|Wednesday, May 21
Updated: May 22, 4:55 PM ET
Colts might be best fit for move to L.A.
By Len Pasquarelli
PHILADELPHIA -- Given that the NFL once negotiated to build a stadium at Hollywood Park, where the principle revenue streams are a horse track and a poker parlor, it might be apropos to make a wager or two on the future of the league in the Los Angeles market.
The early-line favorite on a stadium site, several owners told ESPN.com on Wednesday, appears to be a 157-acre tract of real estate in Carson, Calif. And if you want to go for the daily double, and place a 10-spot on pegging an identity of the current franchise that will inhabit the stadium once it is more than just a pipe dream, bet the Indianapolis Colts.
No inside knowledge here, veteran railbirds, just a gut feeling that Colts owner Jim Irsay is the guy most likely to heed the old Horace Greeley admonition to head west. And that even the blasé sports fans of Los Angeles, whose disenfranchisement by the NFL has grown into a combination of resignation and ennui, might actually abandon the beaches on Sunday afternoons if they had a chance to watch a Peyton Manning-led team.
Certainly the sentiment is that a team in Los Angeles, which won't begin play before the 2006 season and more likely not until 2007, will come from among existing franchises. The league and commissioner Paul Tagliabue have worked too hard to fashion a 32-club entity, one which now neatly compartmentalized into eight divisions of four teams each after last year's realignment, and doesn't want to deconstruct a symmetrical model.
It was difficult enough for the schedule makers when they were forced to work with 31 teams, before the addition of the Houston Texans, and a 33-franchise league would be just as awkward. Plus there is no pulse on expansion, which would not only create an odd number of teams again, but would further dilute the league-shared revenues.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, asserted Wednesday that he favors expansion and the creation of new jobs. For all his clout in league circles, though, Upshaw doesn't own a vote on how the Los Angeles market will be filled. The guys with the ballots are squarely for exit strategy over expansion.
"I don't see (expansion), not at all, not at this point," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. "Just about everyone feels it will be an existing team (that goes to Los Angeles). But who will that be? Well, there are the usual suspects, of course. But a lot can happen by the time we get to that decision. And we've still got to get the stadium settled."
Toward that end, the league will invest up to $10 million to better investigate the Carson tract, which is built on the site of a former dump. If the NFL decides Carson isn't a viable option, it will be rebated $6.8 million, meaning the owners will have spent just $100,000 each to check out the place.
The site, about 20 miles south of Los Angeles, has edged at least a healthy nose ahead of the Rose Bowl in the eyes of many owners. Tagliabue suggested Tuesday that the sites are in a "dead heat" and described their situations as "symmetrical," but the reality is that owners prefer a new facility in Carson, built from the ground up, to a refurbished stadium at the Rose Bowl.
"The Carson site," said Denver owner Patrick Bowlen, "is definitely the best proposal that we've heard."
Investment banker John Moag, the man who essentially cut the deal to bring a franchise to Baltimore and who has been working with the Rose Bowl at the league's behest for 10 months now, acknowledged he was "blindsided" by the Carson momentum. But the latter site, pitched a few years ago by Hollywood entertainment magnate Michael Ovitz, seems to present a much cleaner scenario for the league.
Unlike the Rose Bowl, which sits in the middle of a neighborhood where the residents earn a few untaxed dollars by turning their front yards into parking lots on game days, Carson offers the opportunity and the space for ancillary development. Beyond the new stadium, the league would want some sort of entertainment complex as well, and likely a retail shopping area.
As for franchises prepared to shop themselves as ideal for the Los Angeles market, the names haven't changed much, and probably won't. The Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers remain viable possibilities. But each is now in a state of suspended animation, forced to sit on the sideline, since there won't really be a Los Angeles option until 2006 at the earliest.
Perhaps the team most damaged by that '06 timeframe is the Chargers, who will convene their summer training camp this July in Carson, and who have eyed the very lucrative Los Angeles market for some time. San Diego has a deplorable lease situation, is in the midst of somewhat contentious negotiations with city officials, and would like nothing better than to have some leverage. But the fact they can exercise an escape clause that permits them to bolt San Diego after the 2003 season does the Chargers little good if there is no place else to play.
Some have suggested that a team wanting to move permanently to Los Angeles might be able to play for three seasons in the historic but dilapidated Coliseum, but that does not appear to be an option. Coliseum officials, snubbed by the NFL despite recent efforts to resurrect the stadium as a potential site for a new team, aren't likely to offer it up as a temporary home for a franchise that will move into a new arena in three or four years.
So back to the Colts who, in addition to a marquee roster (at least on offense), also have timing in their corner. Along with an owner who has plenty of Hollywood connections.
For years, Irsay has numbered among his closest friends members of the film and music industries. He is a man occasionally enamored of the glitz and glitter. And while his lease at the RCA Dome runs through the 2013 season, there is a conditional escape clause after the 2006 campaign. Yep, just about the time a stadium in Carson would be ready for full residency by an NFL franchise.
The cost of abandoning the RCA Dome would be roughly $77 million if the Colts pulled up stakes in 2006. A lot of money, for sure, but veritable chump change if a Los Angeles franchise is really worth something approximating $1 billion. And consider this: Once a stadium is constructed in Los Angeles, someone will foot the $77 million bill for getting a team out of its lease.
Word is that Indianapolis officials, who publicly contend they are not moved by all of the rumors of a Colts relocation, are prepared to offer Irsay a new stadium. But sources say that Irsay, whose stadium revenues are among the lowest in the league, is more concerned about the size of the Indianapolis market, and its ability to support him for the long haul.
Well, the Indianapolis market isn't going to grow much, is it? But in Los Angeles, the Colts would have the second-largest population base in the country, and endless potential to market their product.
And, hey, by the 2006 or 2007 season, Colts management might have actually figured out a way to surround Manning with enough supporting cast to keep him from becoming the Dan Marino of his generation.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.