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WHY THE VALLEY REMAINS UNPROFESSIONAL : It Missed Its Chance to Go Big League in the '60s, and Now the Opportunity of Gaining a Pro Sports Franchise in the Future Looks Bleak

September 07, 1986|JEFF MEYERS | Times Staff Writer

The Valley area--from Canyon Country to Sherman Oaks, Tujunga to Camarillo--is bigger than Detroit and more affluent than Dallas. It has nearly 1.6 million people, a great many of them supporters of Los Angeles' eight professional sports teams. But unlike Orange County, which has similar demographics and also the Rams and Angels, the Valley area has no major league teams and no major league facilities.

And no luck. In the late 1950s and early '60s, when the land was cheap and available and the homeowners were unorganized, neither Walter O'Malley nor Gene Autry wanted to build stadiums in the Valley. Later, when professional teams began seeing the potential in locating in the Valley, it was too late. The land was either gone or too expensive or belligerent homeowners raised enough fuss to kill any proposal.

In 1956, O'Malley, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was being wooed to Los Angeles, had his pick of land almost anywhere in the area and could have put a stadium in the Valley. He was taken on a helicopter ride to scout available sites. The choice was obvious to him. He wanted Chavez Ravine, said Dodger Vice President Al Campanis, "because all the freeways revolved around it. He didn't entertain any other area."

In 1961, two years after the Dodgers moved here, the American League, with O'Malley's permission, put an expansion team in Los Angeles. The then-Los Angeles Angels played their first season at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles and their next four at Dodger Stadium before becoming the California Angels and moving to Orange County. From the beginning, Autry, the Angels owner, looked for a site for a new stadium.

Then a resident of Agoura, Autry didn't even consider the Valley, which then was well under a million in population. Marketing studies done for Disneyland, which was already in Anaheim, pointed to a population explosion in Orange County. The freeways were already in place. Land was cheap. And the Anaheim city government was ready to make a deal.

Agreeing to finance a stadium through revenue bonds, the city spent $24 million to build a home for the Angels and leased it to Autry for 35 years. Although the stadium lost money every year for the first 15 years, costing Anaheim taxpayers $4 million, it began to make money when the Rams moved there in 1980, and is expected to go in the black by 1990, according to Greg Smith, the manager of events at the stadium.

Autry's foresight paid off. In 20 years, Orange County has grown from a little more than 700,000 to 2 million, making Anaheim the sports epicenter of a huge region that not only takes in the Los Angeles metropolitan area but Riverside, San Bernardino and northern San Diego County as well.

When the Rams were thinking of getting out of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in the late 1970s, they did discuss the possibility of building a stadium in the Sepulveda Basin, "but the talk wasn't very serious," recalled Jerry Wilcox, then the National Football League club's public relations executive. By then, Valley homeowners were on the warpath and land values were shooting up, so the move that made the most sense to the Rams was to Anaheim Stadium.

It was the departure of the Rams that left the Coliseum conveniently vacant for the Raiders, who abandoned Oakland for Los Angeles in 1981.

The Coliseum was completed in 1923. Financed through private loans and owned jointly by the state, county and city, it was erected in downtown Los Angeles for two clear reasons: The neighborhood already had USC, which needed a stadium for football, and all the right demographics, including population density and, at that time, affluence. In the early 1920s, the Valley was hardly more than orange groves and wide-open spaces; the population was only slightly more than 20,000.

In 1959, it was a natural for the Sports Arena to go up adjacent to the Coliseum on land owned by the state. The Trojans began playing their basketball games there, and when the Lakers moved to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960, they also took up residence at the Arena.

But in 1966, when Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke was denied a 10-year lease at the Arena, he thumbed his nose at the Coliseum Commision and put a deal together to finance and construct his own facility. Only 23 months later, the Forum, built at a cost of $16 million, opened in December, 1967, adjacent to Hollywood Park.

By putting the Forum in Inglewood, Cooke apparently kept major indoor sports like basketball and hockey locked out of the Valley.

Cooke's decision wasn't based on scientific study. What sold him on the Inglewood site, he said in a recent interview, was its "proximity to the remarkable, gargantuan parking facilities at Hollywood Park"--which can accommodate about 25,000 cars.

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