Four dozen sweating men shoved themselves into a hot airless room recently trying to win something almost as rare as the big prize in the California Lottery--practice time on one of the city's soccer fields.
There are thousands of organized soccer players in Los Angeles, but only 55 fields for them to play on. And so each year, the city holds a soccer lottery to determine who gets the best practice times--and who gets to practice at all.
"There is an overwhelming, burgeoning demand for soccer facilities" in the inner city, according to Sheldon Jensen, assistant general manager of the city Recreation and Parks Department for the inner-city areas. "At any number of facilities not designed for soccer, soccer is being played: in picnic areas in Elysian Park, in Griffith Park, in every one of our smaller parks. On virtually any facility we have with a grassy area, you can pick up a practice game."
Adds Tom LaBonge, a field deputy for City Council President John Ferraro: "The inner city is park poor and that's where a lot of the soccer players are. And soccer takes lots of land."
The demand is so great and the fields in metropolitan Los Angeles so few that some sports officials believe even if money were available, building several hundred new playing areas would not be sufficient. But the problem is larger and older than that.
Slow to Catch Up
Local governments still direct most of their limited post-Proposition 13 budgets for organized sports to the traditional, and more popular, American games such as football, basketball, softball and baseball. They have been slow to catch up with the changing interests and needs of those who now dwell in what began two centuries ago as the Village of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula.
Jerry Fecht, a Moorpark College professor who has studied youth soccer and works with a firm that markets corporate-sponsored amateur soccer, said that to many recreation leaders "soccer is an alien sport and does not have the priority in their thinking that 'American' sports like baseball and football have."
City and county recreation officials admit that the local government sports bureaucracies are trained in the traditional American sports and are largely unfamiliar with soccer.
The city maintains only one designated soccer field in the inner city, where hundreds of thousands of children and adults regard soccer as their primary sport.
The remainder of the 55 grassy areas where soccer is officially permitted, including two mini-fields appealing only to primary-grade children, are scattered across the city with concentrations in the western San Fernando Valley and the Westside. Most areas are multipurpose fields that also serve as softball and baseball outfields.
By contrast, the city Recreation and Parks Department maintains 295 tennis courts and 244 softball/baseball diamonds, many featuring lights, grandstands and other amenities.
At Encino's Balboa Park, you can stand in a shady parking lot and observe city government's sports priorities:
Deserted Baseball Fields
Looking south are four ball diamonds with grandstands, the infields dragged smooth, the base lines straight, the outfields lush. On a late Saturday afternoon, though, the diamonds are deserted.
To the north are 13 soccer fields of varying sizes, the boundary lines meandering squiggles, the greenswards mostly gone to weeds mottled with bare dirt beaten rock-hard by stampeding soccer players. There are no grandstands. Casual soccer games are under way on three of the better fields.
Citywide municipal sports officials estimate there are at least five times as many players in organized adult softball as there are in soccer. But as city soccer director Larry Brenner points out, there are almost five times as many ball diamonds as soccer fields.
Charlene Hernandez, who coordinates permits for organized sports groups using county parks in the foothills along the northern edge of the San Gabriel Valley, said demand for soccer so outstrips supply that her area needs its 10 soccer fields expanded to at least 15.
Bill de la Garza, a county parks regional operations manager, said that if the Board of Supervisors built 100 more soccer fields just in East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley all would be instantly filled with weekend soccer players.
The president of the city Recreation and Parks Commission, attorney and investor Richard J. Riordan, predicts that "we could easily fill 10 or 15 fields" in the central city, South-Central area and East Los Angeles. Others, like Brenner, say Riordan's estimate is much too low.