Commentary: Pro Football In L.A.? Don't Bet The Bentley

Ever since 1995, when Al Davis packed up his Raiders and moved them back to Oakland, Los Angeles has been getting kicked aside by the National Football League. Since then, L.A. fans watched as expansion teams began to play in Jacksonville and Charlotte, the Browns went to Baltimore and the Oilers to Tennessee, and Cleveland got back a franchise. For Angelenos, pro football is a TV set.

Now, the city's best shot for a team in a long time is fast approaching. On Oct. 27, three potential owner groups, including two from Los Angeles, will make presentations at the NFL owners meeting in Kansas City. The L.A. contingents--one of them led by former superagent Michael S. Ovitz--will try to convince the pigskin pooh-bahs that the city should be awarded the NFL's 32nd franchise, most likely at its annual meeting in March. Play would begin in 2002.

With a TV market of more than 3 million homes, the NFL would love to add Los Angeles to its Neilsens. But winning a club could be harder than stopping Brett Favre at the one-yard line. For starters, the two L.A. groups are far behind one from Houston, which expects to bring signed documents for a lease as well as for more than $200 million in public financing to build a $311 million stadium. And the Los Angeles split between two competing camps isn't likely to play well with the NFL. Sputters sports agent Leigh Steinberg, who led an unsuccessful campaign in 1995 to keep the Rams from leaving for St. Louis: "Until one group emerges with everyone behind it, L.A. isn't going to get a team."

The front-runner is a star-studded group headed by Ovitz, the onetime Hollywood talent agent and former Walt Disney Co. president. He has lined up Tom Cruise, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Northwest Airlines Chairman Gary Wilson, and investment banker Ted Forstmann, among others. Team Ovitz has excited NFL owners with plans for a 76,000-seat stadium modeled after a 19th-century California mission.

Under the competing bid, the 66-year-old Los Angeles Coliseum would be redesigned as the centerpiece of an entertainment zone. That plan is being promoted by real estate developer Edward Roski Jr., who brokered a $350 million deal for the new Staples Center for the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, of which he is a majority owner. The group includes reclusive Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, another Kings owner, and former Ticketmaster CEO Fred Rosen.

Both rivals still have a lot of hustling to do. Neither has shown it has its financing in place, including the $480 million or more the NFL will likely demand as a franchise fee. Ovitz' site on a former landfill in industrial Carson, 15 miles southwest of Los Angeles, has to be cleaned up, and no one is sure fans will travel there. To overcome the Coliseum's Raiders-era image of beer fights and biker gangs, Roski will bring to Kansas City a videotape of fresh-faced kids cheering at the Oct. 3 University of Southern California-Arizona State game at the Coliseum.

But while they may love college football, do Angelenos really want the pros? In a Los Angeles Times poll in January, 59% said a team wasn't important to them at all. One big problem may be demographics. The composition of the city has changed in the past 20 years and is now 40.1% Hispanic and 12.5% Asian. While many Hispanics and Asians tend to avidly support baseball, for example, as groups they seem less enthralled by football.

EAGER FANS. Meanwhile, Houston's bidders will arrive in Kansas City with a guaranteed income stream from stadium sales taxes and polls showing 58% of city residents would buy tickets. "I don't worry about L.A. They have enough to worry about themselves," says Steve Patterson, head of the Houston group.

Patterson is right. Mike Ovitz and Top Gun Cruise and Shaq may put on all the glitz they can, but in the end, the NFL will want them to show it the money. Until Los Angeles can do that, a football club will remain a very different kind of dream team.

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