By DANIEL TAUB

Staff Reporter

During a meeting last week in which Michael Ovitz presented to the Coliseum's governing board his plan for bringing pro football to L.A., the word "they" was on everyone's lips.

"Did they say ?" "If they didn't want " "They have no interest in "

In the long and sometimes aggravating struggle to bring a new National Football League team to L.A., much discussion, newsprint and speculation has been devoted to what "they" want, what "they" are demanding and when "they" will make a decision about L.A. landing an NFL franchise.

But just who are "they"?

The NFL staff? Commissioner Paul Tagliabue? The league's team owners?

In fact, the people making decisions about Los Angeles comprise a relatively small group. Easily the most important person is the co-chairman of the NFL expansion committee, Jerry Richardson.

Richardson, owner of the Carolina Panthers and a one-time wide receiver for the Baltimore Colts, talks on a weekly basis to Eli Broad and Edward P. Roski Jr., lead investors in New Coliseum Partners LLC, as well as to Ovitz, who is competing against them to bring a new team to the Coliseum.

Richardson, whom The Sporting News last December named one of the 100 most powerful people in sports, has taken the lead on the L.A. issue and exerts great control within the league. Even though Houston, which has been competing with Los Angeles for NFL's next expansion team, has a much stronger package on paper, Richardson was able to convince team owners to vote 29-2 to place an expansion team in Los Angeles.

Richardson's influence will grow in importance as specific proposals and franchise fees are considered. His committee will eventually recommend an ownership and stadium plan to NFL owners, at which time he'll be lobbying for the two-thirds vote needed for approval meaning he has to get 23 other owners to sign on.

"Jerry is the advocate for Los Angeles," said John Semcken, executive vice president of New Coliseum Partners. "And so we're dealing with him. His main goal is that 24 votes. He's got to get 24 votes. So he's trying to understand the best he can the situation in Los Angeles. So that's what our job is to help him understand."

Because most of the league's 31 owners are involved in other business ventures in addition to running their own teams, they typically defer to committee chairs for many decisions, said David M. Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, an L.A.-based sports marketing firm. For expansion issues, that person is Richardson.

"They know he's a formidable player in the picture and they feel comfortable deferring to him on these matters," Carter said. "He certainly would be a major consensus builder. If he thought a plan worthwhile, he would build a significant number of votes."

Richardson is considered a positive influence for L.A. because of his experience in convincing the NFL to bring an expansion team to Charlotte, N.C.

"He's clearly very knowledgeable about this process bringing an expansion team into a community, building a stadium, marketing a new team to a community all of which is going to happen in Los Angeles," said Mark Fabiani, an adviser to Ovitz.

Richardson's counterpart on the NFL's professional staff is Roger Goodell, the league's executive vice president. Goodell, who started working for the league as a public relations assistant in 1982, is the NFL's main point man for L.A.'s two competing ownership groups and for the Coliseum Commission.

"You do deal with staff people occasionally, like their financial people or their logistical people, but generally it's Roger Goodell," said Pat Lynch, the Coliseum's general manager.

Tagliabue, while typically letting Goodell handle the L.A. matter, has also demonstrated a strong interest in Los Angeles. Last week, with Goodell out of the offices undergoing surgery on his shoulder, Ovitz said he had been dealing directly with Tagliabue to update him on his meeting with the Coliseum Commission.

"He's going to be calling me tonight, because he wants to know what went on," Ovitz said after last Wednesday's meeting.

The other major NFL player involved with L.A. is Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who co-chairs the league's expansion committee with Richardson. Kraft, however, has been occupied with his own team, which until recently was contemplating a move to Hartford, Conn. Last month, Massachusetts lawmakers approved a plan to contribute $70 million toward a new, $225 million facility that would keep the team in the state.

"I think he has been distracted with what he is doing," Carter said. "He could be a critical player, but he has to defer (to Richardson) on some of these matters because of the timing of his situation."

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