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NFL Pulls End Run in Stadium Site Game

For an enterprise that seldom misses a chance to wrap itself in the American flag, the National Football League has always displayed a strange predilection for drawing its standards of political behavior less from Thomas Jefferson than, say, the Taliban.

There has been the identification of its own pecuniary interests with some moral or communal good -- as, for instance, when NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said of a 1997 plan to have the city of San Francisco help pay for a replacement for the 49ers’ Candlestick Park: “This is not a stadium project. It’s economic development in the truest sense of the word.”

There has been the ruthless manipulation of entire communities to extract the last measure of financial concession. There has been the traditional insistence that cities dig into the public purse to pay a share of stadium construction costs. Finally, there has been the dangling of riches that only the league can offer: Play it our way, and you can have this number of Super Bowls in the next so many years in your new stadium.

A few months ago, it appeared that the NFL had finally gotten its mind around the idea that these techniques would no longer work in Southern California. As my colleague James Flanigan wrote last week, the league now needs L.A. more than L.A. needs the league.

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Among other things, the NFL is under pressure to locate a team here to placate broadcasters, who have never been as complacent as the NFL brass about not having a home team in the nation’s No. 2 TV market. As for the notion that taxpayers in this region would ever vote to contribute even a dime for the benefit of the NFL’s multimillionaire ownership club, everyone knows that on the gonna-happen scale, that’s a not.

But the NFL is the type of organization that will never admit it can’t have its way. Deprived of the leverage that comes from playing St. Louis or Houston off of L.A. in the quest for franchises, it has now chosen to slice the baloney a bit thinner by pitting Carson against Pasadena.

As you may know, Paul Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner, last week shocked the latter community by announcing that a proposal to place a stadium on a patch of waste land in Carson was “symmetrical” -- i.e., equivalent -- to Pasadena’s $500-million plan to convert the Rose Bowl into a top-shelf pro football venue. The league agreed to put up as much as $10 million in good-faith money to get the Carson plan going.

This blindsided people in Pasadena, who say they have been working with the NFL for 10 months to craft a suitable proposal without hearing the slightest hint that the league was weighing a competing plan. If anything, they say, they were lulled into believing they were miles ahead of any local rivals.

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“We’ve done exactly what they asked us to do, and the way they’ve asked us to do it,” groused Bill Thomson, a former Pasadena mayor who is on the Rose Bowl board, when I reached him a few days after the league’s announcement.

John Moag, an investment banker who is leading the charge to bring an NFL team to Pasadena, says he too is mystified by the league’s behavior.

“I know the league pretty well,” says Moag, who paved the way for the Cleveland Browns to move to Baltimore, “and I’m not sure I know what their agenda is. I don’t have a clue.”

The city and the Rose Bowl Operating Co. had developed a design that would renovate the landmark stadium; make it a more intimate venue for football by reducing its capacity from 100,000 to 60,000 seats; and install up to 140 luxury boxes. The costs would be borne by the NFL, and the new stadium would produce $40 million to $45 million a year in revenue for the league, which Thomson says met its specifications. Enough money would be left over for the city to cover more than $2 million in annual debt service on existing Rose Bowl bonds. “We would end up with a new stadium, debt-free,” Thomson says.

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The city did throw in a few specifications of its own. Some were aimed, in the words of Mayor Bill Bogaard, at “preserving and protecting Arroyo Seco,” the woodsy and rugged section of town where the stadium is located. These included a mandate to reduce by 25% game-day parking around the Bowl, possibly by making motorists park in Old Pasadena and shuttle to the stadium by bus. The city also demanded four Super Bowls over 15 years, Moag says, and made clear that there would be absolutely no public funding of the project.

Other than the league expressing some doubt about all those Super Bowls, Thomson says, “there’s been no indication that any particular point would be a deal breaker.”

This is not the first time a local community has felt skinned by the NFL. Back in 1987, fans might recall, the city of Irwindale forked over a $10-million “good faith” payment to Al Davis to lure his Raiders from the L.A. Coliseum. He moved back to Oakland instead but kept the money. (Davis is not exactly part of the NFL mainstream, but one imagines that even his enemies inside the league admired his gall, if quietly.)

NFL officials say the latest misunderstanding may have arisen because Pasadena simply overestimated its standing in the stadium stakes -- misconstruing silence for assent, so to speak. In fact, the league never had any intention of ending its search for alternative venues for an L.A. team. “It’s still very early in the process,” Greg Aiello, an NFL spokesman, told me. “There’s never been any exclusivity agreements made with Pasadena or the Rose Bowl.”

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Aiello concedes, however, that the L.A. process is unique in terms of the league’s role in selecting a playing site from among competing proposals before committing itself to providing a team. Usually it’s a team owner, with franchise in hand, who plays communities against one another to wring money out of the taxpayers. Aiello couldn’t summon up another case in which the league itself held the promise of a franchise just out of reach while rival municipalities nipped at each other’s behinds like puppies in a litter.

No team is in L.A. because “we don’t have a suitable stadium,” he says. “If we can get a stadium, then we can deliver a team one way or another.”

The NFL has thus placed itself in position of fostering a contest that is uniquely wasteful in time and effort. The league hasn’t said very precisely what factors would make the Carson site conclusively superior to the Rose Bowl, or vice versa. Nor has it promised that the two communities ultimately will be the only contenders.

For all anyone knows, the league may be marking time to see if Malcolm Glazer, already the owner of the NFL Tampa Bay Buccaneers, succeeds in buying the Dodgers and proves amenable to adding a football stadium to Chavez Ravine.

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“They continue playing one site against another,” Thomson says. “That’s their way of hoping to get a better economic deal for themselves, and that’s the one thing we are not going to do.”

That said, it also may be true that Pasadena was just a little naive in thinking it was close to forging an exclusive deal with an organization as conniving as the NFL. Elements of the Rose Bowl plan may not strike the league as quite as appealing as the city fathers believe. Mayor Bogaard believes that having football fans park in Old Pasadena will expose them to the district’s restaurants and other charms; the NFL, I suspect, would see the plan more as an invitation for its own customers to spend money in places where the league doesn’t get a cut.

The Pasadena forces also speak fervently of the Rose Bowl’s bucolic setting and natural beauty. They seem to regard such features as a plus the NFL is sure to appreciate, possibly forgetting that this league has two of its premier teams, the New York Giants and Jets, playing in a reclaimed swamp.

But the biggest downside for Pasadena may be that, as much as it hopes an NFL franchise will shore up the Rose Bowl’s crumbling financial foundation, the city also expects pro football to fit almost seamlessly into the civilized environment the stadium’s neighbors now enjoy.

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“We’re trying to strike a balance,” Bogaard told me, “between meeting the financial needs of the Rose Bowl for the next 25 years and preserving other community values that are just as important.”

The betting here is that the NFL would be happier playing in an antiseptic environment that is hermetically sealed off from carping neighbors. Such as, for instance, a landfill in Carson.

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Golden State appears on Mondays and Thursdays. Michael Hiltzik can be

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reached at golden.state@latimes.com.


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