8/30/04 – The NFL and Los Angeles

Throughout history, there have been intrigues. People love intrigues; they love guessing games. Currently we have the constant flirtation between the NFL and Los Angeles to provide the grist for rumor and innuendo and interpretation of signals.

For the record, if I were an NFL fan living in the Los Angeles area and was not in an economic condition to shell out about five-grand a year for tickets to the games, I’d prefer for the league to stay out of LA. With no home team to command the TV market, a fan in LA can see a much better variety of games around the league than he/she will once there is a home team. However, if I were an owner and saw a chance to get a nice stadium deal in that huge market with plenty of disposable income in the vicinity, that would be a totally different story. And therein reside the roots of the intrigue.

I could dismiss all of this talk of the NFL putting a team in LA by making the simple observation that the NFL will actually put a team in LA the day that Paul Tagliabue gets to shovel in some dirt on the coffin of Al Davis and then hangs around to see the grave completely filled in so he can be sure there isn’t a breathing tube connected to the coffin. That delay might obviate a lawsuit from Al Davis – based on whatever claim happens to come to mind on any given Tuesday – but it might not be the full satisfaction that Tags would want. Davis tried to claim exclusivity over the LA market/territory but a court said that claim had as much merit as Bob Dylan has vocal range. So moving a team there would be a way for Tags to say “Neener, neener, neener…” to his old nemesis. And since I believe that small-mindedness is part of the human condition, I will not rule out its role in such a decision.

The “problem” in LA is a stadium. The Coliseum is antiquated and sits in a neighborhood that resembles Baghdad as much as it resembles a thriving American metropolis. The Rose Bowl is even less like a modern NFL stadium than the Coliseum. The city fathers have not come across with the funding and the locale for a new stadium. In the past when Hollywood Park offered to build a stadium for an NFL team on its property, the NFL politely declined. The latest “story” is that the Rose Bowl would be willing to build in the requisite luxury boxes and simultaneously to reduce the number of seats from 93,000 to 65,000 in order to get a team to play there. I’d take that as an ominous sign. They are already conceding that they can’t fill up 93,000 seats for NFL football.

The NFL has hinted that it might – perhaps – pay to build a new stadium in LA assuming a place can be found and somehow the infrastructure gets upgraded. If the NFL owns the venue, you can be certain that they will be the sole determinant as to which franchise is located there. Will it be an expansion team? Or might the league look at recent LA experience with NFL ownership and see Georgia Frontiere and Al Davis and come to the conclusion that the only way to complete that trifecta is to add Bill Bidwell to the list? The latest NFL pronouncement is that it will NOT be an expansion team and that LA will have a team by 2008. Just a question here: Can the Montreal Expos play football? That would kill two birds with one stone!

    Memo to NFL Execs: Don’t forget about that infrastructure upgrading. To remind yourselves of its importance, go to a Washington Redskins’ game once a month and experience the joy of getting in and out of there on the single road to the stadium…

Some people see the situation in Minnesota as a signal that the Vikes may move west. Owner Red McCombs wants a new stadium; the legislature is not going to give him one supposedly because they want “local ownership” for the Vikes; McCombs then says he’ll sell the team for $650M but the best offer he has at the moment is from a local guy who is willing to pay $450 – 500M. Now a guy from Phoenix named Reggie Fowler is purportedly putting together a consortium to make an offer to buy the team but depending on the day of the week, he either is in way over his head financially or is fat with cash because he has the Gateway Computer money behind him. And the intrigue continues because an alternative scenario has McCombs paying off his Metrodome lease with a $40-60M payment and moving the team to LA where he would sell it at an inflated price to a new owner. But the intrigue also holds that because Fowler is African-American and the league desperately wants an African-American owner, the NFL might actually buy the team for Fowler if he can’t put together the requisite financial muscle.

Oh, but it does not end there. Jerry Jones also wants a new stadium – presumably one without a hole in the roof. He is already floating the idea that he might strike a deal to build a stadium in Arlington Texas but he steadfastly denies that this story is merely a bargaining ploy to goose the people in Dallas to give him a sweeter deal. Then as training camp began this year, Jones pushed the rhetorical gas indicator to the red zone as he emoted about the beauty of Southern California and its economic prowess. He did not come out and say that he wanted to move the Cowboys to LA, but if things don’t move along in either Dallas or Arlington, expect to hear that at some point.

The Chargers play just down the road from LA and had a deal where the city of San Diego – or was it the county? – would buy up any and all unsold tickets for Chargers’ games for the foreseeable future. The Chargers want a new stadium –at least – or the potential to move out of San Diego. So they maneuvered for a couple of years to redo their lease in San Diego and to get rid of the sell-out guarantee. That’s right; they gave that away for the right to leave San Diego after the 2008 season. They can’t negotiate with another city until 2007 or they will owe the city of San Diego a $3M fine – as if that amount of money is going to be a deterrent here. The only real question here is whether the Chargers’ owners want a new stadium or a new city. I think it is pretty clear that they want a new city and that desire should only be reinforced as the team plays to 60% capacity over the next couple of seasons.

The Indianapolis Colts were offered a new stadium by the city/county/state and responded with the organizational equivalent of “Ho hum.” Sign interpreters have taken this to mean that Jim Irsay wants to move out of this market and into a better one – - like Los Angeles.

    Memo to Indy City Fathers: Install 24/7 camera coverage on all moving van companies lest they all mobilize one evening around 11:00 PM.

The New Orleans Saints have complained about the age and the out-of-date nature of the Super Dome. Some folks say that the Saints will never be as important in that part of the world as LSU and a new stadium will only provide a temporary boost in attendance/revenue. So they think that the Saints will be heading west. If so, let me say that owner Tom Benson and his “Benson Boogie” will have to undergo a significant change. His little sideline dance with his umbrella may be quaint and interesting for the folks in New Orleans, but in LA, it should go over like the nomination of Paris Hilton to be Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.

Actually, one team that I think ought to be high on the list to move to LA is the Jacksonville Jaguars. Here is a franchise that is only about ten years old and the bloom is definitely off the rose already. The Jags are considering putting up black curtains in the upper reaches of Alltel Stadium to avoid showing the large number of empty seats. That kind of legerdemain is merely embarrassing when the NBA has to do it, but this is the NFL folks. Jacksonville is hoping to have half of their home games this year where they have to invoke the blackout rule because the seats are not sold out. Two years ago, one of the local supermarkets bought up the unsold seats and gave them away free at the stores with a qualifying purchase. They’re not doing that anymore because it was not deemed to be a huge promotional draw. I remember when Jacksonville got its franchise – to the surprise of many pundits – the NFL said that it was a football crazy town that would be the southeastern version of Green Bay. Through thick and thin, fans would be there to root on their beloved warriors. Now ten years later, they can’t get supermarkets to give away enough tickets to fill the stadium and are considering hiding the empty seats.

The intrigues are not over. The soothsayers can continue to say their sooth. And the fans in LA can sit and watch and start to familiarize themselves with whatever team becomes the “flavor of the week” for moving to LA. As for me, I just wonder when the NFL will move a team to Las Vegas. Now if Al Davis is such a genius, how come he hasn’t done that already?

But don’t get me wrong, I love sports…

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