LOS ANGELES – At the center of a Buffalo Bills fan’s longest-held fear are two flashing, yellow traffic lights in an underground parking garage.
This is where the 50-yard line would be at Farmers Field, the proposed downtown stadium Los Angeles entitled for construction if the developer could acquire an NFL team to play in it first.
But the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall still stands on a parcel next to the Staples Center and Nokia Theatre. Earlier this month, the area bustled with high school students competing in an international science and engineering fair.
Santa Ana winds sent temperatures into the mid-90s outside. Underneath the West Hall, the concrete garage was cool and mostly quiet. An occasional skateboarder swerved through.
Sparrows chirped overhead from sprinkler pipes.
And here, dead center, where car traffic should intersect the parking garage's walkway but where developers would prefer to watch an NFL pregame coin flip, those yellow caution signals kept blinking ... blinking ... blinking ...
Something might happen one day, but there’s no imminent danger, not even in the proverbial belly of the beast.
For two decades, Bills fans feared the monster was lurking. They felt it creeping closer by the day, coming to take their football team away.
The attack has been considered inevitable. As soon as Ralph Wilson was gone, Los Angeles was going to pounce.
Alas, there’s no monster hiding in the closet or in this parking garage.
Wilson died in March. The Bills are on the market. Los Angeles developers and officials want an NFL team.
But a hard look at the facts show the timing is all wrong for any NFL team to return to L.A. at the moment.
Many of the deficiencies that drove the Rams and Raiders out of the market in 1995 haven’t been corrected. California’s economic climate is unfavorable. Prominent advocates to bringing the NFL back to L.A. are giving up.
“I’ve finally, personally come to a conclusion,” Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard Parks said. “I have to resign myself to the fact the NFL is not coming.
“After you put 10 years into something with nothing in return ... If this was a marriage, you’d be divorced.”
Perhaps most importantly, New York’s political forces seem strong enough to create a road block.
And many of the reasons the Bills won’t be relocating to Los Angeles also apply to the prospect of moving to Toronto.
“When you factor in moving costs and what it will take to construct a stadium,” said Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long, “the price of getting Los Angeles would be very difficult.”
Long played for the 1983 Raiders, Los Angeles’ only team to win the Super Bowl.
“It’s sounding more and more like we’ll have a team in London before we do in L.A.,” Long said.
Politics are key
There had been a widely accepted theory that the best way for the Bills to remain in Western New York was for Wilson to outlive the relocation of another club – preferably two clubs – to Los Angeles.
America’s second-largest market has been minus the NFL for nearly two decades. Powerful people have been working to lure the league back with stadium renderings, incentives and promises.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell eventually began to talk publicly about the league’s desire to place two clubs, one from each conference, into a shared Los Angeles-area stadium without adding new franchises through expansion.
The Bills became obvious relocation candidates, with their nonagenarian owner and their annual Toronto home games and their dull stadium and their small-market problems.
But a confluence of circumstances and political motivation will make the Bills difficult to extract.
A powerful sports-business insider, who wanted to remain anonymous because of his many connections to parties involved, stressed to The Buffalo News that New York’s political wherewithal is “the most important and least reported facet” of the Bills’ long-term future.
Most agree the Bills will need a new stadium to remain viable. There’s enough time and powerful friends who want that to happen.
The Bills are New York’s only NFL team. That fact means substantially more than some prideful slogan.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Sen. Charles Schumer are aggressive, outspoken politicians who consider the Bills an important piece of Western New York.
Goodell has said a new home for the Bills is a long-term solution to keep the team. At the NFL’s spring meeting in Atlanta last week, several owners echoed that sentiment.
No sane owner would turn down a publicly financed, sparkly, new stadium. Cuomo and Schumer haven’t spoken about specifics of stadium financing, but neither wants the Bills to leave on his watch.
That said, there are no guarantees. Without a definitive Western New York stadium plan in place, Toronto becomes much more feasible for the Bills’ next owner.
Cities that build new stadiums get rewarded, as Minneapolis did last week when NFL owners voted to stage Super Bowl 52 in the Minnesota Vikings’ new palace.
While it’s virtually impossible Buffalo would be considered for a Super Bowl, the payoff would be keeping the Bills for another couple generations.
New York hasn’t been forced to spend big bucks on stadiums to keep teams around. The state has been fortunate relative to other locales that are strapped and frustrated.
The New York Jets and New York Giants share a stadium in New Jersey. The New York Yankees and New York Mets built their ballparks and the Brooklyn Nets built their arena with the help of tax-exempt bonds and personal seat licenses. Madison Square Garden funded its $1 billion recent renovation.
Compare that to Ohio, where taxpayers have built the Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Indians, Cleveland Cavaliers, Cincinnati Bengals and Cincinnati Reds each a new stadium since 1994.
