Stadium remains sticking point, but there's hope

DEARBORN, Mich. -- Halfway down the staircase that leads to the lobby of the hotel here where NFL owners convened for the past two days, Eric Grubman, the senior vice president who is serving as point man for the league's potential return to Los Angeles, paused Thursday afternoon to yell back at a couple of West Coast reporters.

"We're coming to Los Angeles," Grubman hollered, "so you guys better get ready."

In truth, Grubman had the formula backward. First, the city has to get ready for the return of the NFL, essentially with a viable stadium plan from one of the four sites vying for the right to become home of a Los Angeles franchise. And then, as these meetings further indicated, the league will be back for the first time since abandoning the nation's second-largest market following the 1994 season.

As anticipated, there were no earth-shattering developments from the league's annual fall owners meetings, particularly on the Los Angeles issue. But the matter of moving back into the lucrative Southern California market seemed to be incrementally yet sufficiently nudged forward enough that even some skeptical owners now believe the league will be there within the next five years.

Whether Los Angeles would be home to an expansion team or a relocated current team has yet to be determined. When and where (and some owners, who have pointed out the league's success without a team in L.A., have questioned why as well) are also TBA. The assemblage Thursday, though, seemed enthused by a 40-minute presentation that detailed the status of a move back into the Los Angeles market.

The goal remains to have a site determined by next spring, to move forward then with the construction of a stadium, and to begin identifying potential owners.

Heard all of this before? If you're a hard-core NFL fan, doubtless you have. But this time around, even if owners aren't exactly desperate to get back into Los Angeles, they certainly seem determined.

"I've got great memories of taking my children to football games," Patriots owner Bob Kraft said. "Those are moments, honestly, that you cherish. We can't afford to have an entire generation miss that kind of experience."

Added Falcons owner Arthur Blank: "I don't know that we absolutely have to have a franchise [in Los Angeles]. I mean, we've been a pretty successful league during the period there hasn't been a team there. But we'll be a better league, and a stronger league, with a team out there."

Not everyone in the ownership fraternity agrees with those sentiments, but even some of the dissidents privately acknowledged that Thursday's presentation was solid, and that the momentum is certainly in Los Angeles' favor now.

The driving force in the league, of course, is revenues. And owners anticipate a huge revenue stream from the fertile L.A. market. Current owners would evenly split the franchise fee paid by the steward of a Los Angeles team. Since ticket prices likely would be high, the pool of revenues shared by visiting teams would increase. And, of course, the league would love to be able to dangle a return to Los Angeles as a carrot in its negotiations with the television networks.

The current network contracts expire following the 2005 season. Talks have already begun, and being able to introduce a completed L.A. deal next spring would probably fatten the rights fees.

For now, the sticking point for Los Angeles is as it has been for years -- a viable stadium. Not surprisingly, in its ongoing effort to secure a state-of-the-art facility, the league is using as an incentive the likelihood that L.A. would host the Super Bowl in either 2009 or 2010. A new stadium, in fact, likely would be ensured multiple NFL championship games.

"But it's got to be the right stadium," Kraft said, "if we're going to be successful. I can tell you that from first-hand experience with my own [franchise]."

The league remains prepared to fund construction costs for a stadium and then would pass on those costs to the owner of the franchise. Currently there are four sites -- the Los Angeles Coliseum, the Rose Bowl, a tract of land in Carson, and one in Anaheim -- competing to host a Los Angeles team.

According to several owners, the Carson site is running far behind and could be dropped from consideration. Grubman all but acknowledged Carson is losing ground, noting, "There are four sites making progress and three of them are making it faster than the one other site."

Of the four, the Coliseum site, where plans call for a new stadium to be erected inside the shell of the historic arena, was the only one to dispatch representatives here, and it was already gaining some momentum before the owners meetings. All four sites missed an Oct. 15 deadline set by the league for completing term agreements. But Coliseum officials were confident they can have everything in order quickly.

With all of the sites seeking an edge, time is of the essence, although it is now likely the league won't be back in Los Angeles for the 2008 season, as some had hoped.

"I'm not hung up on 2008," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "I don't know where 2008 came from."

Where the league is coming from, however, isn't as important in Southern California as where the NFL is returning within the next few years. And even though Angelinos are accustomed to traffic gridlock, barring an unanticipated detour the prevailing sentiment here was that the NFL is coming to Los Angeles again.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.