A city in waiting, L.A. works hard on returning to NFL

  • Article by: JIM RAGSDALE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 30, 2011 - 10:49 AM

One of the nation's largest television markets has been without an NFL team since the Rams and Raiders left town in the 1990s.

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In a file image released by AEG, a proposed NFL football stadium, to be named Farmers Field, is depicted next to Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Photo: Associated Press

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LOS ANGELES - While Minnesota grinds it out at midfield in its attempt to hold on to the Minnesota Vikings, pro-football-deprived Southern California believes it has the end zone in sight.

With a population five times that of the Twin Cities, the Los Angeles region is finally getting serious about building a football palace and wooing a National Football League team to either a sports-and-entertainment mecca downtown or atop a vacant hillside in the aptly named City of Industry.

It's not time for Minnesotans to panic, but the historical parallels are scary. The downtown site would be privately funded and next to the home of the basketball Lakers, a team Los Angeles snatched a half-century ago -- from Minneapolis.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,'' said Los Angeles City Council Member Jan Perry, whose district would include the downtown stadium and who chairs a city committee negotiating with developers. "Frankly, we just need a team.''

The Vikings do not appear to be L.A.'s top pick. The likeliest target appears to be the San Diego Chargers, a team long unhappy with its obsolete stadium. "It's theirs to lose,'' said John Ireland, a plugged-in sports talk host at 710 ESPN.

"It would be incredibly weird, that the Lakers came from Minneapolis, and then if the Vikings came, we'd have two teams named the Lakers and the Vikings,'' Ireland said. "We have no lakes and no Scandinavians -- except all the blonde models who have moved to Hollywood to try to become actors.''

But the Vikings have talked with developers for the Los Angeles and Industry sites. The team is without a lease as of January, and the road to a new, publicly subsidized stadium in Minnesota has been fraught with tough politics, regional conflicts and severe budget constraints.

Southern California's plans are coming together now, after 15 years of ill-fated attempts, only because state and local taxes are finally off the table. The region is home to two National Hockey League teams, two Major League Baseball teams and two National Basketball Association teams. It once had two NFL teams but lost both in the mid-1990s, when the Rams decamped to St. Louis and the Raiders commuted back to Oakland.

That has left 12 million people in the metro area and 6 million in outlying counties without local pro football. "Whoever comes here is just going to be printing money," Ireland said.

Downtown rising

A decade ago developers moved two NBA teams and one NHL team into a new arena, the Staples Center, near its Convention Center on the fringe of downtown. Developers added hotel towers and a 3- million-square-foot city-within-a-city of music venues, upscale restaurants and night spots called "LA Live." Once known for low-income housing and by-the-hour hotels, the district now glows with a blue neon aura at night and is ringed by high-end lofts.

Sports and entertainment conglomerate AEG, which owns or manages arenas around the world, wants to add a roofed football palace to its empire, privately funded and costing $1.2 billion. AEG developed Staples Center and LA Live.

Although the downtown site is the newer plan, recent signs indicate it is surging ahead.

In February, Farmers Insurance paid a reported $700 million for naming rights to the new stadium. In August, the Los Angeles City Council gave initial approval for developers to tear down an old wing of the Convention Center and break ground on Farmers Field.

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill to expedite legal challenges, and an environmental review is underway. AEG hopes to begin construction this summer.

"Of course, all of that is contingent on them getting a team,'" Perry said.

Meanwhile, real estate mogul Ed Roski is promoting the 600-acre hilltop site in the City of Industry, a business community with more trucks than residents. That site is nearly 25 miles from downtown, away from the sea breezes and set among the contiguous suburbs marching into the haze of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Like supporters of the Arden Hills Vikings' site, Industry promoters say their site is more centrally located for the region's population, with ample land for tailgating and the commercial and retail developments that could pump new life into their city.

'Not trying to steal your team'

Which brings us to the List, which local stadium-watchers update obsessively. In addition to the Chargers and Vikings, other targets include New York's Buffalo Bills, Florida's Jacksonville Jaguars, the Oakland-to-L.A.-to-Oakland Raiders, the San Francisco 49ers and the St. Louis Rams (another ex-L.A. team).

Officials of the two firms are hesitant to speak about team-shopping and declined comment for this story. The one exception was when AEG president Tim Leiweke said to a Minnesota reporter: "I'm not trying to steal your team -- for te record.''

Ireland and his sports-talk partner, Steve Mason, still think the Chargers are the likeliest candidates, but, Mason added, "The fact that Minnesota has struggled to put together a stadium proposal because of the amount of public dollars that are required, that raises the stakes a little bit.''

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf says he is committed to keeping the team in Minnesota, but faithful Vikings watchers note that Wilf does own properties in San Diego and has funded two Hollywood film ventures in addition to spending part of this summer in Southern California.

By January, when the Vikings play their last game at the Metrodome, it will be the only NFL team without a lease or permanent home.

Not everyone in L.A. wants the Vikings here.

Mike Gray owns the Varsity Sports Bar on Wilshire Boulevard, where customer Ed Spyra, organizer of the West L.A. Vikings fan club, convenes meetings to watch Vikings' games. Both are lifelong and long-suffering fans of the team, even though neither is from Minnesota and both live here. Gray has decorated one wall with historic pennants of the two teams Los Angeles famously stole -- the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Minneapolis Lakers. And while the Minnesota Vikings pennant has the highest billing, he and Spyra view the idea of the "L.A. Vikings" as sacrilege.

"I've been a Minnesota Vikings fan since I was 10 years old, so I don't think I'd want that,'' said Gray, a former disc jockey who once left a Catalina Island gig by helicopter to make kickoff at a Vikings-Raiders exhibition game in Los Angeles. "I want to see the games of the Minnesota Vikings, not the L.A. Vikings," he said.

"Me neither,'' said Spyra whose uncle's love of the Vikings drew him to the purple side. "They belong in Minnesota.''

While moguls and the sporting elite planned their multi-million-dollar sports palace, Los Angeles City Hall was ringed with "Occupy L.A." tents. The monthlong demonstration resembled a '60s protest, complete with images of revolutionary Che Guevara, scratchy bullhorns, the backbeat of bongo drums and a tented "People's Collective University.'' It is part of a nationwide protest loosely focused on wealth disparity.

"While they're constructing big stadiums and what have you, the people are being ignored," group spokesman Carlos Marroquin said.

In the shadow of the downtown site, some in the impoverished Pico Union neighborhood said they welcome the prospect of jobs and increased sales at area stores.

"It will give a lot of work to people,'' said Louis Maldonado, 78, a waiter who said he may apply for a job at the new sports complex. Said gift store manager Mary Tahmasebi: "It would be better for us -- more business, more traffic."

As in Minnesota, supporters of such projects believe a successful sports team can cast a magical influence on a community -- even on those who never buy a ticket to a game. That may be more important in Southern California, with its ever-changing, multinational personality, sprawling geography and long, isolating hours of freeway commuting.

"There's a magic when ... for some brief stretch of time, everybody in a town is rooting for the same thing,'' Mason said. "It really does bring people together, especially in really divisive times like we have now."

Jim Ragsdale • 651-925-5042

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