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L.A GOES FOURTH AND LOOOOOOOONG : Every Answer to Every Question About the Future of Pro Football in L.A.

January 28, 1996|T.J. Simers | T.J. Simers covers football for The Times Sports section

But the current unsettled state of the NFL, which includes franchise mutiny and no plans for expansion, coupled with the L.A. area's seemingly uninterested fans and the city's unwillingness to open the city coffers, raises a tremendous number of questions about the future of football in Los Angeles:

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Doesn't the NFL need a football team in L.A. more than L.A. needs a team? What do falling TV ratings for NFL games say about L.A.'s desire for a team?

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"There is a feeling around the country that the NFL must have a team in Los Angeles," says Pat Haden, sports TV commentator and former Ram quarterback. "You see it mentioned on the TV pregame shows, you read it wherever you go, you hear about all these teams moving here.

"But it seems like people here have gone about their lives rather normally since football left. This isn't New York or Philadelphia, where people are rabid about their professional sports. I haven't felt this great void. I was sad to see the Rams go because I played for them . . . it's no big loss, though."

Fans in Los Angeles who wished to remain loyal to the Rams needed a full tank of gas to get to Orange County after Rosenbloom's 1978 announcement that the team would begin play in 1980 in Anaheim. And fans who sided with the Raiders after their move to the L.A. Coliseum from Oakland in 1982 faced the rowdy crowds at the Coliseum.

What's readily apparent is that big money has fueled the mad dash by teams to new locations. The people of St. Louis got the Rams, but it cost them $75 million in expenses and a $260-million domed stadium. Oakland had to pay $2 million to the Raiders when preseason ticket sales, which the city had guaranteed, fell short. The city has also begun a $100-million renovation of Oakland Alameda County Coliseum for the team. Meanwhile, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams signed a $292-million deal with Nashville, while legislators in Maryland set aside $200 million for the construction of a rent-free stadium to lure the Cleveland Browns. And to prevent its team, the Chargers, from jumping ship, the San Diego City Council recently approved $66.6 million for an upgrading of Jack Murphy Stadium.

"The game has changed for fans," Haden observes. "Everyone is a free agent: owners, players. It may be good for the players and owners to move because they make more money, but it's not good for me and my kid. My kid takes a liking to Marcus Allen, No. 32, and he buys a jersey and wears it around town, and the next year No. 32 is gone to another town. I think everyone is chipping away at what made this game so good, the passion and loyalty to teams. I will be curious to see if the people in St. Louis think they have a good deal two years from now."

While it may have been good riddance to the Rams and Raiders, the price tag for the return of football to Los Angeles will be higher because of their departure. "It's infinitely easier to preserve a local team than to go through the process of attracting another one, and the costs are much more reasonable to keep one than to attract one," says Leigh Steinberg, an Orange County sports agent who fought to keep the Rams in Anaheim. "The smartest thing was not to let the Rams and Raiders out of Los Angeles without a plan to replace them. Now would we support a franchise if brought here? Yes. Will people move heaven and earth to bring it here? I don't think so."

Los Angeles fans might have no choice about the return of football. Declining TV ratings in the country's No. 2 market might compel the NFL to force a speedy resolution. Ratings for this year's Sunday games on NBC--in comparison to last season--dropped 30%, and they dropped 21% for the games broadcast on Fox.

"Listen," says Steinberg, "I would not like to be the executive walking into Rupert Murdoch (Fox TV owner) explaining how the presence of Jacksonville, the 55th-largest TV market; Charlotte, the 28th; Baltimore, the 23rd; Nashville, the 33rd, and St. Louis, the 20th, are more desirable than L.A., the second-largest market. It's more justifiable in a TV sense to have two teams in L.A. than one in Jacksonville."

The NFL has a different set of TV numbers that paint a more positive picture of life in football-less L.A., which received an additional game each week with the departure of the Raiders and Rams. While the ratings points, which reflect the number of households that tuned into a particular telecast, did drop, the gross number of households that turned on Sunday football stayed the same as a year ago, says Joe Ferreira, NFL director of broadcasting research. Los Angeles was still watching, it just wasn't watching as many games as before.

NBC and FOX executives, who will be entering negotiations on a new TV pact with the NFL for the 1998 season, declined comment.

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