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L.A.'s the Bait; NFL Still Hasn’t Switched

Times Staff Writer

Jeff Arnold and the New Orleans Saints were both born in 1967, in what is seen as an inglorious year in these parts.

While Arnold went on to success as a banker and a member of the state House, the Saints became an emblem of failure. Once known derisively as the “Aints,” they have won one playoff game in their 38 seasons. Fans wearing brown paper bags on their heads to hide their shame might seem trite elsewhere, but it started here.

So Arnold could only look on with weary exasperation last week when government officials went behind closed doors to consider new ways to subsidize the team -- and found themselves fighting not just financial constraints, but the bogeyman. Lurking behind the negotiations was the specter that the team could pull up stakes and move to Los Angeles if the state could not come up with enough concessions to satisfy owner Tom Benson.

Since 1995, after the Rams and Raiders left, the National Football League has not had a team in Los Angeles. Some say that empty nest -- though it would seem, at first glance, a deficiency in the league lineup -- has actually reaped enormous dividends for the league and team owners.

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In cities across the nation -- Phoenix, Seattle, Indianapolis -- owners have used the absence of a Los Angeles franchise as leverage. They have extracted concessions worth hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers while threatening -- though it is rarely said explicitly, and doesn’t have to be -- to move to L.A.

“As pitiful as the Saints’ record has been, they still have had enormous fan support,” said Arnold, a Democrat who represents a district on the west bank of the Mississippi River, across from New Orleans. “It’s really aggravating for the average fan, who has been buying tickets for years, and paying $5 for a hot dog, to hear this. Where did we go wrong, exactly?”

The strategy has been a critical factor in the NFL’s stunning building boom; since 1995, stadiums have been newly built or renovated for 19 of the league’s 32 teams, including Jacksonville, the site of next Sunday’s Super Bowl. Though owners insist they have paid their fair share, the result has been a litany of amenities -- premium seats, luxury suites -- that have helped make the NFL the most profitable sports league in the country.

Some say the strategy has been such a success that Los Angeles, though it is the nation’s second-largest television market, is more valuable to the NFL without a team than it would be with one.

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“I’m suspicious whether the NFL owners really want to fill that void -- or whether it is in their interest to keep Los Angeles without a team,” said Louisiana Rep. Joe Toomy, a Republican. “Financially, they are taking full advantage of this, and it has worked against many communities, especially the smaller markets.”

The Saints declined to comment for this article.

The NFL has said it wants a team in Los Angeles by 2008 or 2009. League spokesman Greg Aiello said last week that the league has not determined whether it would be better to move an existing franchise or to start a new one -- adding a 33rd team, whose owners would pay the others as much as $800 million to join. Aiello said the NFL is concentrating on getting a stadium ready for a prospective Southern California team.

“We’re not dealing at all with who that team might be,” he said.

He rejected criticism that the league and its owners have used Los Angeles as leverage to win concessions from taxpayers, and noted that owners have invested mightily during the recent run of stadium projects, spending more than $1 billion.

Some analysts agree and say communities are willing to give so much public money to a private company because each team creates its own trickle-down economy. A recent University of New Orleans study estimated the Saints’ annual economic impact at $402 million. The city has also played host to nine Super Bowls, more than any other city. Though many economists dispute it, the NFL claims that Super Bowls now generate as much as $300 million apiece.

Stadium deals are essential to the success of an NFL franchise.

NFL teams share revenue from television broadcast rights and merchandising. That gives the league far more economic and competitive parity than, say, Major League Baseball, where large-market teams can negotiate their own lucrative cable contracts and often dominate small-market teams on the field.

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Many analysts point to NFL parity -- the notion that a team from Indianapolis can have a far more successful year than one from New York, as was the case this season -- as a key to its popularity. What it means, though, is that a primary way NFL owners can bring in more money, theoretically giving them a competitive edge, is through deals they make to play in or build a stadium.

Repeatedly, owners have launched campaigns to sign lucrative stadium deals -- often with extensive contributions from the public, and often with a reminder that the field might be greener in L.A.

In Seattle, concerns that the Kingdome was structurally unsound in 1996 prompted Ken Behring, then owner of the Seahawks, to weigh a move to Los Angeles -- putting him in the awkward position, some noted, of arguing that he needed to move to Southern California to avoid earthquakes.

Instead, the Kingdome was imploded and replaced. The Seahawks opened the doors of a $430-million stadium, now known as Qwest Field, in 2002. The public paid $300 million; now-owner Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, paid for the rest.

In the Phoenix area, the Cardinals will move into a new, $355-million stadium for the 2006 season, six years after voters approved a measure committing public money to the project.

The Cardinals -- while denying a report in the Los Angeles Times that they were considering a move to California if the measure failed -- spent more than $500,000 lobbying for approval. The team will pay less than a third of the stadium’s cost.

In Indianapolis, Colt owner Jim Irsay butted heads with the city last year, charging that his stadium -- the smallest in the NFL -- was dragging down revenues.

Irsay’s flirtation with Los Angeles was not subtle; at one point he applied for membership at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades. In December, he and Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson announced a deal to build a $690-million stadium. Taxpayers, in order to pay back bonds funding the bulk of the project, are expected to contribute $46 million annually for the next 30 years.

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Now it’s happening again in New Orleans. With Saint executives raising the possibility that the team might be forced to leave, state officials are trying to figure out how to pay for a $168-million renovation of the Louisiana Superdome.

The dome, the Saints’ home field, is owned by the state. It opened in 1975 and is the NFL’s seventh-oldest stadium. Team owner Benson has declared it obsolete and has demanded, among other things, more luxury suites, separate entrances for “premium” customers and wider concourses to enhance concession sales.

