In the eightyears since Eddie DeBartolo gave up his ownership interest in the San Francisco49ers, Niners fans have fantasized about his possible return. The once loftyfranchise has foundered under the reign of DeBartolo's brother-in-law, JohnYork, whose condescension and cost-consciousness have alienated employees andinspired the website dumpyork.com. Meanwhile DeBartolo, the anti-York, evokesimages of gregarious generosity--and success. The three-day Super Bowl reuniongala he threw for hundreds of former employees in Las Vegas in March was areminder of happier times.
Now how's thisfor a surprise twist: DeBartolo and former 49ers president Carmen Policy,together again, presiding over ... the revived Los Angeles Raiders?
It would rank asthe Bay Area's biggest sporting nightmare--not to mention a seismic shift inCalifornia's football landscape. But the scenario has been broached byDeBartolo and Policy, and the NFL's desire to break back into the nation'ssecond-largest media market could help make it a reality. Most owners arereluctant to disrupt the league's 32-team symmetry or further split up TVrevenue, making an expansion team in L.A. highly unlikely. Instead, an existingfranchise will probably relocate under new ownership, with the Raiders, Saints,Chargers, Vikings, Bills or even the 49ers as the leading candidates.
DeBartolo andPolicy, the duo whose bold leadership helped bring five Super Bowl titles toSan Francisco, have heard the rumors that Raiders boss Al Davis is in declininghealth. That, plus attendance problems in Oakland, are why they have Silver andBlack on the brain. "Carmen and I have discussed different things, andthat's one of the teams that intrigues us," DeBartolo told SI. "L.A. isa costly situation, but it's wide-open, and I think the right group could makeit work."
Given the natureof his exit in 1998, DeBartolo's potential NFL reemergence is something of ashock. A year after becoming embroiled in a Louisiana gaming scandal (thengovernor Edwin Edwards elicited a bribe in exchange for a casino license),DeBartolo pleaded guilty to not reporting an extortion attempt, a felony. Hewas given two years probation, and the NFL fined him $1 million. He then gavehis half of the 49ers to his sister, Denise DeBartolo York, in exchange fortheir late father's real estate holdings and moved to Tampa. He was in NFLexile, an untouchable because of his legal issues and their gamblingovertones.
But time hasrevitalized DeBartolo's image, not to mention his portfolio. He has quietlybuilt up his real estate empire to a reported net worth of $1.4 billion, andlast September Forbes rated him the 235th-richest American. Several of theold-line NFL owners who were eager to see him go are now out of the league, andtwo prominent owners told SI they believe DeBartolo would be approved should heattempt to purchase a team. "His accomplishments in the NFL aresignificant," says the Cowboys' Jerry Jones. "A progressive owner ispriceless."
DeBartolo, 59,says buying the Buccaneers would be his first choice. (He looked intopurchasing them three years ago but was rebuffed by owner Malcolm Glazer.) Buthe and Policy--they had a falling out shortly before DeBartolo left the 49ersbut have repaired their relationship--have contemplated other teams, includingthe Saints, and their interest in the Raiders is piqued by whispers that Davis,76, is ill. He has been using a walker because of a leg ailment and did notshow up at February's scouting combine or a recent minicamp. "For Al Davisto miss the combine, that's unusual," DeBartolo said.
The Raiders, fortheir part, say that everything is status quo. "Al Davis is as vital andvibrant as ever," says CEO Amy Trask. "The closest Eddie and Carmenwill come to taking a look at the Raiders will be watching them on TV."Still, however Oakland plays out, it will take someone like DeBartolo to makethings work in L.A. He's charismatic and emotionally invested, the type ofpersonality needed to sell football in what has been a lukewarm market in thepast. And given the resistance of Southern California politicians to financingstadium projects, it will take deep pockets. The cost of the team and a newvenue or a refurbished Coliseum could be $1.5 billion.
DeBartolobelieves that he and Policy could find the partners to pull it off. Jones, oneof 15 owners who participated in a May 17 conference call that detailed L.A.stadium proposals, thinks DeBartolo and L.A. would be a perfect fit. "Tome, L.A. is about the ownership," Jones said. "Money alone won't get itdone. It's going to take some serious talent and passion, and boy, when itcomes to passion, inevitably you think about someone like Eddie."
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ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN CUNEO