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California Dreamin'
Michael Silver
May 29, 2006
Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo wants to bring a team to L.A. Could it be the Raiders? The Vikings? The Saints? The 49ers? Yup
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May 29, 2006

California Dreamin'

Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo wants to bring a team to L.A. Could it be the Raiders? The Vikings? The Saints? The 49ers? Yup

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In the eight years since Eddie DeBartolo gave up his ownership interest in the San Francisco 49ers, Niners fans have fantasized about his possible return. The once lofty franchise has foundered under the reign of DeBartolo's brother-in-law, John York, whose condescension and cost-consciousness have alienated employees and inspired the website dumpyork.com. Meanwhile DeBartolo, the anti-York, evokes images of gregarious generosity--and success. The three-day Super Bowl reunion gala he threw for hundreds of former employees in Las Vegas in March was a reminder of happier times.

Now how's this for a surprise twist: DeBartolo and former 49ers president Carmen Policy, together again, presiding over ... the revived Los Angeles Raiders?

It would rank as the Bay Area's biggest sporting nightmare--not to mention a seismic shift in California's football landscape. But the scenario has been broached by DeBartolo and Policy, and the NFL's desire to break back into the nation's second-largest media market could help make it a reality. Most owners are reluctant to disrupt the league's 32-team symmetry or further split up TV revenue, making an expansion team in L.A. highly unlikely. Instead, an existing franchise will probably relocate under new ownership, with the Raiders, Saints, Chargers, Vikings, Bills or even the 49ers as the leading candidates.

DeBartolo and Policy, the duo whose bold leadership helped bring five Super Bowl titles to San Francisco, have heard the rumors that Raiders boss Al Davis is in declining health. That, plus attendance problems in Oakland, are why they have Silver and Black on the brain. "Carmen and I have discussed different things, and that's one of the teams that intrigues us," DeBartolo told SI. " L.A. is a costly situation, but it's wide-open, and I think the right group could make it work."

Given the nature of his exit in 1998, DeBartolo's potential NFL reemergence is something of a shock. A year after becoming embroiled in a Louisiana gaming scandal (then governor Edwin Edwards elicited a bribe in exchange for a casino license), DeBartolo pleaded guilty to not reporting an extortion attempt, a felony. He was given two years probation, and the NFL fined him $1 million. He then gave his half of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, in exchange for their late father's real estate holdings and moved to Tampa. He was in NFL exile, an untouchable because of his legal issues and their gambling overtones.

But time has revitalized DeBartolo's image, not to mention his portfolio. He has quietly built up his real estate empire to a reported net worth of $1.4 billion, and last September Forbes rated him the 235th-richest American. Several of the old-line NFL owners who were eager to see him go are now out of the league, and two prominent owners told SI they believe DeBartolo would be approved should he attempt to purchase a team. "His accomplishments in the NFL are significant," says the Cowboys' Jerry Jones. "A progressive owner is priceless."

DeBartolo, 59, says buying the Buccaneers would be his first choice. (He looked into purchasing them three years ago but was rebuffed by owner Malcolm Glazer.) But he and Policy--they had a falling out shortly before DeBartolo left the 49ers but have repaired their relationship--have contemplated other teams, including the Saints, and their interest in the Raiders is piqued by whispers that Davis, 76, is ill. He has been using a walker because of a leg ailment and did not show up at February's scouting combine or a recent minicamp. "For Al Davis to miss the combine, that's unusual," DeBartolo said.

The Raiders, for their part, say that everything is status quo. " Al Davis is as vital and vibrant as ever," says CEO Amy Trask. "The closest Eddie and Carmen will come to taking a look at the Raiders will be watching them on TV." Still, however Oakland plays out, it will take someone like DeBartolo to make things work in L.A. He's charismatic and emotionally invested, the type of personality needed to sell football in what has been a lukewarm market in the past. And given the resistance of Southern California politicians to financing stadium projects, it will take deep pockets. The cost of the team and a new venue or a refurbished Coliseum could be $1.5 billion.

DeBartolo believes that he and Policy could find the partners to pull it off. Jones, one of 15 owners who participated in a May 17 conference call that detailed L.A. stadium proposals, thinks DeBartolo and L.A. would be a perfect fit. "To me, L.A. is about the ownership," Jones said. "Money alone won't get it done. It's going to take some serious talent and passion, and boy, when it comes to passion, inevitably you think about someone like Eddie."

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