HOUSTON -When the NFL started playing its most recent game of relocation roulette in early 2016, the scenario of the Rams and Chargers both returning to Los Angeles and the Raiders jumping in to fill the void in San Diego was not on anyone's list of most likely outcomes. But strangely enough that might end up being the most plausible reality after the unexpected events of this week.
The Raiders' plans to relocate to Las Vegas appear to be on life support after casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and investment bank Goldman Sachs on consecutive days decided to back away from their involvement in the effort, leaving the franchise's future in limbo. That these developments all unfolded during Super Bowl week, taking some of the focus off the game, was not the script the NFL was hoping to follow.
But now, with the Raiders' path to Nevada complicated greatly, and still no sign of real enthusiasm for remaining in Oakland on display, could they emerge as the team that makes San Diego an NFL city again? It's not as far-fetched as it might sound.
The Raiders' situation remains fluid and league sources admit there are still unknowns and plenty of potential twists and turns this story could take. But I also heard the thought expressed this week that the Raiders playing in San Diego, perhaps in a significantly renovated Qualcomm Stadium — a'la the $500 million refurbishment that Dolphins owner Stephen Ross gave Hard Rock Stadium last year — is a notion that has some merit and will gain support in league circles.
It keeps the Raiders in California, where they are still their most popular and established, and gets the NFL back into the proven San Diego market it never wanted to leave in the first place. Qualcomm with a serious late-in-life face-lift might not be the ideal solution for a league that loves new stadiums, but it's still plenty better than the Raiders remaining in the out-dated Oakland Coliseum. Raiders owner Mark Davis is known to love San Diego, with some speculating that he prefers that market to any other than Las Vegas, where he thought he had a sweet deal waiting.
And if you're wondering, the NFL would not be wary of suddenly finding itself with three teams in relative close proximity in Southern California, should the Raiders land in San Diego. It has already lived through that experience from 1982-1994, when the Rams and Raiders shared Los Angeles and the Chargers were down the coast in San Diego. The league views L.A. and San Diego as separate cities and distinct markets, as different as New York and Philadelphia, with their three combined teams and fan bases in roughly the same section of the Northeast corridor.
Granted, it's the Chargers who have the most to lose if the Raiders make a move for San Diego. Raiders fans have taken over Qualcomm Stadium for recent Chargers "home'' games against Oakland, and the franchise has remained popular in Southern California dating from its successful Los Angeles era. Chargers owner Dean Spanos would have every right to be worried that his team will be the one getting squeezed in every way, with the Chargers clearly being a distant second NFL option to the Rams in Los Angeles, and also losing out on the prospect of drawing a sizable portion of the team's fans from San Diego should the Raiders move into their old market.
But that's one of the risks the Chargers ran in uprooting for Los Angeles, and the NFL won't stay out of San Diego in deference to them. As bizarre as it might sound to let the San Diego Raiders roll off your tongue, is it that much weirder than the Chargers agreeing to play in a 30,000-seat stadium in a city that's home to thousands of Raiders fans?
The Las Vegas deal falling apart for the Raiders does have one potential upside for the NFL, in that it allows the league to hit the re-set button on relocation to a degree, rather than seeing a third different franchise move in the span of a little over a year. It buys the league more time to do its due diligence when it comes to determining if Vegas is a gamble it should take. With the Raiders' move stalled for the time being, the NFL won't be forced into making a quick decision in time to vote on the team's relocation bid at the league's annual meeting in late March.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said as much at his Super Bowl state of the league news conference on Wednesday, making it clear the league hasn't determined if Las Vegas is a viable NFL market.
"That's part of the relocation process,'' he said. "The Raiders submitted an application. It's one we're considering carefully, but there's a great deal of more work to be done. There are several elements with that. Financing of a stadium is just one. Obviously the stadium project itself. The depth of the market.''
One part of the league's further investigation of Las Vegas will be trying to determine if the market could sustain an NFL team in the event of an economic downturn. The league is thought to be concerned that Las Vegas' tourist-based economy drops sharper and faster and stays down longer than the rest of the country when there's a recession. One great unknown relates to how much of an impact that would have on a Vegas-based NFL franchise?
To be sure, Las Vegas still holds a level of appeal to the league and plenty of its team owners, especially since the Nevada legislature approved $750 million via a hotel tax increase to go toward the Raiders' proposed $1.9 billion stadium. Such public funding for NFL stadiums is increasingly rare, so the league won't dismiss that sizable chunk of financial support lightly.
But it's also clear the league won't fast track the Raiders to Las Vegas, as appeared possible until the events of the past few days. That momentum is long gone, like so much cash disappearing in Sin City. If Davis and the Raiders can't put the pieces of a deal back together in Vegas, San Diego could very well start looking like the most viable and attractive fallback option for the Silver and Black. Even if it means a renovated look for Qualcomm rather than an entirely new stadium.
For now, the NFL's game of relocation roulette continues, having taken a rather unexpected new spin.