Los Angeles and Toronto, meanwhile, are without suitable NFL venues. Both markets have zero appetite to commit public dollars toward construction and have failed to galvanize the community’s interest in supporting an NFL team.
“Wherever a team is now, it’s that market’s team to lose,” said Rose Bowl CEO and General Manager Darryl Dunn, a Sweet Home High and St. Bonaventure grad who also worked as an L.A. Raiders ticket executive. “If that market wants to pay the price, then the team will stay.
“It’s up to Western New York’s passion and political will to find a way to make it work. Because of that, it’s hard to imagine the Bills leaving.”
The stadium issue
Four well-placed sources The Buffalo News spoke with about the Bills’ long-term status were skeptical the NFL would dare upset Cuomo and Schumer and permit the team to leave Western New York.
The NFL isn’t in the business of flouting political juice. Cuomo could run for president in 2016. Schumer is the popular, third-ranking Senate Democrat. To let the Bills leave would cause the NFL, with its headquarters in Manhattan, to lose those influential allies and practically beg for added scrutiny on controversial issues.
The NFL has been fighting multibillion-dollar concussion litigation and last week was sued by eight former players for recklessly supplying and administering painkillers.
And what if Schumer woke up one morning and decided to hold hearings about the NFL’s antitrust labor exemption, its hard-to-believe nonprofit status or the FCC’s controversial blackout rules?
“The NFL doesn’t want to risk upsetting the political structure,” Parks said. “The league is facing critical issues. They don’t want to litigate these things.
“In many ways, they’re like the old Mafia. They just want to make money and don’t want to do anything that will disrupt that.”
The Buffalo area also has the benefit of time to get a new stadium built – and for other teams to move to Los Angeles or Toronto or London first.
Four days after Wilson’s funeral, word began to circulate at One Bills Drive that the Bills would be sold quickly, maybe before the 2014 season was over. But the soonest the new owner realistically can vacate the stadium lease would be 2020.
Any of three teams appear likelier to beat the Bills to Los Angeles.
The three teams that have played in L.A. before – the St. Louis Rams, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers – all are free to move after this season because of their lease situations.
The Rams have an escape clause that says the Edward Jones Dome must be upgraded to be among the NFL’s top eight stadiums by 2015 or the lease becomes year-to-year. An arbitrator sided with the Rams’ estimate that those renovations would cost $700 million. The St. Louis Regional Sports Authority has decided it can’t afford that.
In January, Rams owner Stan Kroenke bought 60 acres near Hollywood Park and the Forum in Inglewood. Kroenke and the Rams have been coy about what they’ll do with the land.
The Raiders’ lease at O.co Coliseum, the only stadium in which an NFL team shares its home with a baseball diamond, expired after the 2013 season, but they signed a one-year extension with the hope that Oakland would help them build a new stadium, but little headway has been made.
The Chargers hold a sledgehammer over San Diego every year from Feb. 1 to May 1, a window that allows the team to negotiate with other cities.
The Chargers’ only condition to leave is they must pay off the remaining bonds used to renovate Qualcomm Stadium in 1997. That cost is on a sliding scale that has dipped below $20 million, cheaper than a couple defensive linemen.
Had two, lost ’em both
Los Angeles has nearly 4 million people. You can’t drive more than a couple miles without encountering a location that has been rhapsodized about in song or glorified on film. Historic moments have taken place almost everywhere you turn.
Southern California has gorgeous weather all year, come-hither beaches, and breathtaking blue jacaranda trees that bloom in spring and autumn. The region is rich in cultural arts and boasts prestigious universities.
The L.A. area has two Major League Baseball teams, two NBA teams and even two NHL teams.
But Los Angeles does not have the NFL.
“It’s mind-boggling that there’s not a team there,” said Long, the Raiders’ Hall of Fame defensive end.
The Raiders and Rams left in 1995 because fans simply wouldn’t support either team at the box office.
Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson, who set the NFL’s single-season rushing record for the Rams in 1984, claims Los Angeles deserves another try. But he admitted the area deserved to lose its football teams.
“It was good for them,” Dickerson said while getting a pedicure recently in Los Angeles. “It was like the kid who has a ball that he doesn’t play with. Once the ball is picked up by other kids, it’s ‘Hey, I want my ball back!’
“They didn’t go to watch the games. When the team left, it was ‘Wait a minute. Y’all aren’t supposed to leave! Hold up!’
Angelenos haven’t been ravenous. They have a front-runner reputation and don’t support teams unless they’re winning.
“You’ve got to be good,” Long said of Los Angeles fans. “I’m not as sold on the idea that – like in Buffalo, where fans are so emotionally connected with their city – they will be there through the lean times.”
