Commentary

Farmers Field project? It sounds great

One after another, politicians and sports icons got behind the downtown stadium project

Updated: February 2, 2011, 3:54 PM ET
By Ramona Shelburne | ESPNLosAngeles.com

The coordination was staggering. The guest list might never be replicated.

Just about every recognizable city official, sports icon and civic leader in Los Angeles turned out Tuesday morning for the unveiling of the latest -- and probably grandest -- plan to return the NFL to Los Angeles.

It was a show more than a press conference, complete with cheerleaders and a dramatic video presentation.

It was convincing.

It was exciting.

It was a hell of a show.

But at the end of the 70-minute pep rally, one thing was still unclear:

Who was the show for?

The NFL already seems to be onboard with AEG's project. Tim Leiweke is too smart of a businessman to play his trumpet as loudly as he has been without an understanding that the NFL is committed to his project.

Tim Leiweke
Kevork Djansezian/Getty ImagesAEG President Tim Leiweke's gathering at the convention center was a who's who is L.A. sports, business and politics.

No way Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who admitted to visiting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in December, gets up on the stage and proclaims, "It is very clear football is coming back to Los Angeles," without a very good reason to believe the league is finally serious about returning to L.A. after a 15 year absence.

So why all the noise?

Why all the talk of vision and passion and jobs and civic pride?

It's pretty simple really. The last hurdle this project needs to clear has nothing to do with environmental impact reports or the political process.

The last hurdle is you.

Los Angeles.

L. Ehh. ...

If you've lived in Los Angeles for any part of the last 15 years, you're a bit tone deaf to the supposed return of the NFL by now. There have been too many failed projects and visions and press conferences over the years.

Too many "THIS IS REALLY IT!!" moments that were ultimately scuttled by dysfunction or deception.

At some point, we all kind of got over it, picked a new favorite team or got really into fantasy football.

It helped that the Lakers started winning championships and USC became the center of the college football universe.

Everyone on that stage Tuesday morning understands what has happened and why. But for this to work, for AEG to be able to run the last 20 yards of this race, something has to change.

Los Angeles can't just be open to the idea of the NFL returning to town; it has to be as excited as Magic Johnson was on Tuesday.

"We're getting closer and closer to bringing football back to Los Angeles," Johnson said. "This is exciting for me and the whole city. I don't know what happened in the past but I [think] the community now is really excited about football returning to Los Angeles. We're all working together, and I think that was missing in the private sector and the public sector ... really coming together to make sure we can make this happen for real this time.

"I used to have season tickets to the Raiders and the Rams, watching Marcus [Allen] and Eric Dickerson running the football, and I sure do miss Sundays going to those games."

The Raiders and Rams left Los Angeles a generation ago because they found better deals elsewhere.

The NFL cannot afford to fail in Los Angeles again.

The NFL has figured out that it doesn't need Los Angeles to thrive. The league is at an all-time high in popularity. Ratings are better than they've ever been. Revenue is robust.

That confidence is why Tuesday's press conference wasn't about convincing the NFL on why it should return to Los Angeles or even about demonstrating civic unity to the league's owners.

It was about convincing Los Angeles why it should embrace the NFL again.

"This is about the community today," AEG president Leiweke said. "It's not about the NFL, it's not about AEG, it's not even about conventions.

"It's about jobs."

Not what you expect him to say, huh?

But it wasn't just coming from Leiweke. Each of the 15 speakers on Tuesday talked about job creation and economic development.

It wasn't a coincidence that Leiweke repeated his promise that this project will not cost Los Angeles taxpayers a dime.

"This project has to be driven by the public sector," he said. "But it will be paid for by the private sector. Mr. Mayor, I promise. And I want to repeat this because some people don't seem to get it."

It was a statement aimed at three groups: the politicians sharing the stage, the general public worried about an already-broke general fund and AEG's chief rival, billionaire developer Ed Roski of Majestic Realty, who has shovel-ready plans to build a 75,000-seat, open-air football stadium in the City of Industry and has repeatedly claimed that AEG's proposal will cost taxpayers over a billion dollars.

Leiweke called Tuesday's announcement of the $700 million naming rights deal with Farmers "the most significant step forward in the last 15 years in our efforts as a community, as leaders, to return the NFL to Los Angeles."

He's right.

But the next steps are even more important.

The NFL finally seems to want Los Angeles back.

Now Los Angeles really has to want the NFL. Ramona Shelburne is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter.

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