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The Big Game: Los Angeles Heads Toward 'NFL Cliff'

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Anschutz Entertainment Group President Tim Leiweke is watching the clock -- actually, two of them. The first to countdown will be the National Football League's February 15 deadline for teams to declare an intention to relocate to Los Angeles. The second deadline is the sale of Leiweke's company by its grimly reclusive owner Phil Anschutz.

Anschutz, it seems, wants to take his ball and go home. As yet, no capable buyer has stepped forward to option AEG's $6-billion portfolio of sports teams, event venues, booking services, and the still unbuilt Farmer's Field next to Anschutz's Staples Center and LA Live entertainment complex.

Leiweke, an otherwise indefatigable promoter, has become subdued in his clock watching. He told the Daily News this week, "I haven't been made aware of any team that is going to file for a move in 2013." He speculated that the reluctance of team owners to relocate was tied to the uncertain future of AEG, which nearly all observers expect to be broken down into components and sold off by its new owners.

Leiweke avoided the other reasons why no NFL team owner has rushed to embrace L.A.

Los Angeles without a team is worth more to NFL owners than Los Angeles with a team. The threat of moving to Los Angeles has extended hometown subsidies to down-market franchises more than once since the Raiders fled to Oakland in 1995. Even more money promises have been made -- to retain the Buffalo franchise, for example -- since the Los Angeles City Council approved Farmers Field in September. As Neil deMause, writing at Field of Schemes, wryly noted, "AEG president Tim Leiweke (has) declared, 'We could literally push dirt tomorrow.' Except for the part where the NFL still won't approve the plan, and AEG is up for sale and no one knows what the new owner will do. Maybe he meant pushing something else."

There are still three competing concepts for football in Los Angeles, giving any team owner willing to move the hope of even more sweetening in a relocation deal. Farmers Field leads the pack, but the project has insoluble environmental problems and comes burdened with payments and promises that took care of downtown constituencies and the city council's eagerness to appear tough. Worse, Farmers Field is so nakedly a marketing adjunct to LA Live and AEG's other downtown properties that the dissolution of AEG would likely orphan the project politically and strategically. In the meantime, Ed Roski's proposed stadium in the City of Industry isn't entirely dead. And the NFL itself floated the idea of bringing football to Dodger Stadium's vast parking lot. Dodger Stadium would, in fact, be the league's first choice if a choice had to be made.

No team yet has met the basic conditions for relocation laid down last year by NFL Commissioner Goodell: demonstrated failure to be profitable in the team's current market, a money deal with AEG that satisfies the team owner and the league, and a commitment from the Rose Bowl to host games until a permanent stadium is built.

It's likely that the NFL's February 15 deadline will pass, followed by a year or two of dissolving AEG into its saleable parts. When the slicing and dicing is done, an entity -- local, one hopes -- will end up with Tim Leiweke's extravagant sales pitch and some pretty architectural renderings, which won't look anything like the stadium if it's ever built. I'm also betting that the new owners of Leiweke's dream will abandon as many of the conditions imposed on AEG that they can and will demand as much in new public subsidies as they dare.

A downtown stadium was always a field of dreams: Mayor Villaraigosa's dream of a happy ending to a mediocre career in Los Angeles, the city council's dream of happy construction workers and even happier lobbyists with open check books, Phil Anschutz's dream of his own privatized entertainment island, and the dream of at least some fans who thought all the hoopla meant something.

So far, the only dream realized is the NFL's domination of cash-strapped cities. Team owners run a seller's market in football illusions, and Los Angeles is learning exactly what that means.

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles twice each week at KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

  • No team yet has met the basic conditions for relocation laid down last year by NFL Commissioner Goodell: demonstrated failure to be profitable in the team's current market, a money deal with AEG that satisfies the team owner and the league, and a commitment from the Rose Bowl to host games until a permanent stadium is built.
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