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.
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
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
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
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.
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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