The Takeaway

L.A. Welcomes You, NFL

But Only If You Win

The NFL will return to Los Angeles. This was the prediction of a panel of football notables, including Hall of Fame quarterback and UCLA alumnus Troy Aikman, at an event co-presented by UCLA at MOCA Grand Avenue. The city will welcome back professional football–as long as the new team wins. As for who that team will be, where they will play, when the move will happen, how the stadium will be funded, or what can make them a financial success–well, that’s anyone’s guess.

Still, despite all the remaining loose ends, the panelists anticipated Los Angeles getting not just one but two teams. “Los Angeles is definitely big enough for two teams,” Aikman told the crowd. The decision makers in the league “very much envision there being two NFL teams” in the city.

And an NFL team or two won’t hurt college football in town. “This area can support a pro football team as well as UCLA and that other school,” added new UCLA football coach Jim Mora, joking about rival USC. “If you win, they will come. They will fill your stadium.”

Then why, asked Conan Nolan, general assignment reporter for NBC4 Los Angeles and the evening’s moderator, has the second-largest television market in the nation been without an NFL team for almost two decades?

“Much of it boils down to the fact that there wasn’t a stadium here that an NFL franchise would find sufficiently attractive,” said UCLA sports economist Lee Ohanian. Ohanian explained that most of the league revenue is shared equally among teams. However, stadium revenue isn’t shared. Each team gets to keep the money that comes from its home stadium–most notably the revenue from the luxury boxes.

Los Angeles minus football has been valuable to the NFL for other reasons, said Los Angeles Times NFL writer Sam Farmer: negotiators like to use the city as a “leverage point.” When Indianapolis was hesitating to build a new stadium for the Colts, the Colts owner threatened to move to L.A. and even went so far as to park his Colt insignia-emblazoned jet at Van Nuys Airport for a month.

Rival stadium proposals in the City of Industry and downtown L.A. come with their own issues.

“There’s no ideal site in Los Angeles,” said Farmer. “It’s too impacted.” City of Industry is too far away from the rest of the city, while downtown brings concerns about space, parking, and traffic as well as “the pure expense of doing a project like that, let alone a project that would have a retractable roof.”

But bringing anyone out to watch games live and in-person anywhere is a challenge today for the NFL. “If I take my family of four to a game, I’m spending the same as what I’d spend on a 50-inch TV and an NFL package,” said Farmer. Plus, fantasy football’s popularity means people want to root for a “team” that consists of players throughout the league–all of whom they can watch from their couches.

“That is an issue with a lot of fans,” Aikman said. “The experience at home of watching [football] on TV has become so good.” However, he thinks that the experience of going to a game is still unique. Looking back on the first game you went to, he asked the audience, “Do we really recall what the score of those contests were? It went beyond that.”

Nolan asked Mora whether violence at stadiums is a serious concern.

No, said Mora–although Raiders fans are “certainly different.” (He added, “I don’t mean that as a negative statement.”)

Nolan noted a line from Naked Gun 33 1/3, in which Frank Drebin says, “I was surrounded by pimps, rapists, and murderers. It was like being in the stands of an L.A. Raiders game.”

Aikman described Philadelphia fans yelling obscenities about him in the broadcast booth, and he recalled that you’d never invite a family member to come watch a Raiders game in the early 1990s. But in other cities like Green Bay, the fans are unbelievably nice.

Nolan pointed to Green Bay as an example of a team in a small market that’s able to succeed because of the league’s revenue-sharing plan.

“The NFL really has become at some level the most successful pro sport in the United States,” said Ohanian. “Two-thirds of men watch the NFL, over half of women watch the NFL.” Much of this is thanks to the parity brought about by revenue sharing–although, that said, teams chase money and good stadium deals.

To move an underperforming team in a small market to Los Angeles would benefit the players, owners, and the league at large, thanks to the league’s new 10-year labor agreement, said Farmer. They’re going to look at Los Angeles, at foreign expansion, at a longer regular season, and at expanding the NFL Network.

From the owners’ perspective, which stadium proposal is more attractive? According to Farmer, a lot of owners believe that L.A. starts at 90210 and goes west. But Aikman countered that as long as the team is successful, location matters less. “Football is a destination sport,” he said. “People will drive out there to get to a game.”

Before the question-and-answer session, Nolan asked the panelists which teams they thought might move to Los Angeles. Aikman posited San Diego, Oakland, Minnesota, or Jacksonville, while Farmer added St. Louis to the mix after 2014. Mora disagreed with the suggestion of a move by San Diego; he thinks the Spanos family is “using [L.A.] as a leverage point, and they don’t have any intention of moving out here.” Ohanian suggested the possibility of a three-way move: St. Louis to Los Angeles, and Jacksonville to St. Louis.

The audience’s questions dealt with the future not just of Los Angeles and the NFL but of the league as a whole–and UCLA football.

Before an audience member could pose his question to Mora, the coach interrupted, guessing, “Who’s going to be our quarterback?” (The question was about the possibility of two quarterbacks, an idea Mora and Aikman dismissed.)

In response to questions about the economics of a deal to bring a team to L.A., the panel enumerated challenges–the team’s price, the terms of the lease deal, a relocation fee, and the quality of the stadium among them. But they still seemed to think a deal would happen eventually.

The final question of the evening revolved around the fate of the entire NFL. Will the questions and lawsuits about concussions, rising player salaries, and the many different options for following the game without watching in real time change pro football?

Aikman said that if he had a son, he wouldn’t be eager for him to play football. He acknowledged that the league is trying to make the sport safer and said that no one wants people getting hurt. But he was pessimistic about the game’s overall health. “At some point in time, football’s not going to be the number-one sport” in the nation, said Aikman. “At some point in time, the TV ratings are not going to continue to go through the roof.” Watching football on TV used to be an event, but now it’s on three or four times a week. And with the NFL Network not available on a number of cable systems, “People then realized–a little bit like the people in Los Angeles realized–life’s OK without the NFL.”

Watch full video here.
See more photos here.
Read Zócalo reader ideas for L.A.’s next NFL team name here.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.