Are we really going to do this? Attempt to attract a big-time football team and put them in a bright new stadium? Plenty of high-profile folks from the mayor on down appear hell-bent on just that. The machinery is in motion, and power players are lining up behind a plan to replace part of the convention center with an arena. I see pictures of the backers, grinning and full of photogenic civic optimism. Yeah, let’s get us a team. We need one. We’re not complete without one. That sentiment, at lower or higher decibels, depending on the moment, has been kicking around Los Angeles for years.
I want to want a football franchise of our own. I envision happy fans and tailgate parties in sight of the downtown skyscrapers, a little roustabout energy to counterbalance the self-assured crowd in the Staples Center. But I’m just not feeling the excitement. It’s as though this gung-ho political/business phalanx exists in an alternate universe. These people want to put up a billion-dollar stadium for a team—should we entice one—that will play eight home games a year. Period. The strongest proponent, the entertainment conglomerate AEG, insists there will be other uses for this behemoth and maintains that not a single taxpayer dollar will be spent. I don’t believe that—nor do most Angelenos I know. In fact, AEG is asking the city to borrow roughly $350 million (through a bond measure) that the company says it will pay back through ticket and property tax revenues. At a time when the city is in budget trouble, the prospect seems downright spooky. Yes, there would be temporary construction jobs if the deal goes forward, but long-term employment gains are much less certain.
Financial considerations aside, there’s another concern: Professional football in L.A. is passé. We haven’t had a franchise since 1994—if you include the Raiders’ tenure, which I have trouble with. They always came off like a borrowed bunch. The team’s Super Bowl championship in 1984 wasn’t so much a victory for L.A. as it was leverage for owner Al Davis in his demands for Coliseum upgrades. Nor do I think fondly of their 12-year reign, with its swaggering tough guy tenor. The city has filled the gap nicely with its college football obsession, notably the crosstown rivalry between USC and UCLA. We have to remember that current and recent students at those schools didn’t grow up with a pro team; they are, as one of them said, “a lost generation” when it comes to the sport. They have no memory and thus no nostalgia.
Those of us who were here recall the sense of betrayal when Georgia Frontiere moved the Rams to Anaheim in 1980, enacting a plan by her late husband, Carroll Rosenbloom. It felt even more treacherous coming on the heels of the team’s Super Bowl appearance that year. Like many in L.A., my family were avid Rams fans. My divorced mother had a decided crush on one of the star receivers, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, an Adonis with high cheekbones and a crew cut and a funny way of running. She had met him somewhere—at Tom Bergin’s on Fairfax, I think—and he had stolen her heart. He was a big deal in the city, in the country, for that matter, the standout player of 1951, when he caught 66 passes and scored 17 touchdowns, an NFL record. I remember his visiting the low-slung stucco house we were renting on 19th Street in Santa Monica. Someone—it must have been me—had alerted the neighborhood boys (back in the days when kids could run wild on the streets). Suddenly there we were on the front lawn tossing a football back and forth with Crazylegs, whom the boys idolized. I felt important—beyond. Elroy also showed me how to throw, how to put my tiny hand across the laces and cock my arm and use my shoulder. As a result I never “threw like a girl.” I won a lot of football and baseball tosses at school, and I remain grateful for that golden day with our own football hero in the front yard.
Even after Elroy stopped coming by (he retired in 1957, made a few films, and moved back to his Midwestern homeland), football continued to rule in our households. We gathered in one or the other for games and ate the requisite junk food—Welsh rarebit was our form of nachos—and cheered with the rest of the city for the Fiercesome Foursome in the 1960s, the fluid grace of Roman Gabriel and Jack Snow in the 1970s. L.A. was a different place then, a postwar industrial giant. Those were bustling blue-collar times: We assembled more cars here than in any other city outside of Detroit and made more tires than anywhere but Akron. Construction was booming as suburbs sprang up across the county, and we were churning out planes and rockets for the aerospace companies. It was a hands-on town, a perfect place for a football team. The cities that love their gridiron guys, identify with them, are places like Chicago and Pittsburgh, with their old-world grit, their cold winters and cozy neighborhood bars. Modern L.A. is so far removed from that. The last of the automobile factories shut down in 1992. The tire factories and steel mills disappeared earlier, and much of the aerospace industry has taken flight. We went from being middle class to being socioeconomically divided to a disturbing degree. Our football teams lost their rooting sections—part of the reason they moved away. Nobody had the means to refurbish the Coliseum or put up a new stadium. Until now.
Let’s face it, the Lakers occupy the emotional sports center in Los Angeles. They’re fancy and shiny, just like their arena. Cameras linger over the celebrity attendees: Jack and Cameron and Dyan and Dustin. The 149 courtside seats cost more than $100,000 each for the season. For that kind of money you want a winner, and that’s what we have.
The Lakers were NBA champs the last two seasons. What kind of team are we likely to get for our football stadium? Certainly not a top franchise, such as the Patriots or the Steelers. It’s a safe bet the Saints aren’t leaving New Orleans, where they are beloved for staying put—and winning—post-Katrina. No. These teams are inexorably tied to the cities that worship them. We might be able to lure the Carolina Panthers. Scoring only 196 points last season, they had one of the worst records in NFL franchise history. In a city that covets winners, who’s going to turn out for a group like that?
The people struggling to make ends meet will be hard put to come up with $75 for an NFL ticket—a whopping $300 for a family of four. Those same folks can grab a seat at Dodger Stadium for $6 each (granted, the location is practically in the clouds, but it’s fun up there) and afford a few Dodger Dogs to round out the day. Soccer also has allure in a county where almost half of the roughly 10 million people have Latino roots.
We can no longer ignore the frequent reports of traumatic brain injuries suffered by the pros. The NFL leadership has warned about the ferocity of the tackling. The recent suicide of former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson underscores the issue. He was apparently convinced that the brain damage he suffered on the field was at least partly responsible for the depression that caused him to take his life. Even my football-loving friends are conscious of the issue: It’s going to receive more press—another reason this is a lousy time for L.A. to be getting back into the business.
I understand why local moguls like Eli Broad are pushing the plan. He envisions the stadium of a piece with his eponymous downtown museum (though how the two crowds, art lovers and football aficionados, overlap, I don’t know). I was hoping he would see the wisdom of planting his art collection somewhere else, in Santa Monica maybe, among the places he was considering—which would in effect widen the city and its destination points. Instead he holds to the belief that L.A. should have a center. He and others are trying to tug this great sprawl toward some coherent citydom. The money guys might be counting on a centralized magnet for bucks, but for most of us there are enchanting hubs all over the area. I remember Frank Gehry telling me that the heart of Los Angeles is Wilshire Boulevard, the sea-to-downtown snake of a road that connects us.