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Time, Rams, Raiders Are Running Out

Time marches on everywhere, except on the professional football fields of Los Angeles and Anaheim, where today it is the first day of May, 1994, and in 15 months, it will be . . . 1945?

Fifty years ago, the local turf was as barren as can be when it came to pro football. No Rams; they still belonged to Cleveland. No Raiders; there were just a twinkle in Al Davis’ eye. No Dons even; the old All-American Football Conference, of which the L.A. Dons were charter members, did not begin play until 1946.

In 1945, life for the Southland football fan was uncomplicated.

Friday was reserved for high school football.

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Saturday was devoted to USC and UCLA.

Sunday was a day of rest.

Imagine no pro football. I wonder if you can. A closed Coliseum. An empty Anaheim Stadium. Nothing to thrill or vie for. No Jerome Bettis too.

If the cities of Baltimore and Orlando, or St. Louis and Memphis, or San Antonio and Hartford--or any combination thereof--get their way, the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area could be going completely retro by the fall of 1995. We could be Ram-less and Raider-less and NFL-less once again, leaving us with nowhere to turn on Sundays except Fox, NBC and the San Diego Freeway.

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The California Chargers, home team for everyone in the 619, 714, 909, 310, 213 and 818 area codes.

Unthinkable?

Consider the cast of characters assembling for this outgoing saga.

The Raiders are owned by Carpetbagger Al Davis, who only wants to be loved, or bathed in thousand-dollar bills, and has threatened in recent years to move his team to Oakland, Irwindale, Sacramento, San Jose, Orlando or a sucker to be named later. He’s liable to blow any second.

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The Rams are owned by Georgia Frontiere but run by John Shaw, who lives for the art of the deal, and is wringing his hands as he prepares to welcome all suitors this Tuesday, when Shaw officially exercises the escape clause in the Rams’ Anaheim Stadium lease and makes the team a free agent.

Both of these franchises were born to run. The Raiders have moved once already, from Oakland to L.A., in 1982. The Rams have moved twice, from Cleveland to L.A. in 1946 and from L.A. to Orange County in 1980. Both have stayed put for more than a decade now. A couple of trigger fingers have to be getting itchy.

Over lunch the other day, Shaw made his pitch as to why it is good business for the Rams and Raiders to consider greener pastures, and to do it ASAP. (Shaw ordered crabcakes--a very nice touch, I thought--and was disappointed to learn that the kitchen had run out of them. That shouldn’t be a problem in Baltimore.)

Shaw portrayed Los Angeles as a “difficult marketplace” for pro football, noting the Rams’ meager $500,000 radio deal--"The lowest in the league"--and that the Rams and Raiders both ranked near the bottom in home attendance in 1993.

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“The recession has hit here harder than in other places,” Shaw said, “and I still feel that fans in L.A. believe they have the ability, the luxury, to support winning teams. If you don’t win, it’s reflected more radically in the gate here than in other cities.”

Perhaps, but few cities have been hit as radically on the football field as Anaheim lately. The Rams are 19-45 in the 1990s. That’s a .297 winning percentage. Ram fans are sick and they are tired. After four long, hard years, they have earned the right to stay away.

And although Shaw complains that the Rams averaged “only 57,000 in a year the team went to the conference championship game"--1989--home attendance actually increased in 1990, to an average of 58,492, when the Rams finished 5-11.

So, Ram fans have demonstrated a tolerance for the occasional down year--just not four occasional down years in a row.

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“How do you define ‘successful?’ ” Shaw wanted to know. “Were the Raiders successful last year?”

They made the playoffs, beat Denver in the wild-card game, OK, sure.

“Well, the Raiders had some sellouts, but they drew poorly in other games,” Shaw said. “Look at the Lakers. Five championships, in the playoffs every year. Finally one year they don’t make it, and look what happened to the attendance.”

Shaw went down the roster. Angels--down in the standings, down in attendance. Clippers--last in the NBA in attendance. Kings--not hurting yet, but the team missed the playoffs and the ownership is in disarray. Lakers--even Magic II couldn’t help.

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Of the L.A.-Anaheim stable, only the Dodgers and the Ducks are thriving. Two out of eight franchises--and one of them a novelty item.

“We do take some responsibility for putting a bad product on the field,” Shaw said. “And yet, understanding that, we’re having an almost impossible time of making it financially in Los Angeles.”

Baltimore or Memphis would be more forgiving, Shaw believes. And initially, they would. When you’re starving, inferior product is preferable to no product. Jim Everett could have been mayor in Memphis. What, no Marcus Allen? In the eyes of Orlando, Nick Bell looks nothing less than All-World.

And, from the perspective of the Ram and Raider front offices, which is the simpler assignment:

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Getting to the Super Bowl?

Or getting out of town?

So the race is on, and a race it is, according to Shaw. The NFL has no intentions of hanging a vacancy sign on its second-largest market, so it will fight to keep at least one team in Los Angeles. Hence, the sense of urgency. He who hesitates could get held up in court.

The Raiders have already begun to negotiate with Orlando.

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The Rams join the fray Tuesday.

Will the last NFL team to leave Los Angeles please bring the flag?

* WILL ANAHEIM LOSE GAME?: Tuesday, the Rams will invoke an Anaheim Stadium escape clause and become free to look for better opportunities elsewhere. What are the chances they’ll leave? A1, A16-18

Building the NFL

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The 28 National Football League teams and their direct ancestors. Dates listed are the years teams began play with that name or location, some in leagues other than the NFL. Two more teams--Jacksonville and Carolina--begin play in 1995.

* Atlanta Falcons (1966) * Arizona Cardinals (1994), Phoenix Cardinals (1988), St. Louis Cardinals (1961), Chicago Cardinals (1920) * Buffalo Bills (1960) * Chicago Bears (1922), Chicago Staleys (1921), Decatur Staleys (1920) * Cincinnati Bengals (1968) * Cleveland Browns (1946) * Dallas Cowboys (1960) * Denver Broncos (1960) * Detroit Lions (1934), Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans (1930) * Green Bay Packers (1921) * Houston Oilers (1960) * Indianapolis Colts (1984), Baltimore Colts (1953) * Kansas City Chiefs (1963), Dallas Texans (1960) * Los Angeles Raiders (1982), Oakland Raiders (1960) * Los Angeles Rams (1946), Cleveland Rams (1937) * Miami Dolphins (1966) * Minnesota Vikings (1961) * New England Patriots (1971), Boston Patriots (1960) * New Orleans Saints (1967) * New York Giants (1925) * New York Jets (1963), New York Titans (1960) * Philadelphia Eagles (1933) * Pittsburgh Steelers (1933) * San Diego Chargers (1961), Los Angeles Chargers (1960) * San Francisco 49ers (1946) * Seattle Seahawks (1976) * Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1976) * Washington Redskins (1937), Boston Redskins (1933), Boston Braves (1932)


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