It’s hard to keep up with all the football news that’s coming out of Los Angeles.
Fortunately for Los Angeles Times NFL reporter Sam Farmer, he doesn’t have a team to cover that would take up his time. He has instead become one of the most consistent and trusted sources on football potentially returning to the nation’s second-largest television market.
Farmer was in town last week to watch the Chargers pummel the 49ers. I sat down with him to talk about the two potential stadium options in Los Angeles and how to separate stadium fact from stadium hype.
Farmer believes the key player in any L.A. stadium deal is Phil Anschutz, the reclusive billionaire whose Anschutz Entertainment Group has rapidly moving plans to develop a stadium in downtown Los Angeles. Like most stadium watchers, Farmer doesn’t expect any decisions until the league and its players resolve a fight over a new labor contract — known as the collective bargaining agreement — to replace the one expiring next year.
For more Farmer-isms you can follow him on Twitter @LATimesFarmer.
One of your best insights during the Los Angeles stadium search is that Los Angeles has more value to the NFL without a team than with one. Can you explain what leverage the NFL has with a team-less L.A.?
Los Angeles is a huge hammer for the league to hold out there — for any team to intimate that they might relocate to Los Angeles, which seems like a very real and natural possibility. It’s the nation’s second-largest market. We saw it with (Saints owner) Tom Benson in New Orleans, we saw it with (Colts owner) Jim Irsay in Indianapolis. Jim Irsay had his Colts plane at Van Nuys Airport with the Colts horseshoe logo on the tail section and it was parked there for a week uncovered, uncanvassed, or whatever you say.
Their team plane?
Their team plane was parked.
He could have just been vacationing, he could have been visiting friends, he could have been doing anything, but it sent the message to Indianapolis that, “Wow, there’s a flirtation going on with Los Angeles. We better make a financial commitment to keep the Colts here.”
One of the reasons why the NFL will always hold out Los Angeles as a two-team market is because they don’t want to lose that leverage. If a team were to move to L.A., they don’t want to give up that trump card of, “We could still put another team there.”
Can you talk a little bit about why the NFL labor deal is so crucial to things happening in Los Angeles, San Diego or anywhere else looking for a stadium?
The current labor deal was put in place in 2006, and the owners really felt jammed into that deal. At first opportunity they opted out of it unanimously. From 2006 to the present, there have been no new stadium starts. The stadiums like New York and Dallas, which have come online recently, were already in the pipeline at that point. The owners feel, right or wrong, that the current agreement doesn’t allow them to make that kind of investment. Five years ago, we were talking about $400 million to $500 million stadiums and now everything’s north of $1 billion.
What are some things that people could do to separate legitimate stadium talk from hype about stadium talk? What are the dominos that have to fall first?
The No. 1 domino in this whole thing right now is Phil Anschutz. If Phil Anschutz wants this to happen, he can make it happen. He’s a game-changer. Without him it doesn’t happen. There’s a (proposed) stadium in Industry, but the deal right now does not work for any NFL team.
There is now among many people in the league and among some owners and executives, infatuation is too strong, but if there’s a way to say a mild infatuation with the idea of a downtown stadium in Los Angeles. The caveat is that the league isn’t going to be ready to act on anything until the [collective bargaining agreement] is done.
How then can the CEO of Anschutz’s company, Tim Leiweke, say that he wants a deal done by March? What does he mean by that?
I think this is all a process of convincing Phil Anschutz. Something done would not come in the form of a hard-and-fast commitment from the NFL, although there would have to be an understanding. They’re not going to build this on spec. There would have to be an understanding that you’re going to get a team, whether that’s an identified team or a team to be named later. But Tim Leiweke is still in the process of convincing Phil Anschutz, and he believes that by March he can get him convinced.
You’ve talked about the fact that L.A. is a nonstarter for receiving a public subsidy. Here we’re talking about hundreds of millions in public money and I’m curious why San Diego taxpayers would need to pay for this, but L.A.’s wouldn’t?
In California in general it’s a nonstarter to commit public funds to stadiums. People have much more important priorities than putting money into stadiums. We have problems with our schools. We have across-the-board financial problems.
Certainly, San Diego has been in dire economic straits for a long time. That leads me to believe that this downtown San Diego project — even though they raised the redevelopment cap — yes, you raised the cap, but where is that real money? You created the opportunity, but is that money there? And if that money’s there, is the highest and best use of that money building a football stadium?
The Chargers have said that they need it or else they can’t do it.
They have said they’re closer to the end of this than they are to the beginning. Whether that’s true or not, I guess we’ll just have to see. I’ve heard that for a while now, but if it were easy the Chargers probably would have moved.
Whoever [is] relocating to Los Angeles faces the great unknown of if you build it will they come? Something that has to scare the league is that if something is no longer cool to do in L.A., people stop showing up. L.A. is a see-and-be-seen culture. Take the Lakers for example. It is as important that people know you were at the Laker game or saw you at the Laker game or best of all worlds they saw you on TV at the Laker game than it is to actually experience the Laker game.
Part of the whole experience in L.A. is the coolness of being there. If you lose that, and if it’s no longer the cool place to be, you spend your money elsewhere. The psychology of the L.A. sports fan has to scare the NFL to some degree. Although the counter to that argument is that there’s so many people in L.A., that if you appeal to a small percentage you’re going to fill your stadium.
If you had to bet do you think the Chargers stay in San Diego?
It goes back to Phil Anschutz. If Phil Anschutz decides to commit the money here and there’s that opportunity for the Chargers to leave, and they can’t get something done in San Diego, they’re going to leave. But I’ve seen so many things that look like shoo-ins fall apart that I’m really skeptical that you can make this work.