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Looking to Return, NFL Sees Daylight in Anaheim

L.A. County sites protest the new player as the league seeks its first area home since 1995.

August 26, 2004|Sam Farmer and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

Anaheim jumped into Southern California's stadium bidding war Wednesday, announcing that the NFL was scouting the city as a possible home for the region's first pro football team since the Raiders and Rams departed in 1995.

The National Football League would finance construction of an elaborate facility near Angel Stadium and Arrowhead Pond -- a 70,500-seat venue for which environmental and other approvals are already in place, city officials said.

It was unclear Wednesday whether the NFL's expression of interest, which drew howls of protest from backers of Los Angeles County sites angling for similar deals, is serious or merely intended to give franchise owners leverage in negotiating a return to the nation's second-biggest media market.

But NFL officials are attracted by the area's relatively easy access to freeways and proximity to the growing Inland Empire, city officials said. That location could offer benefits that outweigh those of the Rose Bowl, the Los Angeles Coliseum and a possible stadium on a landfill site in Carson, some observers said.

Wednesday's announcement comes as a surprise, particularly because Anaheim did not initiate contact with the NFL and because the league plans to stick to its goal of settling deal terms such as financing and lease agreements by mid-October.

The league, which has not ruled out the possibility of two NFL teams in the Los Angeles area, hopes to select a site in May and to see a new or relocated team begin play in 2008.

"Anaheim represents a very large and attractive market with a track record of hosting professional sports, including the NFL," said league spokesman Greg Aiello.

Since the Raiders and Rams left Los Angeles, there have been many attempts to bring the NFL back to Southern California. Nearly a dozen proposals, touting such sites as Dodger Stadium and Hollywood Park, have failed.

Los Angeles almost landed an expansion team in 1999 -- one that would have played its inaugural season in a rebuilt Coliseum in 2002 -- but the ownership group was outbid by Houston billionaire Bob McNair, whose record-setting expansion fee of $700 million bought him the Houston Texans.

Backers of other stadium plans were disappointed that the NFL would be flirting with yet another suitor but are still confident in their own proposals.

Mayor James K. Hahn "is ready and willing to pull out all the stops to bring football back to the city of Los Angeles," said Los Angeles Deputy Mayor Eric Brown.

And Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a former Los Angeles councilman who has pushed for years to bring the NFL back to the Coliseum, called the NFL overture to Anaheim a blatant attempt to squeeze a better deal out of the larger city.

"I fully believe the league will continue to do what it always does, which is try to inspire or spur competition," Ridley-Thomas said.

Indeed, the Anaheim development is reminiscent of the situation 15 months ago, when Rose Bowl backers who thought their venue held a commanding lead in the L.A. stadium derby were stunned to learn the NFL had been conducting parallel negotiations with Carson.

But Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle insisted that his city would be a serious bidder that could better meet the needs of the region's football fans. The city "is certainly firmly in the center of the Los Angeles market. That is, I think, the bigger picture."

NFL officials stayed above the fray, with Aiello describing the league's invitation to Anaheim as "exploratory and preliminary." He said it "is not a reflection on the three sites in Los Angeles."

Experts said that the league may be trying to send the Los Angeles County bidders a message but that they also are likely to take the Anaheim option seriously.

By inviting the Orange County city to bid, the NFL is saying, "We're not satisfied with what's been offered so far. If you guys are not going to do something better, than we're going to do it in Anaheim," said sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College in Massachusetts.

Los Angeles sports business consultant David Carter agreed. The NFL "could be trying to get the other cities on the fast track," he said.

But "Anaheim is no Carson. Everybody in the world is familiar with this city."

Although the NFL traditionally relies partly on public money to fund new stadiums, league officials have conceded they don't expect to get that financial help.

They have acknowledged they would be responsible for financing a new stadium in the Los Angeles or Orange County areas. NFL stadiums typically require about two years to build at a cost of $400 million to $500 million.

Anaheim officials said they were first contacted by the NFL about a month ago and quickly arranged tours of the proposed site -- the parking lot of Angel Stadium. Since then, there have been additional visits and conversations, they said.

The city has been trying to develop the 807-acre area around Angel Stadium -- an area city officials have dubbed the Platinum Triangle, which they envision as a future downtown for Orange County.

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