Mon, May

Sports Politics: The Raiders … I Can Take 'em or Leave 'em


GELFAND’S WORLD--I have a scar running through my right eyebrow, and it symbolizes why I don't give a damn whether the NFL comes back to Los Angeles or not. I intend this column to be a polite response to the piece by Daniel Guss in which he faults the elected leadership of Los Angeles for losing the Raiders to Las Vegas. 

The unstated implication in that column is that it is a great achievement to get a professional football team for your city. And the further unstated assumption is that it makes a difference whether that football team is located within your city limits or just outside of them. Otherwise, the writer would presumably be jumping with joy over the return of two professional football teams to the L.A. adjacent city of Inglewood. There may be a further unstated assumption with regard to the relative merits of the Raiders vs. the Rams and/or Chargers, but I'm unable to identify whether that specific view exists. 

I disagree with the basic assumption. I don't think that having one professional football team (among so many others, all over the country) compares in any way with being the foremost town for movie making, being the nation's prime seaport, or being a world capitol of theoretical physics. Furthermore, my view is that the city of Los Angeles won this round with the NFL, just as it has won numerous rounds previously. 

Winning vs losing depends on what you are trying to achieve, and whether or not you achieved it. 

The payoff from watching sports, I would suggest, comes from our ability to identify with the athlete and the team. For one magical Saturday afternoon, we get to be the guy carrying the ball against Notre Dame, or the base runner on first against the Giants. I can still remember Craig Fertig throwing the winning touchdown pass against a previously undefeated Notre Dame team, and who can forget Gibson's home run? 

Magic moments, yes. We all get to be David battling Goliath for a few seconds. But there is a difference between fandom and city governance, because there is a difference between identifying with the team vs really being on the team or owning the team. One is make believe. The other isn't. 

There is also a difference between college sports and professional sports. I would argue that our ability to identify with the local college comes a lot easier than our ability to identify with the professional sports team that has just announced that it is leaving town. UCLA isn't going to pack up its buildings and move to a different town that makes a better offer. It's always going to be UCLA in terms of film studies, chemistry, and ancient history. 

So back to that scar and how it relates to the comments by Mr Guss about Las Vegas winning the battle for the Oakland etc Raiders. When I started college, one of my classmates mentioned that I might be interested in something called Rugby (technically it's Rugby Football) because that's what my college had, and it was something like American football. That last statement turned out to be only partly right. Rugby is something like American football if you leave in the tackling and leave out the blocking. Oh, and you also leave out the helmet and the pads, although being an American, I used a mouth guard. 

So over the years, Rugby was my game. After 17 years of playing rugby, first at the intercollegiate level and then at the club level, I no longer feel any urge to identify with professional football players. I just don't need to have a professional team at hand to provide me with self esteem. It's true that the pros are at a completely different level as athletes and hitters, but it also became true that I no longer had to prove something to myself along the lines of athletics and physicality. I had knocked heads with the Big Ten and with Cal, had been knocked cold a few times, and somehow avoided the big knee injury. I enjoyed sports a lot in my day, but at this point, having another team win for me (and for the strength of my ego) has lessened. 

And then there is that scar through the eyebrow. Why it is germane in this discussion is that it was inflicted on me by one of my teammates in a practice, and it was this same teammate who went on to become a famous professor who studied the impact of professional sports on local economies. Along with other careful observers, he found that adding a professional football stadium (and team) to the local economy may not do a lot of harm, money-wise, but it doesn't do much good, either. All those ticket sales? That money is taken away from other expenditures. People with enough discretionary income to go to professional football games could spend the same amount of money in lots of other ways. People who live in cities lacking a pro football team find ways to entertain themselves. Local boosters seeking a team always promote the economic benefits in terms of hotel occupancy and local sales taxes, but in the net, the results have been unimpressive over a large number of decades and over a lot of teams. 

In bidding on the services of a professional football team, we are trying to buy two things -- the entertainment value of the sporting events, and the emotional value of having the team to identify with. In the case of professional sports, that identification is at best a stretch, because the team is only committed to you as long as the money doesn't run out. Some leagues fold and some teams leave Baltimore in the middle of the night and drive to Indianapolis. How can we view Los Angeles as anything but a way station for NFL teams? 

It's up to the sports fan to decide whether the price of a pair of tickets and a couple of beers is worth the hefty price. That's a personal decision for you to make. But things get beyond the personal when a sports team wants the tax payers to subsidize the construction. Half a billion or a billion dollars is a substantial amount of money, even for a big city like Los Angeles. Whether the mayor should chase after a professional sports team by chasing after the City Council to invest tax dollars is a collective decision that belongs to the voters as a group. 

