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Los Angeles Officials Walk Right Into League's Trap

November 02, 1996|T.J. Simers

The NFL, steeped in the rich tradition of ripping off fans interested in personally viewing its game--e.g. regular ticket prices for exhibition games, exorbitant expansion fees--could not be more pleased with the progress in Los Angeles.

Concerned ever so briefly that the citizens of Los Angeles might be different from football-starved fans in Baltimore, St. Louis and Houston, NFL officials are now confident that the second-largest market will eventually come groveling for football and be willing to pay whatever it takes to get it back.

Los Angeles-area politicians and businessmen, who have rallied around the Coliseum, obliged the NFL by putting on a dog-and-pony show for the owners in New Orleans earlier this week. The Los Angeles delegates--in some cases awed by walking the same corridors as Jerry Jones and Paul Tagliabue--were in a rush to impress the NFL brass with the city's show of unity and its enthusiastic desire to woo the NFL's favor.

In such a rush to take advantage of the political unity that was born of deals made in accepting the new arena adjacent to the convention center was the L.A. delegation that it went to New Orleans unprepared to explain how the project would be funded.

Instead of waiting for the NFL to come begging for Los Angeles, the city walked into the NFL's trap. Politicians and businessmen hung on Pat Bowlen and Bob Kraft and Carmen Policy's every positive word about the prospects for football again in Los Angeles, and yes sir, they said, whatever we can do to make it happen.

NFL owners, who made Carolina and Jacksonville pay dearly for the privilege of buying personal seat licenses and overpriced tickets, puffed up the L.A. delegation with praise for the "professional presentation," thereby beginning the teasing process: You do this, and we just might return football to Los Angeles.

Privately, they scoffed at the presentation because it was all show with no substance--no hint of ownership, no talk of public money, no way to generate all the money the NFL will need to return to Los Angeles.

The NFL is in no hurry to return to Los Angeles. It will get what it wants, which will be a record payday. It took 13 years, but Baltimore responded with free cash. It took 11 years, raised and dashed expansion expectations and the building of a new stadium in St. Louis on speculation, and then the Rams still wanted more money.

Cleveland will get its team in 1999 because that city went to war when the Browns left, but as feisty as the Clevelanders were, they are now having to sell luxury boxes and PSLs--three years before the construction of a stadium--to complete the deal with the NFL.

The owners are richer today than ever. New stadium deals in St. Louis, Carolina, Oakland and Jacksonville have already improved their shared-revenue take.

Completed deals for new stadiums in Tampa, Washington, Baltimore and Nashville and an approved stadium expansion in San Diego will pad the coffers in the next few years, and if get-rich schemes in Cincinnati, Detroit, Seattle, Chicago, Denver and New England pan out, Georgia Frontiere can go on one grand shopping spree.

A new TV deal will be struck early next year, and because CBS will reenter the negotiations, the competition will be so intense that no one will dare suggest lower fees because there is no franchise in Los Angeles.

When Peter O'Malley, Dodger owner, expressed interest in building a stadium and owning an NFL franchise, the NFL appeared very interested, but privately there was great concern. Would the NFL be able to exact a $200-million expansion fee from O'Malley if O'Malley were allowed to run unchecked and appear as a hero for bringing football back to Los Angeles?

Ideally, the NFL would like O'Malley, R.D. Hubbard of Hollywood Park and anyone else who appears powerful to compete for the opportunity to bring football back. Then they can award a franchise to the entity willing to pay the most without complaint.

The NFL wants the people of Los Angeles to get excited about football because it will encourage O'Malley and others to work on a new stadium. They want the people to get excited so the corporations step forward later to buy the luxury boxes and club seats.

The NFL has no interest in the Coliseum project. The owners, who are less sophisticated than the NFL's front office in charge of team movement and not very easily managed, have already dismissed the Coliseum project.

The NFL front office will continue to offer encouragement, though, because that takes care of several things:

--The NFL cannot be considered racist for dismissing the Coliseum because of its neighborhood.

--The NFL can start to whet the appetite of politicians, prospective owners and fans who might see the merit of football returning to L.A.

--There is a hope someone, such as O'Malley again, will emerge as hero from the ashes after the Coliseum project goes up in flames, stronger than ever and now the winner of all that political support that had been there for the Coliseum.

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