As National Football League team owners arrive in Los Angeles this week to decide which local site is best suited for an expansion team, they already have made one thing clear:
It's their show.
They're the ones deciding where the new team plays, who will own the team, and even what will be built around the stadium.
Which raises the inevitable questions: Who do these guys think they are, and how badly do L.A. business leaders and elected officials want an NFL team?
Badly enough to entertain the NFL's notion that one of the city's most beloved historical landmarks, Dodger Stadium, could be razed and the Dodgers moved to a new ballpark at Exposition Park? Badly enough for local officials to turn their backs on developer Edward Roski Jr., the man who is arguably most responsible for getting L.A.'s football bid to this point?
The answers to those questions and others will likely become clearer with the arrival of the 11 football team owners who make up the league's Expansion Committee.
"It's the NFL trying to exercise control," said one source close to the negotiations. "They're trying to show that they're running things."
From all appearances, they're succeeding.
What took many by surprise was word that the league had met with numerous local officials in early April about the possibility of having a rebuilt Coliseum for football and an adjacent ballpark for the Dodgers.
Also came news that a number of owners were still pushing for former Hollywood super-agent Michael Ovitz to become part of the Coliseum investment group. Ovitz, who has been working on his own stadium proposal in Carson, is not known for his business prowess, but he does know about Hollywood glitz and if there's anything that attracts the NFL more than a swift-running back, it's glitz.
"There are a lot of people who like Ovitz," said one source, who was told by NFL officials that 12 to 15 of the league's 31 team owners want the former Hollywood agent as a team owner.
That could be good news for Ovitz, but it's unsettling news for Roski. As of late last week, the league seemed intent on yanking away the exclusive rights to a stadium deal that Roski had cut with the Coliseum Commission. In this fast-moving game of rich-guys' chess, this was immediately interpreted as an indication that the NFL was looking to deep-six Roski.
Was any of that speculation true? Who knew? But the carefully crafted comments by NFL Executive Vice President Roger Goodell and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson were enough to signal that the NFL was prepared to call the shots.
And that signal wasn't greeted all that well.
"They can't treat us like they've treated a lot of other cities. They just can't," said one source close to the New Coliseum Partners LLC, the investment group led by billionaire Eli Broad and Roski that is working to bring an expansion team to the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. "We're just not in the same league. They need us more than we need them. That's the deal."
It's telling, though, that most of those comments were made off the record.
"None of us want to do anything to scare the NFL away," said the source. "That's why we don't want to be on the record and do anything to potentially harm the deal."
One of the more outspoken L.A. officials to speak on the record was L.A. City Councilman Mike Hernandez, in whose district Dodger Stadium is situated.
"I don't believe 24 men outside the city who are independently wealthy can come in and dictate what they want," said Hernandez, referring to the fact that at least 24 of the 31 NFL team owners must approve any deal with L.A.
"At least this councilman is saying that the NFL can't dictate to us. L.A. would like to have a football team, but we're not a wannabe city," he said. (Hernandez, of course, has little to lose from such talk. His council term ends in 2001 and he has publicly stated he does not intend to run for reelection.)
The NFL Expansion Committee is expected to decide between the two stadium sites being pitched in Los Angeles this Tuesday, April 20. The owners are expected to meet with local officials and business people, possibly tour the two sites, and make their decision by day's end. "The first step here is to focus on one site," said NFL spokesman Greg Aiello.
But it's becoming clear that the Coliseum is the one and only play. Even Ovitz said last week that he would be willing to give up his own plan if it meant getting a piece of the action at Exposition Park.
"Whether the site is Carson or the Coliseum, our group remains committed to being the owners and operators of the team," Ovitz said. "As I said from the beginning, we are willing to play wherever we are told to play. If the Coliseum opens up, then obviously we're going to look at it. The goal is to get a football team in Los Angeles, period. That's the goal."
Opening the possibility that Ovitz and his investors including supermarket magnate Ron Burkle and actors Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner could own a team at the Coliseum were indications from league officials that they want Roski's exclusive agreement scrapped.
That would allow the NFL to effectively put the L.A. team ownership up for bid, thereby generating a potentially larger franchise fee. "What the NFL wants to do is conduct an auction and pick an ownership team," said Alan I. Rothenberg, a member of the New Coliseum Partners investment group.
Neither Goodell nor Richardson returned calls for comment last week.
To break its deal with Roski, the Coliseum Commission has three options:
* It could start negotiating with either another ownership group or the NFL. Then that new group, or the league, would have to reimburse Roski for the money he has spent on plans and other expenses about $2.5 million at this point.
