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Meetings with fans of NFL teams eyeing L.A. move have lots of passion, little sway

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With Oakland, San Diego and St. Louis eyeing a relocation to Los Angeles, the NFL took the unprecedented step this week of holding public hearings in those cities to give fans the chance to voice their concerns and frustrations, and show their suppo

Joey Seimas, an air-traffic controller who made the three-hour drive from Fresno, stood at a lectern Thursday night in the elegant and cavernous Paramount Theater. On stage sat four of the NFL’s top executives, in their Park Avenue business attire, listening intently to every word.

Seimas wore his Sunday best — the jersey of his beloved Oakland Raiders, his hair and face painted silver, and bulky shoulder pads adorned with upright bullets that served as spikes.

“I’m pleading with you guys and the NFL owners,” said Seimas, who goes by the nickname Maniac. “This is our team. We have spent years fixing it. It was messed up. They came back and we repaired the damage, not fully, but everybody loves coming to the Raider games now. We sell out even when we don’t win any games.”

With the Raiders, the San Diego Chargers and the St. Louis Rams eyeing a relocation to Los Angeles, the NFL took the unprecedented step this week of holding public hearings in those cities to give fans the chance to voice concerns and frustrations, and show support of the teams.

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Raiders owner Mark Davis reaches to shake a fan's hand during an NFL hearing where fans pleaded to keep the franchise in Oakland.

Raiders owner Mark Davis reaches to shake a fan’s hand during an NFL hearing where fans pleaded to keep the franchise in Oakland.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The three-hour meetings, held on consecutive nights in downtown theaters, were more listening sessions for the NFL than back-and-forth exchanges with fans, who registered online for free passes to the events. The league also streamed the hearings online.

“What I got from the crowd was the passion and emotion,” said Eric Grubman, the NFL executive vice president who arranged the hearings. “There were a couple of ideas to think about. But this is not the time to negotiate. We weren’t trying to negotiate with the crowd. What we were trying to do was give them a voice, and be able to carry that voice back, and that happened pretty effectively.

“For them, I think it was very cathartic, and you heard that in their voices in three cities.”

Onstage with Grubman were Cynthia Hogan, senior vice president of public policy; Chris Hardart, vice president of corporate development; and league attorney Jay Bauman.

Attendance numbers are a point of contention because some fans believe those could influence NFL owners. After the second night, the league reported there were 800 attendees in St. Louis and 450 in San Diego, and that no one had been turned away at the door.

The report angered fans in St. Louis who argued there were closer to 1,500 people at the Peabody Opera House for their hearing. Unable to retroactively check the St. Louis number, reporters counted by hand in San Diego and the NFL’s estimate checked out. A hand count of the attendance in Oakland was 382, and the league said about 60 more trickled in during the meeting.

How much sway these meetings have with the league’s owners is open to debate. They are trying to decide whether to give the green light to move to Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who is pursuing a stadium on the old Hollywood Park site in Inglewood, or the combination of Chargers owner Dean Spanos and Raiders owner Mark Davis, who are jointly backing a competing concept in Carson.

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San Diego Chargers fan Renan Pozo, also known as "The Mask," fires up Chargers fans before the start of an NFL hearing about possible relocation to L.A.

San Diego Chargers fan Renan Pozo, also known as “The Mask,” fires up Chargers fans before the start of an NFL hearing about possible relocation to L.A.

(Hayne Palmour IV / San Diego Union-Tribune)

If all continues on its current track — and little has gone according to plan in this 20-year saga of the NFL’s returning to L.A. — the owners will be prepared to cast a vote on a solution by mid-January. It would require a three-quarters majority of 32 votes to pass, but it’s expected the league will have quietly negotiated a decision with owners before any vote is taken.

Many of the people who attended the hearings believe they were a mere academic exercise, an exit interview of sorts, while others were hoping a strong showing could tip the scales in favor of a city trying to keep its team.

Grubman said he believes NFL owners were paying attention.

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“I’ve gotten emails from owners, including owners that are on the [L.A.] committee, just reflecting the fact that they watched part of it,” he said. “We’ve had requests for the material to be presented in a way that makes it easy for them to see it. We’ve had requests from owners for the comments to be summarized. We’ve had questions from the commissioner on ways that it could be put together. So I have lots of evidence that people are watching.”

There were unique aspects to each of the events.

The one in St. Louis felt at times like a courtroom, with several speakers questioning Grubman and looking to pin him down on whether Kroenke had satisfied the relocation guidelines and exhausted all stadium solutions there. The proceeding was orderly but passionate, with attendees shushing the occasional catcalls so they could hear every word.

The NFL wasn’t sure what to expect, so security was ramped up for the first hearing — including metal detectors and an explosives-sniffing dog — but it was increasingly relaxed the next two nights.

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In San Diego, the hearing felt more like sitting in the stands for a game. Fans cheered, chanted “No way L-A!” and almost booed Chargers special counsel Mark Fabiani off the stage when he made his welcoming comments.

Oakland was unique in that Davis attended, the only owner to do so, and received a standing ovation when he greeted the crowd to kick off the event. He later stood at the lectern and said he was doing everything he could to keep the team in the market, and stuck around afterward for photos with many of the fans.

In each of the cities, the speakers were variously angry, nostalgic and sometimes even tearful. Most were applauded and supported by the crowd.

“Standing here feels like speaking for an innocent defendant in the sentencing segment of a trial,” a woman at the St. Louis hearing told the league representatives. “The St. Louis Rams fans are the defendant, and we’ve done nothing to have this death threat hanging over our heads since January.”

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The NFL executives were bleary-eyed after nine hours of hearings in three nights.

“To hear from these people how much these teams mean to them is pretty unbelievable,” Hogan said. “And it’s pretty moving. From our perspective that’s great, that’s what we’re trying to create. But obviously if you’re a fan who thinks your team could move, that threat of loss is palpable.”

Even with that ominous possibility in the air, there was humor. That was unquestionably the case with one dedicated Raiders fan who was mindful of the long line of speakers behind him at the lectern.

“I’ll try to keep things quick; I know a lot of people want to talk,” he said. “Plus, my wife’s been waiting outside in the car for two and a half hours.”

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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