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Villaraigosa Offers Warning to the NFL

Times Staff Writers

The message from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to the NFL: The longer the league takes to return a football team to Los Angeles, the more people in the city will forget why they wanted a team in the first place.

That warning was offered Wednesday by the mayor after Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, was quoted in The Times as saying that under certain circumstances, investing in a team in Los Angeles might not be an attractive proposition.

“I wasn’t happy with what I read in the paper,” Villaraigosa said in an appearance on KFI-AM radio.

“In some ways, why we haven’t had a team here all these years is they’ve attempted to leverage us,” he said. “My hope is that they are going to realize there are a lot of people who want a football team, but every year that they are not here is one more year where people start to forget.

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“We need a football team here,” Villaraigosa told radio host Rikki Kleiman. “It’s the entertainment capital of America, and we need a football team here. What I’ve said, though, is we’re not spending public money for it. We’re not going to subsidize the building of stadiums.”

Villaraigosa’s remarks were consistent with the position of his predecessor, Mayor James K. Hahn. But they were nonetheless notable as his most forceful statement on the issue of a Los Angeles football team since his election in May.

As the deadline approaches for competing football venues to present deals to the league, Villaraigosa’s comments served as a public reminder to NFL owners that the change in the city administration had not put public subsidies for a new team back on the table.

In its current round of negotiations, the league has not asked for public money. If it returns to the Los Angeles area, the NFL will pay for the construction of a stadium and then pass along the costs to the owner of the franchise.

NFL owners are meeting in Chicago this week to discuss their contract with the players’ union and the related issue of revenue sharing, in which large-market teams effectively subsidize teams in smaller cities in order to improve the ability of smaller teams to compete. A majority of owners -- but not Jones -- favor retooling the revenue-sharing system.

Jones, who has long promoted the importance of the league returning to the nation’s second-largest market, said the efforts to bring a team to Los Angeles probably would fail if team owners were required to share a higher percentage of the revenue they generated.

By Jones’ estimate, the cost of occupying the Los Angeles market -- not factoring in the price of the franchise -- could easily approach $150 million a year. Therefore, he said, the owner of a Los Angeles franchise would need all the revenue streams currently available to pay down that debt.

Jones said a Los Angeles owner would have to “go out and be aggressive, hustle, build a fan base, and not necessarily make money compared to what the capital would make in another business that’s going to go into L.A.”

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While the NFL has identified returning to Los Angeles as a priority, working out the league’s financial issues is more pressing.

That does not mean the effort to get a Los Angeles-area team has stalled, however. The league has issued an October deadline for the competing sites -- the Coliseum, Anaheim and possibly the Rose Bowl -- to have ready-to-sign deals in place so that owners can choose a proposal if they desire. Villaraigosa said he had already held preliminary talks about bringing an NFL team back.

Hahn, who had made comments similar to Villaraigosa’s, was criticized for not playing a more active role in trying to get a team for Los Angeles. It remains to be seen how active Villaraigosa will be in trying to bring a team to the Coliseum, just south of downtown.

NFL Vice President Joe Browne declined to comment on the situation except to say, “Our office prefers to continue to deal with the mayor and his staff privately and not in the media.”

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In the decade since the NFL last played in Los Angeles, owners have routinely espoused the importance of bringing the league back to the nation’s second-largest television market.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in December that having a team in Los Angeles was a “top priority.”

Councilman Bernard Parks, whose district includes the Coliseum, said he and Coliseum commissioners were keeping Villaraigosa up to date on issues involving the NFL. Parks said he was not concerned about the revenue sharing issue, but said it would have to be resolved by the owners through collective bargaining before any potential Los Angeles team owner could decide whether a deal made financial sense.

“It’s a business decision that an owner must know what a stadium can produce,” Parks said.

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A source familiar with the negotiations, but who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if a deal was completed by the October owners meeting, it might be helpful for the mayor to attend the meeting to promote the agreement.

The mayor said Wednesday that he looked forward to a privately-financed deal to bring football back. An aide said the mayor was not ruling out traveling to meet with NFL owners once a deal was completed.

“We think the Coliseum would be a great place, and we think there would be private-sector people who would be willing to bring a team here and do what we need to do to make that team successful,” Villaraigosa said.

As if to put a point on his warning that Angelenos may lose passion for a return of football, Villaraigosa was scheduled to go Wednesday night to the Coliseum for a sport that is gaining in popularity locally: He was to attend the soccer match between Chivas de Guadalajara and Club America.

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