Wednesday, May 24, 2006
Money, future expansion deterrents to new franchise
By John Clayton
DENVER -- So everyone wants to know: What NFL team or teams eventually will play in the Los Angeles area"
Folks, barring a bail-out move to an interim site, there won't be a Los Angeles-based team before 2010. That's a long time and this process of finding a site is going to be more painful and complicated than most realize. How painful?
Only those who form the 11-man committee trying to resolve this matter reluctantly realize expansion can't be ruled out even though expanding the league beyond 32 teams will be as painful as a root canal. Under no circumstance does the NFL want to expand.
During the NFL owners spring meeting, several owners and teams polled about expansion had a simple response. The answer was "no." There is no sentiment to expand. Owners scratch their heads when asked if they can even think of a fellow owner who embraces the idea of expansion to accommodate the Los Angeles market.
However, the only owners realizing it could be a painful alternative are those on the Los Angeles working committee. They realize expansion might be a last resort if the only way to make the numbers work for the Los Angeles Coliseum or Anaheim is putting two teams in a complex similar to having the Jets and Giants in Giants Stadium.
It's going to cost $800 million just to renovate the Coliseum. Adding in the cost of getting a team and funding it eliminates most of the top businessmen in the country. That's why the group will spend next month talking to business leaders in both cities trying to see if it can work financially. The NFL knows California's ability to use public money is, to say the least, limited.
However, the NFL can be creative. If private interests can kick in significant money for a stadium project, that would help to make it work. The league certainly has the ability to assure the Los Angeles stadium future Super Bowls, maybe as often as every three or four years. That's a huge financial carrot.
But no one on the committee can assure anyone that the numbers can work. It's going to take the collective strength and hard work of every owner on that committee to find solutions, and that's why it probably will happen. The Los Angeles Coliseum has the lead because it is in Los Angeles and the community and politicians are working together better than ever.
The Coliseum Commission has its act together. The mayor is working to get something done. When calls for help are made, answers come back quickly. In the end, there are enough of the power owners working on this Los Angeles project that something will get done and Los Angeles will get a team -- or teams.
But what teams?
Expansion is clearly the last resort. The current 32-team model works both competitively and financially. If a 33rd team was added, a 34th franchise eventually would be formed and that's a major problem.
"I think 33 teams is awkward," Chiefs president Carl Peterson said. "It's taken a long time to get to 32 teams with eight four-team divisions. I think 32 teams is the right number."
Colts general manager Bill Polian, a member of the competition committee, worries about the quality of the product by adding more teams. He realizes it's not as simple as finding 53 players for an expansion team. Teams need eight-man practice squads. Teams build up injury lists. Most teams go under the assumption that they have to have 64 players to get through a season.
"There are not enough football players now," Polian said. "To take 64 players out of the current pool would make it even tougher. Look at the New York Giants in the playoffs last year. They had to sign two linebackers off the street and start them in the playoffs."
In many ways, it's taken the NFL a couple of years to readjust to the expansion Houston Texans, who opened play in 2002. After four years, rosters have filled out enough with draft choices and backups that teams feel as though there is adequate depth on most teams. Where the strain is most felt now is the availability to replace players in case of injury.
Fewer than 100 unrestricted free agents from this year's list of 351 remain available. About half of the players cut have new homes. The Packers lost offensive lineman Kevin Barry for the season Tuesday because of a torn quad. It's May, but the reality of the current market is that it's going to be hard for the Packers to find equal value for Barry on the free agent market, and Barry isn't even a starter.
Rosters are stretched thin enough that there aren't adequate replacements. The Seahawks learned that in the Super Bowl. Once safety Marquand Manuel was hurt in the first half of the Super Bowl, the Seahawks were cooked on defense. They had to use Etric Pruitt, who effectively was a practice squad player. Their defense suffered.
"Expansion does not make sense for the NFL at this juncture," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said. "We don't improve anything by expanding. We water it down."
Jones is not only speaking about the product but he's also speaking about the economic model of a team. The new collective bargaining agreement extension in March was more costly than any owner anticipated. Adding another partner to share the revenue through expansion is even more of a problem now than it was a year ago.
"As an owner, all you would get from an expansion team is what you would have gotten in TV money when they pay you a lot of money," Jones said. "All you get is what you would have already gotten had you not sold it."
With no expansion, the list of possible moving options to Los Angeles includes the Chargers, the Saints, the Bills and the Jaguars. The Chargers would like to work out something in San Diego county, and they still have time to do it. Saints fans purchased more than 55,000 season tickets, and that type of commitment from the fans keeps the idea of staying in New Orleans alive in the short term. Bills owner Ralph Wilson has conveyed long-term concerns about football in Western New York although he will never move the team. Wayne Weaver is trying to make things work in Jacksonville in what is considered a tight market.
The lost generation of pro football fans in the Los Angeles area should be hopeful of getting an NFL team in the next four years. The focus now is deciding on a stadium site, getting it together and letting the NFL's subcommittee sweat the hard details of the how and why.
"Expansion does not make sense for the NFL at this juncture. We don't improve anything by expanding. We water it down."
-- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.