After months of searching, Los Angeles officials this month finally found someone willing to put up the money to bring a National Football League team to the Memorial Coliseum.
There’s just one problem: Few Angelenos seem very excited about the prospect.
Only a handful of city representatives traveled to Coronado last week to persuade NFL owners to support the proposal by Los Angeles Kings owners Ed Roski Jr. and Philip Anshutz.
There were no busloads of L.A. football fans, no Chamber of Commerce delegation. The city’s top official, Mayor Richard Riordan, stayed home for a relatively light public schedule that included attending a concert by the group “Sol y Canto.”
“Of all the people that have lost football teams, it seems to have bothered L.A. the least,” said Frank Deford, a national sports columnist for Newsweek and commentator for National Public Radio. “I don’t seem to recall any sort of wounded cry, relative to what happened in Baltimore or Cleveland. Even in Houston there was some sort of cry. The feeling seems to be (the Raiders) weren’t very good anyway, and now we can watch more football on TV.”
One poll suggests that half the city’s population doesn’t even know that L.A. is without a pro football team at the moment. And the consensus among City Council members seems to be that bringing NFL football back to the Coliseum is fine just so long as the public doesn’t have to spend a dime.
“This needs to be a private sector endeavor,” said Councilwoman Laura Chick. “I’m just not interested in putting down a whole big plate of gold public gold in front of them (NFL owners) to get their attention.”
Council President John Ferraro, who played football in the Coliseum while attending USC, acknowledges that the public demand for football has been more of a whimper than a roar.
Even so, Ferraro and other Coliseum boosters insist the support is there it’s just hidden.
“There hasn’t been a strong clamoring for a football team, but at the same time I think down deep they want a football team because of the prestige,” Ferraro said.
Steve Soboroff, vice chair of Football L.A. and a senior advisor to Riordan, insists that public support for pro football is strong.
Soboroff says he is constantly beseiged by people asking “when’s the football team coming out. Everyone asks about football. It’s ridiculous.”
But compare L.A.’s efforts to get pro football with those of Jacksonville, Fla.
When Jacksonville was the underdog competing with Baltimore and St. Louis for a franchise team in 1993, city officials ponied up more than $144 million for rebuilding the stadium, a business group sold 10,000 club seats at $1,500 a piece in just over a week, and the mayor, city council members and chamber of commerce representatives attended numerous NFL meetings.
“Everyone in Jacksonville recognized it was a tremendous opportunity to build a unifying force,” said Dave Auchter, spokesman for the Jacksonville Jaguars, now in its second season.
By contrast, the only city representatives present at the NFL owners meeting last week were Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas and Soboroff.
Furthermore, unlike the $15 million club seat commitment Jacksonville business leaders presented four years ago, Roski and Anschutz presented only 50 commitments of $10,000 apiece from L.A. business leaders for deposits on proposed luxury suites that would be built as part of a renovated Coliseum.
“That does not sound impressive to me at all,” said Brad Penman, a division manager with The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based sports promotion firm. “That doesn’t seem like a huge amount of interest.”
Charles C. Reed, the fund-raiser for the Coliseum seats, countered that he was told by Ridley-Thomas and Riordan to raise only $500,000 and that it took only 53 calls to corporate leaders to get 50 pledges of support.
“It was an easy sale, let me tell you that,” Reed said. “They’re good corporate citizens that’s the bottom line.”
Others said that there was no purpose in sending a huge delegation to Coronado.
“I think Mark was representing us and doing a very good job,” said Councilman Joel Wachs. “You don’t need a million people at one meeting to convey your serious intentions.”
But apart from the size of the delegation, the lack of any visible grass-roots campaign for football suggests that L.A. residents have other things on their mind besides football.
Chick notes that pro football ticket prices put games out of reach for many people.
“A lot of people are saying that at the cost of tickets, who can afford to come to games these days?” Chick said. “A lot of people are getting to feel that it’s not an affordable pastime for them as far as going to games.”
Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association, blamed the lack of widespread support for a football team in L.A. on the large number of residents in the city who are transplants from other cities, and still have allegiances to their home teams.
“Is there a cry for a football team? No,” Close said. “It’s shocking the second largest city in the country without a football team, and there’s not a grassroots effort to get one.”
And because L.A. doesn’t have its own football team, Close said, it means that more television time is given to teams from other cities.
“Because we don’t have a professional team here, we get to see more games on television during the week, and therefore more of the ‘home’ teams are being shown,” Close said, referring to teams from L.A. residents’ home cities.
Indeed, Angelenos seem to be big fans of football when it’s on television. During the 1996-97 season, Fox Broadcasting Co. affiliate KTTV-TV Channel 11 attracted an average of 31 percent of L.A. television viewers for NFL football.
On KABC-TV Channel 7, “Monday Night Football” attracted 30 percent of L.A. television viewers during the 1996-97 football season the highest share in three years.
But when it comes to translating the television audience to a stadium audience in L.A., the challenge could be great. After all, according to a recent Los Angeles magazine poll of 1,001 residents, only 54.2 percent of residents knew that L.A. no longer has an NFL team. The Raiders left town for Oakland more than two years ago.
Ridley-Thomas, the councilman who has led the push for the return of football to the Memorial Coliseum, said that a recent poll conducted by Lawrence Research tells a different story.
According to that poll, 84 percent of Angelenos, with a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent, favor having a new NFL expansion team come to L.A.
“Our poll data suggests that there is substantial support,” Ridley-Thomas said.
But the poll also noted a laundry list of problems involving the Memorial Coliseum that would need to be overcome. Respondents want secure on-site parking, increased security and safety, more and better restroom facilities, better lighting, and shuttle trams between parking structures and the Coliseum.
Ridley-Thomas, however, said the reconstruction plans call for adding all these amenities and more by essentially building a completely new stadium within the walls of the aging Coliseum.
Deford said that the Coliseum because of those problems, as well as long-standing attitudes about the amount of crime in the neighborhood may prevent a new football team from succeeding there.
“It’s an attitude, and you just can’t overcome that kind of prejudice,” Deford said. “I wouldn’t put it in the Coliseum it just doesn’t make sense to me.”