-- The NFL opens another season tonight in New England, 3,000 miles from the second-largest media market in America and a Southern California area that will be without a professional football team for a 10th straight year.

As with Washington-area efforts to land a baseball team, Los Angeles' quest for an NFL team spans years, comprising a story filled with fans who have watched teams leave, multiple stadium scenarios and an owner to the north who feels he has rights to the market.

"Trying to figure out the NFL and Los Angeles is like trying to solve a Rubik's Cube with your eyes shut," said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports business consultant who also teaches a course in sports business management at USC. "You think you may be going in the right direction, but when they take off the blindfold, you're totally wrong. Someone is going to write a book about this in five, 10, 20 years. I have no interest in doing that. I'm not good at writing mysteries."

Still, the NFL has publicly put itself on the clock, although its officials decline to say whether it wants to relocate a team or create an expansion team in Los Angeles. The only certainty is that Commissioner Paul Tagliabue told owners in May that he wants a team in the market by the 2008 season, playing in a state-of-the-art stadium suitable for Super Bowls. The NFL would like to make a decision at its owners' meeting next May, though the letter did include a caveat all too familiar to Washington baseball fans: "Please note that the timeline is also subject to change at the NFL's discretion."

Los Angeles is a market with a fan base of over 15 million -- and a wide range of recreational options aside from NFL football. USC, now the No. 1 college team in the country, attracts an average of 77,800 to its home games in the Coliseum, and UCLA can draw 60,000-plus to its home field at the Rose Bowl, where it recently signed a 20-year lease. There are two NBA teams, two Major League Baseball teams, two NHL franchises, big-time college basketball and pro soccer, not to mention the allure of the beaches, golf courses and mountains.

It's also an area that has been burned by its most recent NFL experiences. After that 1994 season, Georgia Frontiere took the Rams from Anaheim to St. Louis and the team won the Super Bowl in January 2000. Al Davis moved the Raiders to Los Angeles from Oakland after the 1984 season, then moved them back to Oakland after the 1994 season.

Just as Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos considers the D.C. area to be part of his fan base, Davis, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, considers Los Angeles his territory.

"There's still a lot of Raiders support in the town," Carter said. "But if you're a potential sponsor, is that the brand you want to be associated with? If you're the NFL, do you want the Raiders in here with all that baggage? I don't think that's realistic. Someone will pay him off. It's why he still talks about it. He's setting himself up to extract one last check out of it."

Over the years, the NFL has flirted with a dozen stadium sites around the area.

In an Aug. 5 letter sent to three of the competing stadium entities -- the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum near downtown, the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena and the city of Carson, with its 157-acre undeveloped former landfill 25 minutes from the Los Angeles airport -- the league told each that it wants fully-executed agreements in its hands in time for the owners' first annual meetings in March.

The NFL timetable letter went out under the signature of Neil Glat, the NFL's senior vice president for strategic planning and business development. Since then, a fourth potential player has also come into the picture, a somewhat surprising 11th-hour "change at the league's discretion."

The City of Anaheim in Orange County, an hour down the freeway from downtown Los Angeles on a rare light traffic day, announced Aug. 26 that it had been approached several weeks earlier by the NFL about the possibility of building a 70,500-seat stadium near Angel Stadium and Arrowhead Pond. The site would be an additional crown jewel in the so-called Platinum Triangle, an 807-acre site Anaheim officials see as an eventual downtown complex for the sprawling suburban county.

Officials at the original three sites said in recent interviews they were caught off guard by Anaheim's entry, if only because the city in which the Rams played before leaving for St. Louis is a far different market than Los Angeles. People talk about an "Orange Curtain" that separates the two, much like the differences between Baltimore and Washington just 40 miles apart.

"People from Los Angeles generally will not drive to the other side of the world in Anaheim, and they don't come to Los Angeles," said Kathy Schloessman, president of the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission charged with helping to run a wide variety of events.

"L.A. is a celebrity-driven town, and they generally won't go to Anaheim. And people in Orange County stay in Orange County. It's a totally separate market."

Still, having been down so many dead-end roads with the league, particularly with the NFL's shocking decision to expand to Houston instead of Los Angeles in 1999, representatives of the three original sites essentially have taken the high road in their public pronouncements, insisting that looking at Anaheim is merely NFL business as usual.

"The NFL is very determined about getting to an end game in Los Angeles and they're going about in a pretty disciplined way," said John Moag, the Baltimore-based consultant who was a leading player in convincing the Cleveland Browns to move to Maryland. He has been working for the Rose Bowl the last two years in its attempt to house an NFL team. "If they're going to commit $500 million in a new stadium, they want to make sure their options are right.

"They've sorted out their options on the table and I would suspect they're looking at even more sites. I'd be surprised if they didn't exhaust every option out there. [Anaheim] was a kick in the butt from the standpoint that it was somewhat of a surprise. When you are going through a process where you're working very closely with someone and all of a sudden a new girl shows up at the dance, obviously everyone's nose will get a little out of joint."

Said Pat Lynch, general manager of the Coliseum, "we know what's happening here, we know what's happening in Pasadena and Carson. We can't begin to worry about sites outside of Los Angeles because there's an endless list. They could go to El Toro, Irvine, anywhere. Our job is to keep the focus on Los Angeles. They can go wherever they want to go. To me, it's a matter of perseverance."

But not everyone takes that view. Carter, who has done work in recent years for the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum, said last week that Anaheim represented "a kick in the stomach to the Rose Bowl and maybe even lower than that to the Coliseum. I'm sure they both remain confident, but they also have to wonder if they're also being schooled here. . . . It's very deflating.

