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L.A. fans tell NFL, it's our way or the highway

Los Angeles's hesitancy to put up money for a new football team points out growing disaffection nationwide over the economics of sports.

Monty Clark used to come down to the Los Angeles Coliseum - driving the 1-1/2 hours from his Ventura home through traffic as thick as an Irish stew - just to watch the Raiders football team.

Today, two years after the Raiders left town for Oakland, Mr. Clark is playing tour guide to his wife and an out-of-town visitor, pointing to the sod that hosted the first Super Bowl and the track that bore the athletes of two Olympic Games. But he makes it clear that he would not start coming back if football returns.

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"After you get away from having professional football games in the area for a while, you get used to it," Clark says without hesitation. "I don't think we're missing a thing."

Many people around here agree with him. While citizens of other cities are paying $300 million or more to make sure top-level sports are a part of their civic portfolio, the people of Los Angeles have so far refused to give in to the National Football League's threat: No new team without more public funding.

Specifically, the NFL last week said that if L.A. wants an expansion team, it has to recraft its proposal to renovate the Coliseum, or build a new stadium. But that ultimatum has galvanized many against the project. In the words of one radio talk-show host: "This is L.A. If you want to do business here, you pay us."

Yet beyond the swagger lies a deeper nationwide dissatisfaction over the ever-more commercial direction of sport. And L.A. - with its media clout and secure public image - may be willing to make the statement that other cities have been afraid to.

"Los Angeles's attitude speaks volumes for what people in the US see as the financial excesses in sports," says Robert Baade, an economics professor at Lake Forest College in Illinois who follows stadium issues.

In the past, cities such as St. Louis, Cleveland, and Baltimore have stood up to what they saw as overly demanding owners, forcing teams to move elsewhere for sweeter deals. But in each case, the city sought out a replacement - and was willing to use millions in taxpayer money and other perks to get one back.

Given the current feeling around town, it's hard to see how L.A. would do the same. The most recent poll shows that only 38 percent of Angelenos believe getting a new football team is either very or somewhat important.

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Even a city with three Rolls Royce dealerships has its limits. "I'm kind of happy that the folks in the know don't want to line the pockets of these rich businessmen," Clark says. "We pay way too much for athletics."

Indeed, around the Coliseum - the stadium that would most likely be the home to any new L.A. team - people are decidedly ambivalent. Yes, it would be nice to refurbish this cavernous marble cathedral of American sport - stone benches carved with the 1984 Olympic logo are covered with graffiti. But it's not worth the $150 million the NFL wants.

Bobby Mitchell, a middle schooler with spikey tufts of black hair and a toothy grin, says he'd love to have a new team - he used to go to Raiders games, too. But asked if his parents should have to pay higher taxes to get the club, Bobby answers: "No way. It's not worth it."

Despite this, the NFL is still desperate to get a team in L.A. Football is the most-watched sport on TV, yet any deal the league strikes with the networks will suffer without a team in the nation's second-largest media market. As a result, the league has virtually ignored a bid from Houston - which includes nearly $400 million in public funds - hoping L.A. will come around.

The city has until Sept. 15 to come up with a new plan. But if the league's demands don't change, say local officials, the negotiations are as good as over.

For Kamal Ziad of Marina del Rey, that's just fine. Here at the Olympic swimming pool, a long field goal away from the Coliseum, the sharply dressed father of two says he's got plenty of other things to do.

"We have other teams we can go watch - the Lakers, the Dodgers," he says, squinting behind his violet-tinted sunglasses. Besides, like thousands of other L.A. residents, his

sport is futbol, not football. "We don't have to pay so much."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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