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Former NFL Players May Team Up for Franchise

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A group of local business leaders and former pro football players led by Danny Villanueva Sr. wants to own an NFL franchise in Los Angeles, regardless of where a new football stadium is built.

Villanueva, a former kicker for the Los Angeles Rams who went on to own Spanish-language television and radio stations, said he would commit more than $20 million of his own money. He is confident he can raise $200 million, which is typically needed to buy a professional team, from an ownership group of about 10 people.

Among the likely members of that group, Villanueva said, are Sidney Williams, the U.S. ambassador to the Bahamas, once a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns and Washington Redskins; hall of famer Willie Davis, formerly of the Green Bay Packers, who now owns radio stations; retired ARCO President Lowdrick M. Cook; Shel Ausman, a consultant who chaired the host committee when the Super Bowl was last in Los Angeles; and Alan Morelli, an attorney who--with Cook and Ausman--has been developing a proposal to build a stadium in South Park, near the Convention Center.

“I’m just concerned that our city doesn’t have a ballclub,” Villanueva said in an interview this week. “Aside from the economics of it all, as I’ve traveled around the country as a businessman and as a player, I know what a team does to a population. It has a unifying effect and it has an uplifting effect--especially if you’re winning.”

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Villanueva said he would want to own the team regardless of where it played, and that he does not want to get involved in the high-stakes politics surrounding a possible site for a new NFL stadium.

So far, his group is closely tied with those backing South Park as the site for football. He has had no contact with Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who is spearheading an effort to return professional football to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum by building a state-of-the-art stadium within its historic walls.

Ridley-Thomas said he is encouraged by the interest from minority business people, but that many others have expressed interest. The league has made clear that selecting a stadium site is the first priority, he said.

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“The NFL is interested in and is encouraging participation from minority entrepreneurs, so in a generic sense it’s the right thing, it’s a good thing, it’s proper,” Ridley-Thomas said. “But we’re not at the point of making that kind of a determination. The NFL has not settled on whether they are prepared to support an expansion team or a relocation team.

“There are a number of people who wish to remain anonymous at this point who are actively engaged in conversations about ownership,” he added. “This is only one of the minority entities that’s out there. It’s just basically a conversation, now.”

Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley, who recently honored a request by city officials to set aside plans to build a football stadium next to his ballpark while efforts are underway to pitch the Coliseum site, said Friday that he was unaware of Villanueva’s efforts.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” said O’Malley, who declined to comment on Villanueva’s plans.

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NFL officials could not be reached for comment Friday.

Villanueva said he has made his interest in ownership known to NFL officials, but that they have maintained that they are not looking for an owner until a stadium site is selected. Ridley-Thomas and other Los Angeles city officials made a formal pitch about the Coliseum site to NFL owners in October, and plan to make a fuller presentation--including information on financing and team ownership--to the group in March.

Ausman, who agreed in September to stay mum about South Park until the Coliseum proposal had run its course with the league, said Villanueva’s group is ideal because it is home-grown and reflects the ethnic diversity of Los Angeles.

“The key point is that all the people have a love for Los Angeles, they’re dedicated to L.A., that’s the only reason they’re involved--and, secondly, they have a love for football,” he said.

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Ausman and Villanueva both said they would be open to partnerships with others rumored to be interested in owning a team, including O’Malley and entertainment mogul Lew Wasserman. But they have not had detailed discussions with either.

Born the ninth child of migrant missionary workers in New Mexico, Villanueva spent eight years in the NFL kicking for the Rams and Dallas Cowboys before becoming president and general manager of Spanish-language KMEX-TV, Channel 34.

He now runs Bastion Capital, a $125-million venture capital fund that helps finance local business and is the only Latino-controlled buyout firm in the country.

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