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Huddle Up

A new spirit of cooperation between the NFL and the Coliseum Commission just might bring pro football back to Los Angeles

September 08, 2005|Alan Abrahamson and Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writers

A few years ago, as the Denver Broncos were beating up on the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, Roderick Wright found himself in a Miami stadium suite with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and Carolina Panther owner Jerry Richardson.

The conversation focused on Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a fixture in Exposition Park for some 80 years, and whether the timeworn stadium had a big-league future.

"What Tagliabue said to me was, 'I don't have a problem with the Coliseum.' His concern wasn't the building itself," recalled Wright, then a California assemblyman. "It was the governance -- the way the building was being handled."

Nearly seven years later -- as the NFL considers a return to the Los Angeles area -- the Coliseum Commission is apparently back in the league's good graces, marking a significant turnaround for a quarrelsome government body long known for fumbling away tenants and business.

The shift comes as the commission possibly faces a future of self-imposed irrelevance. If a deal with the NFL is reached, plans call for the panel to cede control of the Coliseum to the league, surrendering much of the power it has wielded -- many would say mishandled -- over the last 50 years in reshaping the Los Angeles sports landscape.

Once upon a time, the Rams played at the Coliseum, leaving in 1980 in part because of differences with the commission. The Raiders arrived in their wake in 1982 and teamed with the commission to beat the NFL in an antitrust case, only to return to Oakland after the 1994 season, partly because of dissatisfaction with the Coliseum's lack of amenities.

UCLA jumped to the Rose Bowl, alleging shoddy treatment by commissioners. Jack Kent Cooke built the Forum rather than deal with them.

Before Dodger Stadium was built, the Dodgers had to endure commissioners' suggestions about such matters as where to place home plate at the Coliseum.

Even next-door neighbor USC seriously thought about leaving in the early 1980s amid a dispute with commissioners who seemed intent upon luring an NFL team at any cost.

But that was then, says investment banker Bill Chadwick, president of the nine-member commission. In remarks echoed by NFL officials, he says the reality now is that the current panel has proved itself different -- valuing compromise and collegiality over partisanship or personal agendas.

"I'm not saying there aren't skeptics," Chadwick said. "But I think our deeds, our words and our actions have convinced [the NFL] that this is a Coliseum Commission truly committed to bringing an NFL team to Exposition Park."

Added county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who sits on the commission: "It's a different animal. Seeing is believing."

Sacramento seems to be saying the same thing, with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger telegraphing his desire to get a deal done.

Last year, Schwarzenegger signed legislation to help lower the cost of financing infrastructure improvements by an estimated $25 million to $30 million -- though providing no taxpayer money for improvements inside the stadium -- if the NFL leased the historic site. He said that the "special circumstance to attract an NFL franchise to California is extremely unique and important."

The governor's will has been evident in shaping the commission lineup. He took a personal interest in the appointment of David Israel, a well-connected television producer and former sports columnist.

He also retained commission President Chadwick, a Gray Davis appointee in 2001 who is a lead negotiator in the current talks with the league. Chadwick served as Davis' negotiator when Los Angeles tried to secure an expansion team in 1999. He resigned amid criticism from local and NFL officials as that effort unexpectedly faltered, overtaken by Houston businessman Bob McNair's staggering $1.25-billion bid.

"What's been helpful is that there are those on the commission who went through 1999 believing there was a team on the forefront and then found out there wasn't," said commission member Bernard Parks, a Los Angeles city councilman. "History has been helpful in defining the future."

Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles), a longtime Coliseum proponent, said he believes an NFL deal is within reach. "This commission understands that not to have a state-of-the-art venue at the Coliseum has become a non-starter," he said. "The previous commissions really didn't get that."

But many uncertainties remain about the NFL's plans for the Los Angeles area, including when, or even if, the league will choose a site, whether the new arrival would be an expansion team or a transplant, and who would own it. A new wrinkle involves questions about the future of the New Orleans Saints -- long rumored to be a candidate for Los Angeles -- after Hurricane Katrina devastated their city and severely damaged the Louisiana Superdome.

Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, said Wednesday that the situation in New Orleans has nothing to do with the league's ongoing negotiations in Southern California.

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