NFL Appears to Love L.A.

Call it a coincidence, or a symbolic hint of what is to come, but moments after confirming Cleveland as the site for the NFL's 31st team, league owners, coaches and general managers came together for a colossal catered party, their attention fixed on Los Angeles.

Some of sports' biggest names sat mesmerized, gripped by an event taking place only blocks from the Coliseum, reacting with applause and appreciative shouts to Robin Williams' Academy Award selection as if he had just scored the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl.

"Tell you what," one NFL executive said, "if Kim Basinger leads the charge for a football team in Los Angeles, she's got my attention."

It will take money, of course, lots of money to win the NFL's affection, but the lure of Hollywood, the nation's No. 2 media market and potential showtime home of many Super Bowls to come, beckons.

"I think we all feel that we want an NFL team in the second-biggest market again, no question," said Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts. "But the timing has to be right and there's no need to rush it."

The Los Angeles Stars--the NFL's 32nd team--now how does that sound?

When? How does it get done? Who makes it happen? What could stop it?

The biggest roadblock has already fallen. By admitting Cleveland, the NFL put itself in the position of having to expand again to avoid chaotic scheduling with an uneven number of teams.

The 1999 season will begin with one team having to accept a bye and that team's fans having to keep their enthusiasm in check for one more week. As excitement mounts, the season will end with another team--potentially a club in competition for a postseason berth--having to take a bye on the final weekend.

Club officials are grumbling already and the new schedule is a year away from being released.

"I think the odd number of teams is not desirable over a period of time," said Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. "We could probably go for a couple of years, but not much longer."

The NFL said it will try to minimize the disruption by scheduling a warm-weather city with an opening-game bye to keep their fans from having to sweat in the September heat, and will reserve the byes in the last four weeks to the teams that finish fifth in their divisions a year earlier.

Those concessions last season, however, would have eliminated the dramatic regular-season-ending game between the New York Jets and Detroit Lions, which had the winner, Detroit, advancing to the playoffs and the Jets going home.

The outcry for 32 franchises probably will begin in the final week of the 1999 regular season. The idle team may be unable to cash in on the excitement of a strong finish, and there will be objections from the losers that did not receive the advantage of a restful bye in the final two or three weeks of the season before taking on an opponent in a key struggle.

"We have to go to 32 teams," Charger owner Alex Spanos said.

But if the unbalanced schedule favors Los Angeles' chances to force the expansion issue, Raider owner Al Davis has maintained that nothing will get done in Los Angeles without his permission.

"I do not want to talk about it, but we do own the L.A. opportunity for sure," Davis said.

"The hell he does," Buffalo Bills' owner Ralph Wilson said. "Al Davis is not going to get in the way of a team going to Los Angeles."

Houston, however, has hopes of getting in the way of Los Angeles, but Houston's chances of winning an expansion franchise rest on only one thing: Los Angeles losing that opportunity.

And that could happen because what is happening in Cleveland is going to make it incredibly difficult to reach a successful resolve in Los Angeles. Cleveland has guaranteed a financial windfall for the owner of that franchise, providing a stadium that will be built with public funds and an advance from the NFL. That allows an owner to come in and pay the projected $400-million expansion fee and then recoup that money in stadium revenues from parking, concessions and non-football events in the facility.

In Los Angeles, with public money apparently unavailable, an owner conceivably will have to put out more than $200 million for a stadium and then come up with an expansion fee, which probably will exceed Cleveland's price tag.

The New Coliseum partners have presented a proposal to the NFL that--on a best-case scenario--demands more than $90 million of an owner's contribution with the rest of the nearly $200 million of stadium construction coming from ticket taxes, redevelopment funds, personal-seat licenses and a state entertainment zone that has yet to come to fruition.

Based on the most recent stadium deals struck in Baltimore, St. Louis, Nashville and Cleveland, which put those owners at no financial risk before they moved in, the New Coliseum pitch is a huge step backward for the NFL and will never fly with the league's ownership.

Hollywood Park, in contrast, has offered the NFL 30 acres of land on which to build, and if it wants, to own the stadium. But Hollywood Park is asking $19 million for the property, and although that's below market value, according to Hollywood Park officials, it's $19 million that the NFL never had to pay owners in Baltimore, St. Louis, Nashville and Cleveland.

If Los Angeles could deliver a stadium with no financial liabilities to a prospective owner, NFL officials have indicated that the city would be awarded an expansion team by next fall, to begin play immediately.

The new downtown sports arena deal will work against Los Angeles in gaining NFL favor because the owner of the Kings continued to give ground in lengthy negotiations with the City Council, undoubtedly empowering city officials in future negotiations to fight from surrendering public money.

The NFL requires public assistance on its stadium projects because it does not wish to establish the precedent of approving a private project, reducing its leverage in cities where referendums are scheduled seeking public money.

"Let's face it," Wilson said, "L.A. is a prime candidate to become the 32nd team, if it just gets a stadium."

The NFL will now assemble plans on how to stockpile a new Browns' roster and set an expansion price. Los Angeles and Houston will be invited to all future owners' meetings but probably will be asked to move forward in the next year without any clear rules of engagement.

"It's simple, really," an NFL executive said while watching the Academy Awards. "Take a walk through that audience and you could easily get enough stars to put up $5 million each to build a stadium and own an NFL team. Those people live in million-dollar homes they never use; the money we're talking about wouldn't bother them in the least."

And then the team could really be called the Los Angeles Stars.

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