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Forget the Gridiron--City Hall Should Think Soccer

The ball is in the NFL's court now.

June 30, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

The Los Angeles City Council doesn't get it. Futbol, not football, is L.A.'s future, so quit worrying about whether this city will ever get another National Football League franchise.

It shouldn't be necessary to make such an obvious point. But recently the council quietly approved several measures intended to help lure an NFL team here. And the timing could not have been worse.

First, the votes came a week after investors who had planned to build a $450-million NFL stadium downtown supposedly gave up on the idea because of political roadblocks.

Worse, City Hall acted even as the rest of Los Angeles was enthralled by sports other than American pro football. That should have reminded the council just how little the NFL has mattered here since the Rams and Raiders left town in 1995. I refer not just to the Lakers' third straight championship or even the fact that the Dodgers and Angels both recently have been near first place in their respective divisions.

No, L.A. was in the forefront among major U.S. cities captivated by the World Cup, the international soccer tournament that every four years crowns a champion in the popular sport the rest of the world calls football.

Like other Americans, Angelenos enjoyed the performance of the surprising U.S. team, which reached the quarterfinals--our best World Cup showing in 72 years. But in this town we have other "home" teams to root for too, like Mexico's and a plucky South Korean squad.

Anyone who still doubts that soccer is a major sport in L.A. should check the record TV ratings for the World Cup games played after midnight local time, including today's championship match between Brazil and Germany. How many Angelenos would awaken before dawn to watch an NFL game?

So it's silly for City Hall to try to appease the NFL. Only one of the proposals the council approved makes any sense from a taxpayer's point of view: ordering the Community Redevelopment Agency to review 36 blighted areas of the city to determine whether any of them offers a suitable stadium site.

That resolution was the handiwork of Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who knows full well that one CRA project area is Exposition Park, where the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is located. He refuses to be cowed by the NFL's insistence that the Coliseum is a nonstarter and that only a new stadium would get a football franchise.

Ridley-Thomas was also instrumental in getting the Coliseum Commission, of which he is a member, to set aside $1 million to update studies that may help convince the NFL that the Coliseum is the only venue likely to get any taxpayer support. That Coliseum bid is what forced the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns Staples Center, to give up its plans to build a stadium downtown.

Some speculate that AEG and its billionaire investors were just bluffing in threatening to abandon the stadium project to pressure the city into granting them the public subsidies needed for construction to begin. If that's the case--and I suspect it is--City Hall should play it smart and follow Ridley-Thomas' lead. He knows the NFL needs L.A. more than we need it.

One way to prove that axiom would be to focus more civic resources on making L.A. the center of pro soccer in this country. The best idea floated so far to make that happen is Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavky's idea of putting a Mexican soccer league team in the historic stadium.

Mexican pro soccer could draw lots of fans here--witness the crowds that show up whenever popular teams such as Chivas of Guadalajara are in town. The Coliseum was expecting nearly 20,000 fans on Saturday for a match between Mexico City's Club America and River Plate of Buenos Aires.

So make the NFL wait. It is facing a demographic reckoning anyway. Surveys suggest its fan base is rapidly aging, and fewer young people care about pro football. So the NFL's product may become a niche sport, like boxing, while soccer continues to grow in popularity.

That's why NFL honchos will eventually come crawling back to L.A. And they'll be so desperate to be here that, if the Coliseum isn't good enough for them, they'll pay for their own stadium.

*

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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