San Diego, Oakland must step up comms game to keep NFL teams

The St. Louis Rams are now the Los Angeles Rams. San Diego and Oakland will have to talk more actively with the public about the value of an NFL franchise to avoid the same fate, say comms experts.

San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. (Image via the Chargers' Facebook page).
San Diego Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. (Image via the Chargers' Facebook page).

The cities of San Diego and Oakland will have to step up their communications efforts to the public about the value of their respective NFL franchises, or they could find themselves like St. Louis, which lost its team for the second time this week.

That’s the message agreed upon by PR pros in sports and politics after NFL owners voted overwhelmingly this week to allow the Rams to relocate to Los Angeles. The San Diego Chargers have an option to join them in the nation’s second-largest media market. While the Oakland Raiders appear likely to stay in the Bay Area, other cities are trying to lure them away.

Shawn McBride, EVP for sports at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment, says the Rams’ relocation "gives the NFL an opportunity to reestablish a presence in the second-largest media market in the country, which is a big win for the league."

Yet he adds that the situation has left St. Louis footballs fans angry and mournful and the fate of two other teams hanging in the balance.

"A franchise relocation always comes with growing pains in terms of disillusioned fans in the losing city," McBride says. "But this deal also leaves fan bases in San Diego and Oakland somewhat in limbo. This will only serve to extend the fan frustration in those markets."

The Chargers can relocate to Los Angeles in the next year. However, if Chargers owner Dean Spanos and San Diego work out a deal, the NFL has promised them $100 million towards the construction of a stadium. Observers have noted that while it is a token gesture given the billion-dollar expense, it indicates the league’s desire to keep the Chargers in San Diego.

Spanos said in a statement he will take "the next several weeks to explore the options that we have now created for ourselves to determine the best path forward." Meanwhile, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer countered at a Wednesday news conference that this is "an opportunity for a fresh start" with the owner.

Yet even if the Chargers and the city of San Diego put aside highly contentious negotiations from last year and agree to a plan, it would still have to win the support of residents. Faulconer is promising a city-wide vote on allowing $350 million in public funding to be used towards stadium construction.

Communicators say a victory in that election is far from certain in California’s second-largest municipality.

Scott Maloni, a one-time press secretary for former Mayor Susan Golding and a communications director for Jerry Sanders’ mayoral campaign, explains a stadium has been an issue for at least a decade. He asserts there is little support left for the city to devote public money towards helping a multibillion-dollar enterprise.

"I think they would have an uphill battle to win a ballot measure in San Diego," he says. "It is a very outdoorsy city, but it is not really a great sports town. If you compare San Diego to Pittsburgh or Baltimore or even Cleveland, those are real sports towns where people will look past public financing issues to ensure they keep their team."

"San Diego doesn’t have that type of die-hard fan base," Maloni concludes.

John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, which specializes in sports and entertainment communications, concurs.

"A substantial number of citizens will be saying, ‘Let them go,’" notes Maroon, a former VP of communications for the NFL’s Washington Redskins. "If the powers that be really want to keep the Chargers, they’ll have to be up to the challenge of telling a compelling story. They would have to demonstrate the economic benefits to the city by having the team, and also the image boost it gives."

He explains that at one time, it was relatively easy to gain public support for an NFL franchise, but the argument has become tougher to make.

"Over the last decade, the story of professional sports has dramatically veered off the field and become in part about finance," says Maroon. "The public has become very much aware of the dollar values of these NFL teams, the salaries these athletes make, and the enormous wealth of the owners."

In any public referendum, citizens would also weigh the value of having a pro football team in town versus other civic needs, he notes.

"People are asking, ‘Our schools need improvement, our roads need improvement. I love our sports team, but why should I help foot the bill for one of the wealthiest organizations in the world?’" he notes.

Craig Gustafson, press secretary and director of media relations for Faulconer, says it is premature to talk about the city hiring a PR firm to rally public support until Spanos indicates his intentions.

FleishmanHillard worked on an effort to keep the Rams in St. Louis. The firm led a task force appointed by Missouri Governor Jay Nixon (R). A representative from the firm couldn’t be reached for comment on the matter.

A source close to the NFL told PRWeek that the agency did an excellent job with the campaign, but there was too much bad blood between the city and Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

Sources also say St. Louis played an inside game to keep the Rams, appealing to the league with an ambitious $1.1 billion riverfront stadium. They suggest a strategy targeted at ownership would have been more effective.

Oakland’s uncertain fate
In the event the Chargers commit to staying in San Diego, the Raiders would have the option to move to Los Angeles, or their owner could maneuver to take them to another city.

The NFL has also put the same $100 million incentive on the table for the Raiders. Yet communicators who spoke with PRWeek say it’s unlikely owner Mike Davis and Oakland will come to terms, unless the city is willing to concede public funding towards a stadium.

Doing so would require a significant comms push by the municipality, given that Mayor Libby Schaaf has been steadfast in her stance that no taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a new field.

Erica Terry Derryck, director of communications for Schaaf, says the city has a very consistent message on the issue to both the owner and the public, and it will continue that theme via media relations, social media, and other channels.

"Over the course of past administrations, the Raiders have not necessarily been given a very clear sense of what the city is willing to do or is capable of doing," she says. "Our objective has been to be very, very clear and consistent to the team and the public in our communications as to what we can take on."

She adds, "We maintain it is possible to build a new home for the Raiders without a direct public subsidy."

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