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The Old Ball Game 

L.A.’s future is fine without football

Wednesday, May 22 2002
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Summer is nearly upon us, and, in what has become almost a biennial rite, so is L.A.’s professional football season. What, you say we have no pro football team in L.A.?

Exactly, folks; the game is about getting a team.

Because seemingly every two or three years a bunch of guys with a bunch of bucks gets together to say: “L.A. ought to have NFL football.” The reasoning goes: Here‘s (at least for the pre-secession-vote moment) the second largest city in America. And here’s the largest city without pro football. This bothers this million-billionaire clique because conventional wisdom has it that pro football, big cities and big money all go together. Just look at what a pro team costs. And look what it brings in urban respect. Which presumably departed from L.A. with Al Davis and his Raiders in 1995 and turned Oakland into an earthly paradise.

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So why can‘t L.A. get its own big-league team again, the promoters ask, and go back to being a really important city like, say, Jacksonville?

This year’s “Get Football in L.A.” starting lineup includes solid players from past contests. There‘s Ed Roski, the affable captain from City of Industry, who brings to the field the muscular family business of Majestic Realty.

There’s Phil Anschutz, the elusive (you‘ll be affably slapping George W. on the back to dislodge a pretzel fragment before Anschutz returns your phone call) Denver billionaire who lives far up Forbes’ list of the fiscally mighty: His AEG company owns more hunks of more sports than anyone else in this country. And there are newcomers like Casey Wasserman, a kid in his 20s who has a nice grandpa named Lew and a going franchise with arena football.

But basically, these are the same guys who gave a 1999 news conference with the PowerPoint promise of an NFL expansion franchise for this fair city that would be housed in a gloriously redesigned Coliseum. Charlton Heston did the voice-over. But the almighty NFL didn‘t want the Coliseum. So the expansion team went to Sandusky or Shreveport or someplace like that. Thus went all of L.A.’s post-Raider football attempts so far. On the basis of this pattern, I am prepared to make a hazardous double-barreled prediction: Los Angeles may not have a pro-football future. And it won‘t matter if it doesn’t.

But first, in approved football fashion, a timeout. This NFL proposal is somehow part and parcel of a $2.4 billion downtown Community Redevelopment Agency project. No one, perhaps, knows exactly how. But the proposal to land the pigskin near Staples Center -- in the designated redevelopment area -- came at the same time the council signed off on the CRA thing, and it‘s easy to doubt that the two are independent. It is also questionable whether CRA redevelopment funds should be used to condemn land needed for the stadium. County supervisors, urged by Zev Yaroslavsky, voted to sue if that happens because this would divert property-tax revenues from needy county agencies.

People are saying a lot of things. What no one is saying, however, is that there’s been a major compromise since that ‘99 proposal: L.A. is no longer insisting the new team (let’s call them the L.A. Loons) occupy the Coliseum.

The NFL, in turn, is saying L.A. no longer has to put up any cash -- just to loan more than $100 million to the project.

Regardless, some City Hall watchers predict a run on the treasury -- like the city‘s 5-year-old flummoxed commitment to put nine figures into the Staples Monster. Except no one has yet discovered such a commitment this time: The council vaguely endorsed the CRA master plan without mention of football. Last week, the council revisited the proposal with the provision that any L.A. stadium contribution would have to be paid back to the city. Two Times columnists sounded off in the same Sunday paper that the council better get ironclad terms for that loan. Some council members were already trying to: “The spirit of Joel Wachs,” the recently departed Valley populist member who fought the Staples Center deal, “still hovers over this council chamber,” said Councilman Eric Garcetti.

The superior importance of the overall 1.3-square-mile CRA downtown-revival proposal -- which is highly contingent -- probably should not be obscured by the region’s latest gridiron will-o‘-the-wisp. Although that is exactly what I am doing here. But this game is football, folks -- we’ll talk about the CRA proposal some other time. First down and 10 to go. Wachs is in New York now, embarked in another career, so I talked to Wachs‘ former council staff chief Greg Nelson, who quarterbacked Wachs’ team during that Staples tourney. To my surprise, Nelson -- who now runs the neighborhood-council franchise downtown -- took the whole thing quite calmly.

He doesn‘t see much comparison with Staples and even doubts the future of Los Angeles big-league football. Going against the NFL grain, Nelson suggests that, whatever the outcome of the current scrimmage, pro football may be something this city has outgrown.

“Football nowadays is for cities that still have to put themselves on the map,” Nelson said. Places, that is, like Jacksonville, which ballooned up from a Faulknerian swamp town over the last 40 years. These are the places that tend to win NFL bidding wars because they still see the pro pigskin as a sign of urban adulthood, the way a 20-year-old grows a mustache. As Nelson put it, “Do you think that if you stopped the average guy on the street and asked him ’What‘s really wrong with L.A.?’ that he‘d say we don’t have a pro football team?”

While researching the original Staples deal (which was also tenuously attached to a similar stadium proposal), Nelson found that the average NFL team “generates local revenues on the order of a large Wal-Mart.”

“I think the greatest benefit of an NFL franchise goes to AM radio talk-show hosts,” Nelson hazarded. “Team members make such great guests.” Of course, the enormous concentration of local electronic media as a whole benefits hugely, or so the promoters‘ thinking goes. Except, of course, for that local broadcast blackout. And, of course, there are the leviathan 15 million residents of the region, all of them potential game-goers, though you can only fit most of the inhabitants of Santa Monica into the largest imaginable stadium. Which is empty 340 days of the year. Still and all, the gross considerations do make media moguls go snork, drool. Just look at the fool mega-has-been Mike Ovitz made of himself, trying to plant a team on a dump site in Carson a few years back -- that was the seasonal L.A. pro-football “game” before the last one.

But wait: L.A. already has a successful pro football team. If, like most of the world, that’s what you call the sport of soccer. The L.A. Galaxy has won a league championship and attracted loyalty and youthful enthusiasm that any L.A. NFL team might envy. Attendance has stalled a bit -- it‘s lately been around 16,000 per game, said Galaxy vice president Doug Hamilton.

“But that soccer audience is now a growing audience,” said Hamilton. It was recently reported that nearly 40 percent of the city’s population was born outside the U.S., in places where soccer, not hardhat football, is the national sport. And in a half-Latino city, Galaxy fandom potential is out of sight -- not even counting Anglo soccer moms and kids.

“It‘s played from January to November, it’s got a world audience in the billions,” Hamilton said. And since there are women‘s teams, it’s a sport that half of the human race can care about. By June of next year, the Galaxy will be playing in its own new, $120 million, 27,000-seat stadium on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. “Soccer can only get big when we‘re in control of the revenue stream,” said Hamilton. That’s long been the rule in the NFL.

No wonder that the major power behind the Galaxy is -- guess who -- Phil Anschutz‘s AEG: Key player in the latest round of “Get the NFL ball club.” I suppose only billionaires can hedge bets this big. But that’s how they get to be multibillionaires.

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