If the National Football League were Santa Claus, then perhaps Los Angeles would find a professional football team under its palm tree this Christmas.
The reality is, no gift courtesy of the NFL will be coming Los Angeles' way in the near future — and there’s little reason to think one will ever arrive.
One of the never-ending dramas in U.S. sports is the story of when the nation's second-largest television market — abandoned by both the Rams and the Raiders in 1994 — will procure another NFL franchise. Stadium proposals are as ubiquitous as smog. Every week, it seems, a report appears that the Coliseum will be renovated, a Mexican-American village in downtown L.A. called Chavez Ravine is an option, Anaheim is in the running or some no-name town on the way to Las Vegas will construct the perfect venue. The NFL will fly executives to Los Angeles to scout out sites, announce that none meet their criteria and the game begins again.
Amid all the noise, the assumption is that the NFL desperately wants a team in Los Angeles and that Angelenos miss pro football, but both theories have holes so big even the Chicago Bears' Cedric Bensoncould run through them.
Consider the NFL:
- It is the king among all pro sports leagues. Television networks beg to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars to televise NFL games. The league's business savvy is unparalleled, and it always negotiates from a position of strength. Yet Los Angeles hasn’t fielded a pro football team since Jimmy Johnson coached the Cowboys.Would the NFL really be forced to wait more than a dozen years for something it desires?
- The threat of moving a team to Los Angeles is more valuable for the NFL than actually placing a team there. It's the perfect bargaining chip for the league: Why would a franchise stay in, say, cold-weather, small-market Minnesota without a new stadium when big-market, celebrity-studded L.A. beckons? In fact, since the Rams and Raiders fled, about half the franchises in the league have constructed new stadiums, with two more expected to open in Dallas and New York. The luxury-suite revenue and personal-seat license fees are huge boons for these teams. No doubt the idea that franchises had an attractive alternative to their hometowns quickened negotiations with cities for new stadiums.
- Why would owners want an expansion team in Los Angeles? That would cut into their take on shared income (television revenue alone exceeds $100 million per team a year) and it would also make the league — enjoying the perfect set up of eight divisions with four teams apiece — unbalanced at 33 teams.
- Two pro sports franchises leaving town the same year should cause an uproar. For instance, when Cleveland lost the Browns to Baltimore, owner Art Modell was vilified and received death threats. When the Raiders and Rams departed in 1994, Angelenos yawned before going surfing.
- Except for the occasional big game, the Raiders drew 45,000 or so fans on Sundays to the cavernous Coliseum. No team in the league averages such a tiny crowd. Sponsors were unheard of during their tenure in the Southland. Why would a new team do any better?
- USC and UCLA offer more than enough football for the town. Attendance is soaring for both teams. USC averaged more than 87,000 fans per game in 2007, while UCLA, despite a mediocre season, drew about 80,000 per contest.
- Major League Soccer has grabbed a foothold in the market since the NFL left, placing two teams there and luring the sport’s biggest star, David Beckham, to town.
Of course, Los Angeles offers plenty of advantages, which is why it is always in the running for a team. The region is home to a number of Fortune 500 firms, the population of Los Angeles County alone tops 10 million, and Hollywood is nearby, promising to make any NFL star a national celebrity.
But the city is no closer to landing a team today than it was during the Clinton administration. Take a look at the Los Angeles Times' Web site, where a section is dedicated to coverage on a potential pro football franchise. The short list of its storylines over the years is almost comical in retrospect: Larry Ellison is interested in bringing a franchise to L.A.; Paul Tagliabue wants a team in place by 2008.
The stories will continue to be posted, but the bottom line is this: Los Angeles is as close to landing an NFL team as Paris Hilton is to having a clean driving record.