team markets, followed by candid conversation about the L.A. projects, as happened in Dallas, with each team sharing its thoughts. Then, after final campaigning on the 12th and the morning of the 13th, there could well be a relocation vote. An owner seeking relocation must secure votes of 24 of the 32 owners, with a to-be-determined relocation fee as part of it (reports have indicated the amount could be $500 million or above).
As of this writing Kroenke is alone on the $2 billion Inglewood project, with Spanos and Davis partnering on the $1.8 billion Carson project. Things, however, are fluid. Kroenke has proposed taking on an equity partner, although one with neither design input nor a share of other revenues. Kroenke’s offer may be a sign of a recognition that he needed to adjust, or simply another chip to play in what are certainly going to be negotiations to massage this outcome.
Also as of this writing, the feeling is that Kroenke may not have 24 votes to move but does have nine votes to block Spanos. Similarly, Spanos may not have 24 votes to move but does have nine to block Kroenke. As for Davis, although he is now aligned with Spanos, Oakland, as mentioned, has no stadium plan. However, owners were quite impressed with Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf when they met in November and believe in her ability to get something done in the future. In other words, there could be an alternative short-term plan for the Raiders.
The scene last week in Dallas was surreal. At one point Kroenke, Spanos and Davis were excused from the meeting and took up residence in different parts of the hallway outside the meeting room as the rest of the owners, well, talked about them. I watched with great amusement as they all tried to engage whichever owner came out to go to the bathroom. It was like a high school popularity contest.
The politicking now continues towards a January 13 crescendo. It is hard to handicap, as Spanos has the most sentiment but Kroenke has the most money. Spanos has the support of many on the L.A. Committee, including the highly respected Jerry Richardson, and Carmen Policy and Bob Iger add gravitas to their position. Having said that, several influential “new guard” owners are lining up behind Kroenke, such as Jerry Jones, Dan Snyder, Stephen Ross, Woody Johnson and Jeffrey Lurie.
The NFL is about relationships, politics and back scratching for moments like this. Stay tuned.
• WILL ANYTHING, EVER, THREATEN THE BOTTOM LINE?: Labor unrest. The concussion crisis. Stars embroiled in scandals. Scandals mishandled by the league. Poor play. Poorer officiating. And yet, revenues and ratings keep growing.
Coaches v. Quants
This week’s announcement that 49ers president Paraag Marathe will be reassigned to “focus on the team’s outside business interests” appears to be another example of continued tension lurking among some NFL teams when those with nontraditional backgrounds are making football-related decisions. Marathe was removed from football-related decision making to focus exclusively on the business side. I am not privy to the reason for Marathe’s reassignment, but my sense is this is about him not being seen, whether by management or coaching, as “a football guy.”
I have known Marathe, a close confidante of owner Jed York, for the 15 years he has been a staple of the 49ers front office. He negotiated contracts with a an eye towards future risk, especially evident with the Colin Kaepernick contract; it is as low risk a player contract from the team side as there is for a team’s presumed quarterback of the future (which Kaepernick was at the time).
Marathe also introduced qualitative and quantitative analytics to provide predictive outcomes in both scouting and coaching. My sense is that the scouting side of the organization or, more likely, the coaching side grew less inclined to accept his counsel.
Data analytics have long been part of Major League Baseball, with the tension between coaches and quants—illustrated in the film Moneyball—now largely dissipated. Similarly, the influence of analytics in the NBA continues to grow. NFL teams, however, still are comparatively resistant. While virtually every team has at least one staff member dedicated to some form of data analysis, much of their work can be ignored without buy-in from scouts and, more importantly, coaches.
While there are some early adapters—Mike Tomlin’s recent affinity for two-point conversions makes him one—most coaches (a) don't understand analytics and/or feel threatened by them; (b) view analytical people as nerds that don’t belong with the “football guys”; and (c) would rather trust their (often prodigious) gut than trust numbers.
The 49ers will continue to crunch numbers for their coaches, with or without Marathe in charge. The question—and one asked in several NFL team offices every week—is whether the football operation is paying attention.
• THE NFL HAS A GAMBLING PROBLEM: With Daily Fantasy Sports industry leaders FanDuel and DraftKings—both tied closely to the NFL—coming under heavy scrutiny from the government, it might be time for the NFL to rethink its conflicting stance on gambling.
Last week NFL owners finally rectified a long-standing “no-trade rule” on certain draft picks that, to me, made no sense.
Compensatory draft picks—following the ends of rounds 3-7—are awarded based on a weighted combination comparing unrestricted free agents lost and signed, their “average yearly compensation,” postseason honors and playing time with the new team. Until now, the picks could not be traded, the league’s rationale being that these picks were distinctive from “regular” draft picks and therefore treated differently. However, as many others and myself would always argue, they were still “draft picks.” Finally, the owners agreed and righted this wrong.
The rule, however, will not apply to this year’s compensatory picks. The NFL does not jump into new territory quickly; we are 20 years into a return to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, kudos to owners for correcting a nonsensical glitch and allowing, starting in 2017, all draft picks to be bartered.