The NFL prepares to squeeze L.A. -- and St. Louis -- just a little bit tighter

The NFL plays another Southern California community for suckers

Announcements of possible NFL team relocations often cause the same frissons of expectation and trepidation in their target communities as videotaped threats from unknown terrorist groups. In both cases, projections of what might happen do battle with the sheer unlikelihood of anything happening. Hope, or fear, almost always wins out over rational judgment, at least at first.

And so we were treated on Monday to yet another outburst of expectation that the National Football League will finally bring a team back to Los Angeles, which hasn't had one in 20 years. This time, the dangled franchise is the St. Louis Rams, who were the Los Angeles Rams until they fled in 1995. The dangler-in-chief is Rams owner Stan Kroenke. As a real estate billionaire, Kroenke surely appreciates the value of telling one potential buyer that he's on the verge of being outbid, so he best put his money down now. In this case, the big mark isn't L.A. but St. Louis, which is working overtime to come up with a huge public handout to hold on to the team.

Maybe Missourians, for all that they claim to be hard-nosed "show-me" types, are rubes at heart who can be taken in by this. But what's Southern California's excuse? We've been jerked around so often by the NFL with the prospect of a team that it's hard to believe we can still be taken in.

Here's how I summed up the record in 2010:

"Over the years, the NFL has played Anaheim off against Los Angeles, and both off against Carson. It has feigned interest in the Rose Bowl, the Coliseum and Hollywood Park....Everyone in Southern California who has tried to play ball with this league has come away misused and humiliated. Reading the file of sound bites from moguls and political leaders proclaiming that they finally had the thing in the bag is like touring a museum of unalloyed schlemiel-dom."

This noxious record didn't stop Los Angeles politicians from slavering all over the league only a year later, when developer Phil Anschutz proposed building a football stadium downtown, hard by the L.A. Convention Center and his own LA Live entertainment venue. Anschutz was known to be a tough customer at the bargaining table, so the reasoning was that if he had got so far as to order mockups of the projected "Farmers Field" (and to sell naming rights to Farmers Insurance), something might actually occur. Nothing did. My colleagues Nathan Fenno and Sam Farmer have compiled a fully detailed timeline of the last 20 futile years. 

Almost exactly a year ago, Kroenke bought a 60-acre parking lot located in Inglewood between Hollywood Park and the Forum, the renovated entertainment arena. Then everyone cannily refused to comment on whether there might be plans to put a stadium on the site. The implications weren't lost on St. Louis. Unless the team and the city reached agreement on refurbishing the downtown Edward Jones Dome, the Rams would be freed of their legal obligation to play there following the 2014 season, which for the Rams ended somewhere around Week 5.

Although the Inglewood proposal has been public for less than 24 hours, it already appears to be following the form book. Its most enthusiastic supporters are the city leaders of Inglewood, who are hopelessly starstruck. The voter initiative to be placed on the ballot by Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. and his administration claims that the stadium project will bring in revenue of $1 billion a year and 40,000 jobs, which is ludicrous.

The initiative will "renew international interest in Inglewood as a world-class, state-of-the-art sports and entertainment destination," the initiative says. That's a model of dreams triumphing over reality, though the aspiration is certainly reasonable for a city known to international travelers chiefly for its proximity to Los Angeles International Airport (if they're aware of it at all), and maybe for its landmark giant doughnut perched atop a fast-food kiosk at the corner of Manchester and La Cienega boulevards.

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For the Record

Jan. 6, 4:57 p.m.: This column previously incorrectly described Los Angeles International Airport's location as in Inglewood.

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The initiative pledges that no tax dollars would be used for the construction project. In California, this pledge is de rigueur for NFL stadiums, but the promise that the NFL's billionaires will shoulder the entire cost is easily subverted.

The two most recent Southern California stadium proposals--the Anschutz deal and a plan submitted by developer Ed Roski in the City of Industry--carried similar pledges, but before you knew it they both demanded exemptions from state environmental laws; that's a public cost and a handout to developers. The Inglewood property is located within the "U" formed by the 405, 105 and 110 freeways. So you can expect some publicly-funded upgrades of those thoroughfares to be part of the mix, and other demands of the public purse to be buried elsewhere in the master plan.

The Inglewood developers are already jockeying for position as Southern California's stadium plan to beat. As my colleague Roger Vincent reports, they say they're prepared to break ground even without an NFL franchise in hand--"We are proposing to build it on spec," one of the development partners said Monday. Brave lad. Anschutz's AEG, meanwhile, indicated that Farmers Field remains in the mix, as "a fully entitled project able to host two NFL franchises without the legal, political and taxpayer risk that other sites face." California sports fans can expect many hours of enjoyment watching behemoth press releases fight each other to eke out inches of territorial gain.

The best bet for Inglewood is to recognize that it's merely a stalking horse for St. Louis and perhaps for Anschutz or Roski or both, and withdraw from the field before it ends up like Irwindale, which in 1987 got conned into paying the late Raiders owner Al Davis a nonrefundable $10-million fee to bring his team over from the L.A. Coliseum. (Never happened.) Or the city leaders might merely end up like former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other politicians who kissed up to the NFL over the Anschutz deal and were left looking like yokels.

The well-established truth is that for places like Southern California, big professional sports stadiums don't pay. On a regional basis, an NFL team merely would cannibalize a sports market already fed by the Lakers, Clippers, Dodgers, Angels, USC and UCLA, not to mention the full slate of entertainment options in music and on stage.

NFL teams are more valuable for smaller cities, where they stand out and, possibly, give the host community a cachet it doesn't otherwise have and that it might parlay into economic development. The NFL obviously recognized this in the 1980s and 1990s, when it allowed teams to move from megalopolises to smaller, more desperate locales--from L.A. to St. Louis and Oakland; from Houston to Memphis, then Nashville; from the Washington, D.C., corridor (Baltimore) to Indianapolis. All those vacated slots have been filled except L.A. Southern California remains open as a big threat to any smaller burg that tries to deal with the league on its own terms.

The Inglewood proposal reflects this same NFL ruthlessness on a different scale, with the league simply playing small communities within the region off one another--Inglewood, Industry, Anaheim, Carson, Pasadena, etc., etc. The marvel is that despite playing the same trick over and over again, the league never seems to run out of suckers. 

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