"At the end of the day, the fans and the people trying to get a team here are starting to distrust the NFL and its strategy to squeeze every benefit it can from any stadium proposal it gets. Right now, you could say Anaheim is the winner and the Rose Bowl and Coliseum are the losers. But the biggest loser may be the NFL. They've really hurt themselves in terms of public relations in this market. It's like the old Ronald Reagan thing -- 'Oh, there they go again.' And if you're Anaheim, you better know what you're getting into."

Pasadena is by no means united in a drive to get a team. "Our cultural and economic identities have nothing to do with whether or not there's a football team somewhere in the megalopolis," read a July 23 editorial in the Pasadena Star-News. "During the many years since the Rams de-camped to Anaheim and then St. Louis and the Raiders came, scammed and went back home, we've seen zero loss of self-esteem among Southlanders."

And the Anaheim delegation claims it is fully aware of what it's up against.

"I do believe their interest here is legitimate," Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle said. "Even if we were not actively pursuing it before, every discussion we've had with them we've gone into with our eyes wide open. We know the history. We have a degree of caution just like everyone else does. We're not going to do anything crazy."

The league essentially is prepared to put up the money -- estimated at all four to be in the $500-million range -- to build a privately financed stadium, much as it did when the Browns left Cleveland, ultimately to be replaced by an expansion team. The league likely would maintain an ownership interest in the facility, and pay off the stadium debt and eventually recoup its investment with revenue from the team that will occupy the building, as well as with profits from future Super Bowls.

"Plain and simple, we are now trying to bring a plan to the ownership that is actionable," said Eric Grubman, formerly with Goldman Sachs and now a league vice president working primarily on the NFL's return to the Los Angeles market. "I will not rank them. These things have tempos. They speed up, they slow down. I would praise all of their efforts. They are all making different progress. But if we had turned pessimistic about any of them, we would tell them and not waste their time. . . . The bottom line is that we would love to be in Los Angeles. We also know that they've done just fine without the NFL. Any deal we make has to be good for both sides."

Grubman also insisted there was no ulterior motive in looking at Anaheim, no attempt to gain leverage over its three original prospects.

"This is not a tactical maneuver," he said. "The site was brought to us by a third party [whom he declined to identify]. It is an ongoing effort to develop the best sites in the market. It's not mysterious. It's not an effort to replace existing parties and set up a non-Los Angeles situation."

Representatives from each of the four sites indicated they would prefer an expansion franchise -- with local owners committed to the town and the region. Ownership possibilities abound, as the league learned during the '99 expansion process when a number of deep-pocketed groups came forward, only to fall short when Houston billionaire Bob McNair outbid them with a $700 million offer for the team now known as the Texans.

Grubman said the league is focused totally on finding a suitable site before identifying any team that will play there, expansion or otherwise. Tagliabue publicly has said expansion is certainly a possibility, even if there is now a symmetry to the current 32-team, eight-division, two-conference alignment.

As for existing franchises, the San Diego Chargers, Indianapolis Colts, Minnesota Vikings, New Orleans Saints and Buffalo Bills are trying to get new stadiums built in their respective areas, and Los Angeles is leverage in all the negotiations.

The Vikings are the only club that may be for sale, though Tagliabue has always been publicly opposed to teams deserting their original markets.

Both the Coliseum and the Rose Bowl see the NFL as the salvation of their venues, each of which is more than 80 years old and would maintain portions of their historic architectural features while renovating to add the requisite 150 to 200 corporate suites and lucrative club seating every NFL team insists upon. Both stadiums likely would have about 65,000 seats, and would be expandable by 10,000 or more for special events -- a USC-UCLA game, a Rose Bowl or Super Bowl.

Carson and Anaheim have the advantage of starting from scratch, and are talking about similar-sized stadiums. The Carson site, located between two freeways, likely would be tied to a retail and residential development on property owned by Newport Beach developer Steve Hopkins; Anaheim has similar possibilities, and is in an area that long has been a tourist destination because of Disneyland and other attractions.

Each site has its drawbacks. The Coliseum, which has the advantage of completing its environmental impact report (EIR), still has something of an image problem going back to the days when Raiders fans made the parking lots look like home base for every Hell's Angels chapter in California. Since 1994, the neighborhood on the fringes of South Central has undergone a renaissance, but the city's complicated political process also could be a factor in completing a deal.

The Rose Bowl offers the best setting for any stadium, but getting to and from parking lots involves negotiating residential streets, and neighborhood groups have expressed serious concerns about any stadium proposal that will increase traffic and detract from the area's historic roots.

The prospective Carson venue is located on what is considered a toxic waste site and cleaning it up could add as much as $80 million to any stadium project. Anaheim, which also has its EIR completed, lacks the glitz and allure of Los Angeles, and the price and demand for pricey corporate suites and club seating may not produce the same kind of revenue that a stadium in Los Angeles would provide.

And Los Angeles is so large and diverse that perhaps a single team really won't do.

"Los Angeles is not a city like Cleveland where people really live and die for one team," said David Simon, head of the Los Angeles Sports Council. In fact, crowds for Chargers training camp at Carson were sparse, while the Cowboys -- a team that has always had a national fan base -- drew thousands each day to their Oxnard site, between L.A. and Santa Barbara.

"People will go to the games if the team is successful and the organization is professionally run, which was not the case with the last two teams here. I think there are many people who want a team, and many others who wouldn't mind keeping it the way it is because they can see a lot of other games on TV. Right now, it's tough for anyone to get excited about it. There have been so many developments of this type in the last nine years, people are skeptical."

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, at podium, has stated he wants a team in Los Angeles market by 2008. Memorial Coliseum is one of four sites bidding to host it.Former Memorial Coliseum Commission President Sheldon H. Sloan had hoped NFL would put expansion franchise in Los Angeles, but league awarded it to Houston.