But Louisiana can’t afford even its existing obligations to the team. The last time the team threatened to leave, in 2001, the state agreed to give the team $186.5 million in cash. Last year, the state had to raid an economic development program to cover a $15-million installment.

“All states are experiencing this. It is a difficult time,” said Denise Bottcher, a spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Kathleen Blanco. “To subsidize the Saints at a bigger number than we are now, at the risk of cutting state services, is a tough position to be in.”

The irony, said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist and a professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, is that in the end, the NFL probably won’t let any of the franchises that have threatened to move actually do it. Zimbalist thinks it more likely that the NFL will add a new team.

Many analysts say the strategy of using Los Angeles for leverage is about to run its course -- just as communities and government officials are getting wise.

It is virtually certain that no public money, at least in the form of general funds, will go toward building a stadium or renovating an existing one in Los Angeles.

The rest of the nation will then realize that stadium projects can be completed with private money alone, said David Carter, an L.A. sports consultant who has been keenly involved in the effort to get an NFL team back in Southern California.

If that had been clear 10 years ago, team owners would have had no leverage because taxpayers would have called their bluff, Carter said. Instead, he said, “If Southern California goes last, the NFL gets the best of both worlds.”

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

NFL stadiums

AFC

Baltimore Ravens

M&T; Bank Stadium

Capacity: 69,084

Opened: Sept. 6, 1998

Cost: $220 million

Buffalo Bills

Ralph Wilson Stadium

Capacity: 73,967

Opened: Aug 17, 1973

Cost: $22 million

Cincinnati Bengals

Paul Brown Stadium

Capacity: 65,327

Opened: Sept. 10, 2000

Cost: $453 million

Cleveland Browns

Cleveland Browns Stadium

Capacity: 73,200

Opened: Sept. 12, 1999

Cost: $290 million

Denver Broncos

Invesco Field at Mile High

Capacity: 76,125

Opened: Sept. 10, 2001

Cost: $362 million

Houston Texans

Reliant Stadium

Capacity: 71,054

Opened: Sept. 8, 2002

Cost: $325 million

Indianapolis Colts

RCA Dome

Capacity: 56,127

Opened: Sept. 2, 1984

Cost: $82 million

Jacksonville Jaguars

Alltel Stadium

Capacity: 76,877

Opened: Aug. 18, 1995

Cost: $134 million

Kansas City Chiefs

Arrowhead Stadium

Capacity: 79,451

Opened: Aug. 12, 1972

Cost: $43 million

Miami Dolphins

Pro Player Stadium

Capacity: 75,540

Opened: Aug. 16, 1987

Cost: $115 million

New England Patriots

Gillette Stadium

Capacity: 68,436

Opened: May 11, 2002 (soccer); Sept. 9, 2002 (pro football)

Cost: $397 million

New York Jets

Giants Stadium

Capacity: 79,466

Opened: Oct. 10, 1976

Cost: $75 million

Oakland Raiders

Network Associates Coliseum

Capacity: 63,142

Opened: Sept. 18, 1966

Cost: $200 million (w/renovations)

Pittsburgh Steelers

Heinz Field

Capacity: 64,350

Opened: August 2001

Cost: $281 million

San Diego Chargers

Qualcomm Stadium

Capacity: 71,294

Opened: Aug. 20, 1967

Cost: $27 million

Tennessee Titans

The Coliseum

Capacity: 68,804

Opened: Sept. 12, 1999

Cost: $290 million

NFC

Arizona Cardinals

Sun Devil Stadium

Capacity: 73,243

Opened: Oct. 4, 1958

Cost: $1 million

Atlanta Falcons

Georgia Dome

Capacity: 71,228

Opened: Sept. 6, 1992

Cost: $210 million

Carolina Panthers

Bank of America Stadium

Capacity: 73,250

Opened: Sept. 14, 1996

Cost: $248 million

Chicago Bears

Soldier Field II

Capacity: 61,500

Opened: Sept. 29, 2003

Cost: $365 million

Dallas Cowboys

Texas Stadium

Capacity: 65,675

Opened: Oct. 24, 1971

Cost: $35 million

Detroit Lions

Ford Field

Capacity: 65,000

Opened: Sept. 22, 2002

Cost: $430 million

Green Bay Packers

Lambeau Field

Capacity: 72,569

Opened: Sept. 29, 1957

Cost: $960,000

Minnesota Vikings

Metrodome

Capacity: 64,121

Opened: Sept. 12, 1982

Cost: $68 million

New Orleans Saints

Superdome

Capacity: 68,390

Opened: Sept. 28, 1975

Cost: $134 million

New York Giants

Giants Stadium (see NY Jets)

Philadelphia Eagles

Lincoln Financial Field

Capacity: 68,400

Opened: Sept. 8, 2003

Cost: $320 million

St. Louis Rams

Edward Jones Dome

Capacity: 66,000

Opened: Nov. 12, 1995

Cost: $281 million

San Francisco 49ers

Monster Park

Capacity: 69,734

Opened: Oct. 10, 1971 (football); Aug. 20, 1961 (baseball)

Cost: $24 million

Seattle Seahawks

Qwest Field

Capacity: 67,000

Opened: Sept. 15, 2002

Cost: $450 million

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Raymond James Stadium

Capacity: 65,699

Opened: Sept. 20, 1998

Cost: $168.5 million

Washington Redskins

FedEx Field

Capacity: 86,484

Opened: Sept. 14, 1997

Cost: $300 million

Sources: NFL; Stadiumsofnfl.com


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