The history of the past several decades is that Los Angeles tax payers don't want to cover the costs of a new stadium just to service billionaire owners. We've got a couple of perfectly good fields if the intent is to watch a football game. The stadium boxes would only be there to serve the interests of the few. Our elected officials have held the line against such public expenditures. 

This is not to say that a lot of our elected City Council members didn't want to bring back the Rams (or some team, any team). They begged and pleaded, negotiated, got down on their hands and knees, and then begged some more. The one thing they wouldn't do was to shovel public dollars into a new billion-dollar stadium designed to service the wealthy. 

Even the die-hard fans who still were carrying a torch for the old L.A. Rams admitted that for the NFL, the function of Los Angeles was to be a threat to other cities. If those Minneapolis (et al) tax payers didn't come up with the big bucks, their teams -- the Vikings, Ravens, Rams, or Raiders -- would move to Los Angeles. The extortion racket worked pretty well. You had St Louis and San Diego begging like jilted lovers for One More Try. We'll try to find maybe three hundred million, and get some local billionaire to pony up another half billion. 

During the long winter of no professional football, Los Angeles mayors have been asked how much money they will support for the construction of that new stadium. Eric Garcetti was succinct: "Zero." Other L.A. mayors were equally straightforward. "Bring us back a team," they would say, "But don't expect the taxpayers to cover your team's costs." By refusing to get rolled by the NFL owners, the mayors and City Council of Los Angeles have won their end of the battle. The city didn't get a team, but the taxpayers didn't get fleeced, either. I think we can take pride in the fact that we have a greater sense of self worth than the cities which caved. Extortion victims like Minneapolis can't say the same thing. 

Every city which is in the running for a sports franchise has the same choice. It's a question of funding the existence of a sports team that we (as individuals) can learn to love, or saving our money. It's a balance between spending real money and expecting the taxpayers as a whole to engage in mass psychological identification vs. spending the money on something else. 

Like I was saying, the scar tells me that I don't have a need to identify with some other set of athletes anymore. Sure I will root for the U.S. soccer team in the World Cup and for the Dodgers if they ever get out of the first round of the playoffs. But I don't need to. If it happens it will be fun, and if it doesn't, so be it. 

Interestingly, I was chatting with a former professional athlete a few weeks ago. When I asked him whether he felt any need to identify with professional sports teams, he responded No. He only watches college football. It was obvious that he had proved himself to himself and didn't feel the same way that a frustrated adolescent fan would feel. 

I have to give Mr Guss credit for one observation. I think that there is at least a possibility that Las Vegas will break the odds and actually develop some financial gain from bringing in a professional football team. This would of course depend on Las Vegas merchandising football tickets to the tourist trade. Football would be one more entertainment option along with magic, lounge singers, and burlesque. It probably wouldn't add any money to city government revenues, but it would go well in the usual Vegas advertising blitzes. The point for Vegas is to bring in elbows to pull the slots and finger tips to add chips to the roulette tables. The taxpayers of Nevada can cover a little bit of football as part of that giant advertising machine that is the Vegas strip. 

But things are different here in greater Los Angeles. However you slice it, the existence of the Rams in Inglewood is unlikely to affect the local economy very much, one way or the other. The economists who have studied this question over multiple decades and dozens of cities have made this clear, and that includes the one who split my eyebrow with his forehead. If there is to be any contribution to the local economy, it will be to the region as a whole. A few tens of thousands of people who travel to Los Angeles will stay in hotels all over the area, not just in Inglewood. Yes, a Super Bowl is a big deal nowadays (the first one wasn't so big, even if it was held right here in L.A.), but LAX moves seventy million people a year, with or without a Roman Numeraled football game. 

And notice something else. New York nominally hosts a couple of pro football teams, but they play in a place called East Rutherford, New Jersey. That distancing doesn't seem to have depressed the price of tickets to Hamilton. San Francisco nominally hosts a pro football team, but it plays forty miles down the coast. This doesn't seem to have made the city any less desirable to Silicon Valley millionaires or to tourists. 

One interesting point raised by The Economist: Pro football teams not only cost the locals a lot of money, they result in increased crime. 

Just Breaking 

The next one to fall is Devin Nunes, who will step down from chairing the House investigation of Trump's Russian ties. At what point will the elected politicians start to realize that there is real danger in becoming associated with Trump's criminality?


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]) 


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