NFL owners like to project solidarity, even if it doesn’t exist. It’s better for their product and their PR if they present a united front in matters of league import, rather than a group of factious, occasionally squabbling mega-wealthy looking out for themselves and trying to out-earn each other in a sport set up to equalize profits. (The best glimpse of the reality, in which some owners are respected and powerful and others are merely checkbooks to be pushed around, remains this ESPN story on the backroom politicking that got the Rams to Los Angeles. Those dynamics—especially the notion that Jerry Jones is the true most powerful man in the NFL—were reportedly again in play this year with the Raiders’ relocation.)
So when it it became clear last week that the Raiders had the votes to move to Las Vegas, it became the job of the various whips to make it unanimous. (Remember last week’s leaks that made a yes vote seem probable, but close? That’s not the sort of unity the NFL wants to project.) Only 24 votes were needed to approve relocation, but 32 would have looked a lot better.
They got 31. Only one owner dissented from the monolithic endorsement of the relocation, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross. Ross released this statement on his “no” vote:
I have no reason to disbelieve Ross’s stated position on keeping franchises where they are. (I do doubt that it would be his primary position, if it came in conflict with the opportunity to increase profits. You don’t become a real estate magnate worth $12 billion by pursuing loyalty to customers above all else.) But Ross had a failed attempt of his own to gain taxpayer funds for his team that may very well inform his frustration with another owner getting bailed out, and to the tune of $750 million.
In 2013, Ross launched a push for hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to renovate the Dolphins’ stadium, and he used all of the same talking points that get thrown around any time a team demands money: It’ll draw Super Bowls and big events, it’ll create jobs, it’ll invigorate the local economy, the tax burden will fall upon tourists and not residents.
Ross’s threats and promises, backed up by campaigning from Roger Goodell, might’ve swayed local politicians if not for one recent, traumatic memory: the disastrous 2009 Marlins stadium deal that South Florida residents will be grudgingly funding for decades to come. Cowed by the lingering public outcry by voters over the Marlins deal, Florida lawmakers killed Ross’s hopes when they refused to pass a bill to hold a referendum on funding the Dolphins’ renovations.
“Tonight, Speaker Weatherford did far more than just deny the people of Miami Dade the right to vote on an issue critical to the future of our local economy. The Speaker singlehandedly put the future of Super Bowls and other big events at risk for Miami Dade and for all of Florida. He put politics before the people and the 4,000 jobs this project would have created for Miami Dade, and that is just wrong.”
But there’s where Ross diverged from the typical NFL playbook with these things. To his credit, he never threatened to move the team. Instead he paid for his own stadium upgrades. (It’s wild and it’s telling that we treat it as a pleasant surprise when a billionaire spends his own money to improve his property in order to increase his company’s value. In a just world that would be the norm.)
But Ross isn’t the typical NFL owner. He’s ultra-rich even in a club for the ultra-rich. Forbes ranks Ross as the third-wealthiest owner in the NFL, and the fifth-wealthiest in North American sports a whole (behind Steve Ballmer, Paul Allen, Philip Anschutz, and Stan Kroenke). He has no problem liquidizing his assets to cover a half-billion dollar stadium renovation. And it makes financial sense for him to put money into it—he owns his stadium nearly outright, something very few other owners can claim.
Ross’s vision of the NFL appears to be part timocracy, part plutocracy—and either would keep him in power. During the negotiations for relocation to Los Angeles, Ross reportedly “joked that the league should hold an auction for the right to relocate, though some owners thought he was serious.”
There are class divisions even among NFL owners. Raiders owner Mark Davis is the least wealthy of the group, and could never have afforded to build his own stadium or even to undertake major renovations, not without serious outside private financing. And even better than private financing is public financing. The $750 million offered by Las Vegas was a gift Davis couldn’t afford to refuse. Ross can afford all of that, and he can afford to have ethics about relocation. And since the average NFL owner is closer, financially to Davis than to Ross, Ross knows he’s untouchable. That’s a sort of power in itself: the power to cast the lone dissenting vote to protest another owner receiving a handout that he himself wanted but couldn’t get.