Surely the most startling thing about the sports landscape—at first glance—is that the king of all leagues, the NFL, has no team in America's second-largest market, Los Angeles. Since attendance woes made the Raiders and the Rams bolt for Oakland and St. Louis, respectively, in 1995, L.A. has supported two hockey teams, two baseball teams and two basketball teams but has only a great void where there once was pro football. Last week NFL owners voted to spend $10 million to explore the development of a 157-acre plot in the south L.A. suburb of Carson for a football-only stadium. "The league has a passion and a dedication to make the L.A. market work," said Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, one of several NFL owners bullish on L.A. "I think we need to be there."
But why? Three pro teams ( Chargers, Raiders, Rams) have failed in L.A. since 1960. There is also evidence that anything but a consistent winner in L.A. would hurt the NFL in future negotiations with Fox and CBS. Currently, with no hometown teams, L.A. fans get three marquee network games every Sunday. If a team returns to L.A. and is playing at home, one marquee game will be replaced by a home game if it is sold out or a blackout if it isn't. When the L.A. team is on the road, one marquee game would also be replaced. If the L.A. team is lousy, ratings would plummet. The net effect would almost certainly be lower Nielsen ratings. "If the L.A. Armadillos are 2-10 in December and getting blacked out," says David Hill, chairman and CEO of Fox Sports, "how does that help our business?"
Hill says he can't explain the league's continuing obsession with L.A. "As astute a business as the NFL is, I can't figure this one out," he says. "This whole exercise seems to be hope over experience. The Rams and the Raiders couldn't make a go of it and fled by night. What's changed in eight years? I wish the NFL would understand that if there isn't a franchise in L.A., the sun won't sink into the ocean."