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The Big NFL Question: Who Cares?

Now that the league has added Anaheim to its list of potential sites, some in O.C. are thrilled. Many in the Southland have lost interest.

August 27, 2004|Kimi Yoshino and Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writers

With one word -- "ecstatic" -- Anaheim restaurant owner and football fan Joe Manzella captured his feelings about the prospect of the NFL returning to Orange County.

"Pretty big, huh?" Manzella said with a grin, reveling in the news Thursday that the league has asked Anaheim to join the competition for a football stadium that could host a Southern California team by 2008. "I'll be one of the first people in line for season tickets."

But many football fans in Southern California reacted instead with skepticism and ambivalence. They wondered if the National Football League is serious. They questioned whether L.A. fans would be willing to travel to Orange County. And they wondered, most fundamentally, whether the region really needs a pro football team.

Take Bob Oldendorf, 53, of Yucaipa. He's still a Rams fan, even though the team has been gone for nearly 10 years. But he doesn't care that he now has to watch them from afar.

"I'm kind of apathetic," said Oldendorf, who was having a fast-food lunch across the street from Angel Stadium, near the prospective site of a football venue. "I thought we were going to miss them a whole lot, and the truth is, I don't."

Boston native Adam Kretowicz, a long-suffering Red Sox fan who moved to Los Angeles six years ago and manages a Hooters restaurant in Santa Monica, has an even more radical take: "L.A. doesn't deserve a football team. Turn on a Laker game and it's 10 minutes into the first quarter and half the stadium is empty. And we're going to fill 70,000 seats, on a hot beach day?"

That reaction, experts said, sums up the 10-year challenge the league has faced in trying to return professional football to the nation's No. 2 media market.

While some cities have begged the NFL for a team -- with petition drives, candlelight vigils and a full-court press by the local media -- Southern California has been less than enthusiastic.

When the Rams and Raiders departed in 1995, for example, stands were only half full.

"Los Angeles has presented particularly vexing and Byzantine problems for the league so far," said agent Leigh Steinberg, one of the NFL's most influential behind-the-scenes players and a key player in Anaheim's efforts to keep the Rams.

"There's been an attitude in this market that the league needs to prove to Los Angeles why Southern California needs a team. Los Angeles has almost been a reluctant suitor."

The NFL might be wise to start wooing, rather than playing cities off each other, some observers said. The L.A. Coliseum, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and Carson have spent months in talks with the NFL.

Proponents of those plans said they were disappointed to learn Wednesday that the league had been quietly scouting Anaheim as well.

Los Angeles-based sports business consultant David Carter agreed that fans are apathetic, particularly when so many transplants are happy to head to their neighborhood bar to watch, say, a Packers game.

"We've been 10 years without a franchise," Carter said. "The ambivalence is off the charts. There have been so many times when we thought football might come back that until it's here and we are there to watch the coin toss, we are not going to believe it."

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