NFL interest was volatile regardless, but a seemingly unlimited supply of tickets in cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum rendered Rams and Raiders games about as special as a trip to Walmart.
On top of that, the USC and UCLA football programs were winning Rose Bowls and competing for national championships.
L.A. used as a pawn
Goodell speaks more about London and Toronto than he does L.A. these days.
So many moving parts that must click into place at the proper time and too few have been locked in over the past two decades.
“It’s a Rubik’s Cube,” Dunn said on the Rose Bowl concourse. “You need all sides. It is complicated, and it is difficult. It still can be done, though. The potential has always been there. But L.A. will not do this at any price. It’s going to have to make sense.”
Since the Rams and Raiders skipped out in 1995, the Los Angeles Times has written stories that link 17 NFL clubs, including the Bills, as candidates to relocate. An 18th team, the expansion Houston Texans, entered the league by outbidding a Los Angeles group.
Business analysts have noted for years that Los Angeles is worth more to the NFL without a team because it’s a boogeyman that can be used as leverage to wrangle new stadiums out of current markets.
“I just think we’ve been used as a pawn,” Parks said in his Crenshaw Boulevard office. “I just don’t know if we were ever seriously considered.”
Parks knows Los Angeles has bigger problems than its NFL void. The former L.A. police chief represents the 8th District, which includes the area formerly known as South Central, rebranded a few years back because of the 1992 Rodney King riots.
But Parks, who coached Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon at the Pop Warner level, always felt the NFL was important. And it made little sense that the country’s second-largest city didn’t have a team.
Parks has all but given up.
“Every time you hear about the NFL coming to L.A., we laugh,” Parks said. “L.A. always comes into the equation whenever a city is looking for a new stadium. Lo and behold, shockingly, the stadium gets built and L.A. is not in the equation.”
Parks isn’t the only one fatigued. The entire city seems tired of hearing about this “done deal” and that “shovel-ready” development and yet another set of architectural renderings.
As such, motivating the community to give a damn has been difficult.
The NFL knows California voters won’t give a nickel to publicly finance a stadium. The state already has two other NFL teams with outdated homes. The NFL would be hard-pressed to make California a four-team state when there’s no chance for stadium handouts there.
Farmers Field is a conundrum, a project that needs a team committed to Los Angeles. But what owner would want to move without a stadium? The city’s entitlement deal that provides the Convention Center site expires in October.
Real estate mogul Edward Roski’s proposed stadium in City of Industry hasn’t been given much credence. Kroenke’s 60 acres remains an asphalt swath surrounded by a chain-link fence.
No owner can afford to move and get marooned at the Coliseum or the Rose Bowl, stadiums that have hosted seven Super Bowls but are considered obsolete.
Even if the Coliseum or Rose Bowl were to be used temporarily while Farmers Field or another stadium was under construction, the ancient venues present myriad problems.
The Coliseum is way larger than the NFL would like at 93,607 seats. The Rose Bowl’s layout puts about 60 percent of its seats in the end zones rather than along the sidelines.
Both stadiums have primary tenants – USC at the Coliseum, UCLA at the Rose Bowl – that can’t be displaced for renovations. Their seating bowls spread away from the field instead of stacking upward. They are National Historic Landmarks, designations that make any significant changes exasperating.
Maybe Toronto and London are being cultivated as new pawns with Los Angeles wrung out.
In reality, the NFL has gotten along fine without Los Angeles and vice versa.
The league’s television deals continue to soar and ratings climb regardless.
Fans in L.A. love the fact they can go to a sports bar and watch every game on the schedule without worrying about blackouts.
“It’s a unique market,” Long said. “It’s a destination city like New York or Chicago, but when you’re in those cities you’re deeply entrenched in a multigenerational allegiance to that team. That’s what drives those markets.
“I view L.A. as the Ellis Island city of our country in terms of immigration from other cities from around the country. L.A. is comprised of people from Chicago, from New York, from Dallas, from Alabama, from Florida, from Seattle.
“All these people that have migrated to L.A. and work there and live there, their allegiances are with other cities.”
Leo Lesh, the manager of Leo’s All-Star Sports Bar and Grill in suburban La Crescenta, pointed out the NFL is why someone gets into his business.
On a night when the Los Angeles Clippers were playing a postseason game and the NHL playoffs were on some of his 32 TVs, Lesh’s bar had some energy. But there were plenty of seats, too.
Nothing can compare to football. He said the first round of the NFL draft was his busiest night of the month. In late summer, customers call ahead to find out what preseason games will be on.
“This city needs a team,” said Lesh, a Corning native who used to work as a Watkins Glen ticket-taker and still has a summer cottage on Keuka Lake. “But do they want a team? That’s a difficult question.
“If they wanted a team badly enough, we’d already have one.”