Art Modell, the controversial owner of the Baltimore Ravens pro football team, has already been taken to task for some inane and inaccurate things he said about Los Angeles during a recent meeting of National Football League owners.
But we Angelenos should also be grateful to Modell for his tactless remarks, which referred to the 1965 Watts riots to rationalize the NFL’s reluctance to have another team in the Memorial Coliseum to replace the departed Rams and Raiders.
Modell has apologized. He even said he will vote for a new NFL franchise in the Coliseum when and if the matter comes before the team owners.
But the real benefit of Modell’s outburst is that it gave civic leaders here a much-needed reality check. Modell revealed, however fleetingly, the fuzzy--and even bigoted--thinking that has kept pro football from returning to Los Angeles despite all the sensible economic reasons for having an NFL team in the nation’s second-biggest city.
Modell also reminded us how self-centered and self-delusional NFL owners can be, in case our memories of the two weirdest owners in the NFL--the Rams’ Georgia Frontiere and the Raiders’ Al Davis--had faded.
This point is important because within a month, Los Angeles could face the prospect of having another couple of NFL teams seriously looking to move here.
I refer to the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks, both of which face referendums this month asking voters to help build them fancy new stadiums with tax dollars. It may come as a surprise to NFL owners--but certainly not to voters in the state that spawned Proposition 13--but the answer is likely to be no.
Angelenos are probably more aware of Tuesday’s vote in San Francisco on the 49ers’ request for $100 million in public support to build a stadium/shopping center complex in the Hunter’s Point neighborhood. The campaign has been so badly handled by 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo and Mayor Willie Brown, normally the most astute of politicians, that the only questions in the Bay Area press are: How much will the 49ers proposition lose by, and what is Plan B?
That’s where Los Angeles comes in, for 49ers officials are now warning that they may move the team here in search of a better deal. As any native Californian could have told DeBartolo, an Ohio real estate magnate, such threats will not panic San Franciscans but anger them.
Two weeks later, on June 17, Washington state voters will go to the polls to indicate whether they want public funds used to help finance a $425-million stadium for the Seahawks. The team threatened to move to Los Angeles last year when owner Paul Behring decided that downtown Seattle’s Kingdome Stadium might be unsafe in an earthquake.
Polls indicate that the proposal would lose if the vote were held today. But that could change, because the financing deal is designed to help not just the highly unpopular Behring, but also Paul Allen, a respected Seattle businessman who wants to buy the Seahawks from Behring. Allen, the wealthy co-founder of Microsoft, has even agreed to reimburse the state for the $4.2 million cost of holding the election. But if the measure is voted down, Allen can opt out of the Seahawks purchase and Behring would be free to start packing for Los Angeles again.
In both cases, electoral defeat would be a setback not just for the NFL, but for Los Angeles. For another marriage of convenience with an owner like DeBartolo or Behring would, I fear, only be a repeat of this city’s relationship with Davis and the Raiders--a halfhearted team trying to excite halfhearted fans, with both sides wondering if the other will be around next season.
Of course, that is a problem facing several NFL teams now that the game of musical franchises has gotten completely out of hand. Yet team owners show no sign of realizing the damage they are doing to their product. Maybe rejection at the polls in San Francisco and Seattle will finally get their attention.
But no matter what the NFL does, we Angelenos must make it clear that this city no longer has any interest in dealing with an existing NFL team or owner. Only local ownership, by business people known and trusted in this city, will be able to sell a new NFL franchise here, whether it plays in the Coliseum or a new stadium.
Whether the NFL will accept an upgraded Coliseum as a venue remains an open--and major--question. But the San Francisco and Seattle votes should at least convince even the NFL’s dunderheads of one thing: If the league is determined to hold out for a new stadium in Los Angeles, only local owners will be able to sell the idea to local taxpayers. And even then, it will not be a sure bet--as Paul Allen may soon discover.