Political Football Fumbled

I love it. For more than a decade, the members of the LA Memorial Coliseum Commission have deployed their combined political muscle to kill off proposals to build a new stadium for a National Football League team to replace the Rams and Raiders. In the face of league resistance, the local leadership has insisted that when the NFL returns to Los Angeles, it will be at a refurbished Coliseum. Now that the NFL has finally given the signal that its final answer is “no,” the Coliseum’s leadership is acting like they’re the ones rejecting the league, not the other way around.

Coliseum Commissioner David Israel told Times’ columnist T.J. Simers:

“L.A. is surviving quite nicely without the NFL and the NFL is surviving quite nicely without L.A.,” Israel said. “I guess the divorce is final.”

Well, uh, yeah, except it’s the Coliseum’s dog-in-the-manger political strategy that has kept the league out since the league let two teams leave after the the ’94 season. The NFL would have been thrilled to occupy a football stadium in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, with the participation of then-Dodger owner Peter O’Malley. Mayor Riordan asked O’Malley to draw up a plan (which cost him a million dollars), then a year later, at the behest of the Coliseum Commission, instructed O’Malley to bury that plan.
To break the logjam, Anschutz Entertainment Group’s Tim Liewecke and LA Avengers’ owner Casey Wasserman developed a privately-financed downtown stadium proposal, introducing it complete with renderings, at a civic breakfast, introduced by Mayor Hahn — and within 48 hours (or was it 24?), they meekly dropped the idea, with Liewecke saying they “didn’t want to go through an ugly political process.” Translation: They didn’t want to take on the Coliseum’s die-hard backers.

For most of the past 12 years, NFL officials expressed a complete lack of interest in returning to the Coliseum in any form. “Trying to put a new dress on an old hooker is not the way I want to go dancing,” was how then-Baltimore Ravens owner described the city’s ideas for renovating the Coliseum. Less colorfully, NFL spokesman Joe Browne said, “We have yet to see a viable stadium plan for an NFL team at the Coliseum.” The local leadership’s insistence on the Coliseum or bust is generally cited as one major reason the last NFL expansion team went to Houston in 1999 instead of Los Angeles.

It looks like the dance is over; the Coliseum and the city are standing near the punchbowl, acting as if all along, it was the NFL wooing them, and now, the Belle of the Ball has decided to go home alone. From today’s LA Times story on the Coliseum’s talks with USC on a new lease:

Word of the (USC) negotiations came a day after the NFL said the cost of a new or renovated stadium in the Los Angeles area could top $1 billion, more than double the estimate of a few years ago. At their annual fall meeting Tuesday, several team owners said a return to the region was not a top priority.
That prompted frustration and exasperation from some influential members of the Coliseum Commission, who earlier this month said they might investigate non-NFL alternatives if no significant progress was made at the league meetings.

They “might investigate non-NFL alternatives?” I think the NFL has been telling them to investigate non-NFL alternatives for 12 years!

“I think they regressed,” said David Israel, a state appointee to the commission. “I basically think the deal is done. It isn’t going to be made.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also serves on the commission, said it became apparent over time that if the NFL really wanted to make a deal with the Coliseum, the league would have made one already. He, too, said it’s time for stadium officials to move on.”When you ask a girl out 25 times and she says no 25 times, maybe the 26th time you just don’t call,” he said.

As a football fan, I guess I really don’t mind. I look at it this way: Los Angeles has now become the biggest college football market in the country. Interest in USC has never been higher, and UCLA has a huge, loyal fan base. Neither of these teams are about to move to St. Louis because their owner can cash in. Both teams are part of the exciting Pac-10, which brings teams like Cal, Oregon, Stanford, Arizona State, etc. into the city each year — not to mention the frequent appearances of other top college teams. If you really want to see a Trojan or a Bruin game, it’s not outasite expensive like an NFL ticket would be. After 12 years without the NFL, some expansion franchise or a lame NFL team that really belongs to another city would have a hard time winning any fan’s hearts.

Sure, this city is full of NFL fans. They follow the Rams, the Raiders, the Chargers, or whatever team a former USC star is playing with now.  Lately, I’m seeing New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinal hats and jerseys popping up–in honor of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart.

But the political side of this fiasco has been cost-free for too long. This region’s leadership failed to accomplish what should have been easy — to bring a team from the most TV-dependent sports league into the nation’s #2 TV market. They let politics gum it up. If this were any other kind of business but politics, heads would be rolling.

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