NFL: Out of our league

IF LOS ANGELES WERE a high school cheerleader, the National Football League would be the handsome quarterback. She thinks he's cute, and he thinks she's cool. But they never get to the prom because they're both worried about their reputations. She doesn't want to seem too easy, and he doesn't want to seem too eager.

After a decade of dithering by NFL owners on the question of whether and where to put a pro football team in Los Angeles, during which time construction costs have skyrocketed, the economic equation has changed so much that it may no longer pencil out. An estimate submitted to league owners on Tuesday by NFL staff suggested that it would cost $1 billion for a new or renovated stadium in the L.A. area, more than double the figure from a few years ago. And that's not counting the purchase price of a franchise, which is believed to average $898 million and would doubtless be more in L.A.

All this means a prospective owner would be on the hook for at least $2 billion. That's a hefty investment. You could buy a major metropolitan newspaper with that kind of money.

Pro football is dead in L.A. because the owners have put it on the back burner for years, more interested in using the threat of it to extorttaxpayer money from cities and playing potential stadium owners and sites against each other. A rise in TV ratings this year, and the fact that NFL games get a decent share in L.A. even without a local team, have also reduced the urgency level.

So what does the city stand to lose? Nothing concrete. L.A. may be the best-promoted city in the world, playing a starring role in countless movies, TV shows and commercials. It hardly needs a football team to put it on the map. Cities often justify the expense of publicly funded stadiums by playing up the economic benefits teams bring, especially if the city hosts a Super Bowl. But recent analyses have challenged that assumption.

What's really lost is not money, but the sense of community that a team like the Bears brings to a city like Chicago, the atmosphere in which everybody in the region is rooting for the same thing and barbershop quarterbacks can be heard everywhere dissecting the game everybody watched. That comes out occasionally in Los Angeles — when the Lakers are in the playoffs and purple flags flutter from car windows all over town — but it's a rarity. But when it comes to the nation's most popular sport, L.A. is a city of expats rooting for teams from there, not from here.

Few Angelenos will shed many tears if the latest cost estimates are the last nail in the coffin for pro football in L.A. Still, it would be an opportunity lost for the city and the NFL. And an intangible, but noticeable, loss of L.A.'s sense of itself.