By SARA FISHER and DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporters

So much for leverage.

When the Raiders left Los Angeles three years ago, sports boosters here argued that the National Football League would be quick to restore a team to the nation's No. 2 TV market in order to ensure lucrative broadcast rights.

That theory was exploded last week, with the NFL selling eight-year television contracts totalling $17.6 billion, a staggering 105 percent annual increase from the four-year, $4.3 billion deal penned in 1994.

"Especially based on the new TV contracts, in the short term (the NFL) is not being deleteriously affected by not having a team in L.A.," said Carmen Policy, general manager of the San Francisco 49ers and a member of the NFL's Finance Committee.

Indeed, "neither the absence of a Los Angeles team nor any future plans regarding it were factors in the television contract negotiations," said Greg Aiello, a National Football League spokesman.

So what's a town to do? Already, Los Angeles officials complain that the NFL has been less than enthusiastic about restoring a franchise here. How do you convince the league to take an interest when it doesn't appear to make any difference financially?

Kathryn Schloessman, president of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission, believes the answer lies in convincing the NFL that coming to Los Angeles is an easy way to increase profits.

"The L.A. market represents a tremendous money-making opportunity, not so much from television, since the contracts are done, but from merchandizing and franchise revenue," said Schloessman, whose organization is responsible for bringing major sporting events to the city.

"L.A. represents a huge spending power that is currently untapped," she said. "Just like any business, the NFL wants to maximize their revenues."

Policy agrees, saying that "in the long term, it's insane not to have a team in one of the nation's major markets. L.A. has been on a back burner, but it will be dealt with at some point."

But that may be later rather than sooner. The impression among NFL owners is that L.A. itself isn't in any hurry to get football back, said Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the NFL's Stadium Committee.

"I think (Los Angeles is) a little blas & #233;," Rooney said. "L.A. Raider games (were) all blacked out. What I'm saying to you is that the Raiders didn't mean that much to you."

Football viewership has, in fact, slightly increased in the Los Angeles area since the departure of the Raiders and the Rams after the 1994 season.

According to a study by Mark Rosentraub, director of the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University, 1.62 million L.A.-area households watched NFL football in 1996, compared with 1.57 million households in 1994.

That increase, however, was due to the growing popularity of ABC's "Monday Night Football," where viewership in L.A. increased 23.7 percent between 1994 and 1996.

With no home teams to root for, viewership on Sundays actually declined by 20.2 percent in Los Angeles from 1994 to 1996.

Why, then, did Monday night viewership rise?

Rosentraub noted that "Monday Night Football" is an "event" that generally doesn't rely on home-team audiences. "People watch the games as part of their Monday night activities regardless of the participation of their home or favorite teams," Rosentraub wrote.

Rosentraub's study was commissioned by the Los Angeles Ad Hoc Sports Franchise Committee as part of an effort to convince the NFL to restore a franchise here. But he found that the lost ad revenue is as low as $4.3 million a year not nearly enough to reduce the value of NFL rights to the TV networks.

"The loss to the NFL is a very small percentage," Rosentraub said in an interview.

For the TV networks, all of which own stations in L.A., substantial profits can be made by selling advertising for locally telecast home games. But Raiders home games at Memorial Coliseum only rarely sold out, meaning local games were blacked out.

"In the last several Raider seasons, television blackouts were the norm rather than the exception," said Neal Pilson, a sports-television consultant and former president of CBS Sports.

To make the economics of a team more attractive, the various proposals that have been floated for an NFL team here all call for a stadium in the 60,000-seat range to help ensure sell-out crowds.

To date, most of the city's leadership has rallied around a plan to build a smaller stadium within the walls of the historic Memorial Coliseum. Backers plan to present a revised plan to the NFL at its meetings in March, but Rooney of the Steelers is doubtful a plan can be approved so quickly.

"There are all kinds of different problems taxes, financing, location, access to the parkways and things like that," Rooney said. "It's not acceptable yet."

But Rooney, like Policy, believes it is in the long-term interest of the NFL to get football back in L.A.

Rosentraub's study does support the concept that L.A. football could be mean much more to the NFL than it does now. "There is clearly the potential for substantially more money to be earned if a popular and competitive team exists in the market," he wrote.

"If an NFL team in Los Angeles attracted the same level of fan interest as teams do in other markets, there is clear potential for substantial revenue gains through advertising fees," the study noted.

A team as popular as the Bears in Chicago, for example, could generate an additional $6.2 million in advertising revenue, while a team as popular as the Dallas Cowboys could generate nearly $20 million, the study said.

While the absence of L.A. on the NFL roster did not affect the price of television rights this year, it could have an impact down the road especially with the networks paying top dollar.

Under the new agreement with the NFL, Fox will carry the National Football Conference games for $4.4 billion, up from the $1.6 billion it payed under the current contract.

The rest of the networks won contracts at levels that are roughly double the current rates. CBS got the American Football Conference games for $4 billion, ABC will carry Monday night football for $4.4 billion, and ESPN gets exclusive cable rights for $4.8 billion.

"Networks are not going to negotiate those kind of deals in five years unless they make up a significant amount of it in ad revenue," Schloessman said. "Even loss leaders have to have a limit. In order to maximize their ad revenue, networks are going to want a presence in the second-largest TV market, which right now is just a missed opportunity to generate money."

But John Semcken, vice president of New Coliseum Partners, which seeks to build a new stadium within the Coliseum, says his group hasn't used TV for leverage up until now, and doesn't plan to do so in the future.

"Television was never a bargaining chip in our eyes because we knew that the TV contract being negotiated had nothing to do with us," he said. "Since the timing of getting a team to L.A. is entirely in the NFL's hands, all we can do is put together a plan that makes so much sense that the NFL would want to come to L.A as soon as possible," he said.

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