“The NFL needs Los Angeles more than L.A. needs the NFL.”
I said that, in 2002, as I opposed a nascent effort to build an NFL stadium in Los Angeles.
I was wrong.
I had read newspaper articles and academic studies that spoke of struggling cities forking over real cash to build stadiums while neglecting basic needs. I thought that the NFL proposal back then was more of the same.
I was wrong, for at least two reasons.
First, the notion that the NFL in some way “needs” Los Angeles may make for great talk radio, but it is a fallacy. The league is composed of 32 owners who, on the basis of shared revenue largely from television contracts, operate teams that run in the black to the tune of several million dollars annually. Planting a team in Los Angeles just does not increase the size of the NFL’s pie. True, ticket sales from an L.A. team would constitute revenue that would be shared (ticket sales are split between home and visiting teams), but more lucrative sales of luxury boxes and personal seat licenses would not be. A team here might make the L.A.-based owner richer (although that owner would be placing an enormous financial bet on Los Angeles and thus earn these returns), but would likely not affect the bottom line of the 31 other owners.
Would a team based in Los Angeles excite the local fan base in a new way? Sure. Would that excitement translate into higher TV ratings and more TV revenue for the league as a whole down the line? Doubtful — ratings are already high here and elsewhere, and the TV contracts are already loss leaders for the networks.
The league would benefit from Super Bowls hosted in Los Angeles, and that benefit could be substantial. But this fact does not support the statement that the NFL needs Los Angeles more than L.A. needs the NFL, because Los Angeles would also benefit from Super Bowls (Super Bowls are regularly occurring, economically measurable events, and the benefits they provide host cities have been documented elsewhere). The prospect of hosting Super Bowls in Los Angeles should incentivize both the NFL and Los Angeles to locate a stadium and a team here.
So the claim that the NFL “needs” Los Angeles in an appreciable way that should cause the league to feel gratitude for the largesse of L.A. policymakers is simply untrue.
Second, and more importantly, I was wrong to oppose an effort to build a stadium in Los Angeles.
Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times has already written about the economic benefits that approximately one billion stadium construction dollars would bring. And I don’t need to lecture anyone about the excitement that the Dodgers and Lakers regularly bring L.A. fans, or the unique way that Dodger pennant races or Laker parades bring our disparate social classes together.
Instead, I want to discuss the more subtle, community-building impact of a stadium and a team. I didn’t understand this issue in 2002, but I know more now about the city than I did then.
Los Angeles is an anomaly. We may have beaches and mountains, but we have very little in the way of shared civic space. The “Civic Center” itself is a fib of a name. We lack grand walking avenues, a true central park and pedestrian plazas. We drive from home to work on elevated freeways, park underground and then drive home again, rarely interacting with one another in the way common daily in New York, Chicago, Washington or San Francisco.
When we feel a need for communal spaces, we turn to developed space, not public space. The Grove, Century City, L.A. Live, Universal CityWalk and Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade are popular precisely because city planners permitted the city to grow wide and not deep. They fill a gap that our city’s infrastructure cannot — pedestrian-friendly space for thousands of people at a time.
L.A. Live, of course, is across from Staples Center. Anyone visiting L.A. Live on game night knows about the communal value that is added from the central plaza, the buzz of its video screens and the dining and social spots that spin off in multiple directions. On game night, L.A. Live feels like a city.
You can get that same communal feeling on the USC campus before a home game at the Coliseum or on the grassy fields outside the Rose Bowl before a UCLA game.
And that’s what intrigues me from an urban policy standpoint about an NFL stadium — it addresses what Bret Easton Ellis’ narrator was talking about in “Less Than Zero” when he said, “People are afraid to merge in Los Angeles.” It fills the void in Paul Haggis’ opening lines from “Crash” — “It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”
If we build a stadium and bring an NFL team to Los Angeles, it won’t just be the players who’ll crash into each other.
Each year, my friends and I travel to Green Bay, Wis., to watch the Packers play the Minnesota Vikings. Green Bay is not just cold and small (only 100,000 people live there — slightly more than fit in the stadium), it’s remote — a two-hour drive from Milwaukee and a more than three-hour drive from Chicago. We started this tradition for the football and the history, but we’ve continued it as much for the experience outside Lambeau Field. It’s an experience that goes beyond tailgating or being a fan — it’s a true feeling of community. That it’s a feeling that comes to life on unadorned concrete parking lots, independent of civic infrastructure, population density or frequency makes it all the more potent.
I know the saga of the NFL and Los Angeles is a lot more complicated than that, and I know that any new stadium will host a relatively small number of events annually.
But in a communally starved city, we shouldn’t close the door so quickly on enterprises that add community value.
Los Angeles needs the NFL.