* The commission could rule that Roski's financial plans, which are still being developed, are not feasible and end its agreement, paying Roski nothing.
* It could end the agreement at any time by a unanimous vote of the nine-member commission, also paying nothing.
The last option is considered the least likely.
"I may be the president, and I'm just one vote, but I'm going to go home from the dance with the guy who brought me," said Sheldon Sloan, president of the commission, adding that any breaking of the agreement would have to be initiated by Roski. "And if he does that, that's fine with me. It's in his hands."
Roski, for his part, said last week he has no intention of ending the agreement.
"What do they want to do? Give it to Ovitz?" Roski said. "If they would like us to stand aside, we would have to talk to the Coliseum Commission to make sure, because I have a contract with them."
Roski added that he doubts the Coliseum Commission would want him to drop his exclusivity agreement, because he has been the main force behind getting the NFL interested in the Coliseum, where two unsuccessful NFL franchises previously played their home games.
"No one else was willing to do it, no one else was willing to come up front and spend the money and do it," Roski said. "As you know, this project was a non-starter until we stepped in and did it."
Broad, the lead investor in New Coliseum Partners, did not return calls for comment last week. In a statement, he said, "We recognize the right of the league owners to choose their partners. If the owners and the league find a more qualified ownership group, we will not stand in their way. We hope to reach an understanding with all parties shortly."
Asked about the exclusivity agreement, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan said, "I'm trying to be neutral on it. I'm trying to talk to each party and get a happy conclusion. Anything I might say might upset my value as a mediator."
But team ownership is not the only matter on which NFL owners are flexing their muscles.
There's that idea about building a new Dodgers ballpark at Exposition Park brought up by Goodell and Richardson in meetings with Riordan, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavksy, L.A. City Council President John Ferraro and others during their visit to L.A. earlier this month.
Some local officials, while saying the plan lacks enough details to determine its feasibility, said it nevertheless is compelling.
"I'm still mulling it over," Yaroslavksy said. "I think it has pluses and minuses. From an urban point of view, it is a great idea to have baseball return to the urban core of the city. On the other hand, Dodger Stadium is one of the most beautiful places in the world."
Added Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes Exposition Park: "They're trying to make this the premiere sports complex in the country, and I think that's a good thing on its face."
Bob Graziano, president of the Dodgers, a part of the Fox Sports division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said, "This is not an idea that the Dodgers are out there pushing."
But he's not dismissing it out of hand, either. "We basically heard them and didn't put any restrictions on them exploring the idea," Graziano said. "But again, we haven't had an opportunity to really explore the idea yet."
Local officials and others said last week that putting a baseball stadium in Exposition Park most likely where the aging Sports Arena currently stands is possible, although parking problems would have to be overcome. Exposition Park already draws considerable traffic to its California Science Center and other museums.
"If (the museums) were smart they would figure out a way to make it work, to keep museum-going a fresh event," said Michael Hallmark, principal of L.A.-based architectural firm NBBJ Sports & Entertainment. "It is definitely a viable model for Major League Baseball in L.A."
Hallmark, who designed the downtown Staples Center sports arena, which is co-owned by Roski, would not confirm nor deny whether he had been contacted to provide a feasibility plan for putting in a baseball stadium.
"Let's just say that it (a ballpark) fits," he said.
But James L. Powell, president and director of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, said that a ballpark in Exposition Park would cause serious problems for his museum and others in the park.
"If you just look at it from the point of view of the cultural institutions in the park the museums I think it would hurt our activities considerably," Powell said. He added that on days that USC's football team plays in the Coliseum, attendance at the Natural History Museum and California Science Center drops by 25 percent to 50 percent. That dropoff would be equally bad, or worse, on weekend days if a Dodgers game were being played at Exposition Park, he predicted.
Such an issue may never surface. "That's a non-event," Roski said of the baseball stadium idea. "I think it was floated and discounted. I don't think anybody's pursuing it or even looking at it now."
Whether that's true or merely Roski hoping to maintain the status quo remains to be seen.
But Angelenos won't have long to wait before answers begin to surface. The league has given L.A. until Sept. 15 to get a plan together before it turns its attention back to Houston, which is also seeking an expansion team.
"We're still trying to move the stadium situation forward, keeping an eye, obviously, on what's happening in Los Angeles, and looking at what other options might be there," said Steve Patterson, executive vice president of Houston NFL Holdings LLC. "The Sept. 15 deadline works for us in terms of trying to keep the project on track in terms of our partners here."
Staff reporters John Brinsley and Howard Fine contributed to this article.
For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.