L.A. Football: It's Still First and Ten

Down on the field of the Rose Bowl, Oklahoma was routing Washington State. But the real action during the New Year's Day classic in Pasadena was upstairs in a third-floor suite, where Southern California politicians and businessmen hoped to catch a different pigskin. There, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was hearing why the NFL nation needs Los Angeles.

Passing the peanut dish to the commish is as about as close as L.A. has gotten to the NFL since 1995, when both the Rams and Raiders took their shoulder pads and headed out of town. Since then, there have been plenty of busted dreams--but no team.

The last formal bid for a franchise, by Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and associates in 1999, came in a weak second to billionaire Robert C. McNair's record $700 million deal for a team in Houston. Recently, Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz proposed building a $400 million, 64,000-seat stadium. He pulled out, though, when other sites were mentioned, and city officials balked at helping finance his stadium.

Now, the notion of football returning to the City of Angels may be inching downfield. The reason? Money, of course: L.A. is fruit waiting to be picked. More immediately, there's pressure from the networks. NFL ratings, though up last year, had slipped since 1998, when the league signed a record $18 billion, eight-year TV deal. That makes the addition of America's second-largest TV market crucial to new contract talks that open in 2005. The greater L.A. area, with over 16 million people, is 20th in ratings for ABC's Monday Night Football. "The NFL knows we want L.A.," says CBS Sports President Sean McManus. "And they want it just as badly."

Although it has been long thought that L.A. must woo a team from another city, like San Diego, Tagliabue doesn't rule out an expansion franchise. "I think the owners would agree to a 33rd team in Los Angeles, but only in that city," he told BusinessWeek. Tagliabue also suggests that plans will be in place by the time TV talks start. But squabbles over whether to renovate the Rose Bowl or build a new stadium, plus a lawsuit by Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis, who claims rights to L.A., could confound the commish. In this town, it's easier to win an Oscar than an NFL team.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles, with Tom Lowry in New York

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