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Trio Tackling Plans to Lure NFL to El Toro

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One is a legendary USC football star seeking another shot at the NFL. Another is a well-connected consultant known for helping developers cut through the red tape at Los Angeles City Hall. A third is an Irvine financial planner on a mission to bring pro football to his hometown.

Together, they are trying to pull off a huge upset in what has become a high-stakes political Super Bowl: luring the National Football League back to Southern California.

Anthony Davis, Donn F. Morey and Walter Burrows want to build a football stadium at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and told Irvine city officials this month that they’ve lined up $500 million from investors willing to finance the project.

The three partners and their dream of football along the Santa Ana Freeway enter the competition as underdogs, jockeying against no less than five stadium proposals in Los Angeles County. But they’ve convinced some community leaders they can build the project without any taxpayer subsidies, and, at the very least, have gotten the attention of developers involved in other stadium sites.

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“It’s going to be a challenge, but we can pull it off. This is what America is about,” said Davis, the USC All-American who in 1972 scored six touchdowns against Notre Dame.

Some sports consultants and business experts say that Davis and his colleagues will need to deliver another extraordinary performance to be successful against the likes of Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz, who is pushing a Carson stadium plan, and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who favors a site at the Coliseum.

While Davis, Morey and Burrows have worked in real estate for years, none has handled a deal even remotely on the scale of their stadium proposal. Except for Davis, they are largely unknown in NFL circles and are new to sports development.

In fact, the stadium marks their first business collaboration, having come together nine months ago after Burrows read a newspaper column by Irvine Mayor Christina L. Shea about the city’s interest in building a stadium at the southern edge of the Marine base.

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Some experts believe the partners’ lack of big-name cache could present problems, especially given that the Irvine site is already considered a dark horse. But others say their proposal has a shot--if they can make good on their promise to raise $500 million.

“Being Mike Ovitz might have some selling points because L.A. is the entertainment capital. But even if you have a lower profile, it all comes down to the business proposition,” said Max Muhleman, a Charlotte, N.C.-based sports consultant. “The bottom line is how solid the financial plan is.”

City officials are trying to answer this question with extensive background checks on the partners and the potential investors who would pledge the $500 million. The checks are scheduled to be completed by Tuesday, when the City Council considers the proposal. Shea said she isn’t aware of any problems that have turned up.

Irvine officials and the three partners have declined to say who the investors are or where the $500 million would come from--at least until a deal is worked out.

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Davis, Morey and Burrows, who call their enterprise the Southern California Sports Group, have pledged to raise the $500 million if Irvine gives it exclusive rights to develop the stadium and help find a team owner.

The sum is expected to pay for the stadium itself. But another $500 million would be needed to lure a team, recruit players and coaches and pay for publicity and other expenses. The federal government would have to convey the land--about 440 acres--to the city for the stadium plan to have a chance.

It’s unclear whether the City Council will sign off on the group’s proposal immediately or formally request bids from other investors interested in the project. The city last week received a letter from Canadian investors interested in discussing the stadium concept.

“This is an exciting beginning, but it’s just the beginning,” Irvine Councilman Dave Christensen said. “This is going to be a long process. Our work is just starting.”

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Field Experience

Morey, 54, is chief executive officer of the sports group, and of the three has the most experience with grand-scale developments.

He worked for 15 years as a Los Angeles planning official before opening his own consulting business in Santa Monica that specializes in helping developers secure building permits and navigate through the bureaucratic maze of government.

His biggest project was working for the Getty Center in Brentwood. Morey’s firm, Morey/Seymour & Associates, spent seven years securing city permits and approvals for the $1-billion, 110-acre landmark.

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Curt Williams, director of operations for the Getty Foundation, praised Morey for persuading the Los Angeles building department to assign several officials exclusively to the art complex project--a move that saved time.

Morey also worked on a major expansion of the Century City Shopping Center in the late 1980s--a job that required hundreds of permit approvals from City Hall. “Donn was indispensable,” said James Youd, construction manager on the expansion.

“He is very good at making a development happen from a governmental point of view,” added Ted Tanaka, a Marina del Rey architectural planner. “He understands the process.”

Morey also has political ties. In the months leading up to the 1996 elections, for example, his firm contributed $4,650 to 10 Los Angeles City Council members as well as Riordan and City Controller Rick Tuttle, according to records from the city’s Ethics Commission.

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Morey said he made the contributions less for business reasons than as a way of supporting friends at City Hall. “I think they are doing a good job, and I like to support them,” he said.

While Morey specializes in government affairs, the group’s financial expert is Walter Burrows. A 12-year Irvine resident, Burrows worked for years as a real estate lender for several major banks including Security Pacific, Crocker and CenFed.

His specialty was putting together financing for commercial land purchases and building construction. He also designed financing for major housing developments in the Inland Empire and south Orange County.

Like many others in the real estate industry, Burrows was hit hard by the economic recession of the early 1990s. He lost his job and filed for personal bankruptcy. He now runs his own financial advising firm in Irvine.

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But in recent months, he has devoted most of his time to crunching numbers, meeting with investors and putting together the financing for the group’s stadium plan.

Burrows, 55, knew both Morey and Davis casually, and after reading the mayor’s newspaper column, saw the stadium as an opportunity for the three to team up. He saw the stadium as a good business deal and a way to nurture his interest in sports.

“I’ve lived here a long time, and the idea of professional football in the city really made sense to me,” he said. “When we got together and looked at the site, we realized it could happen here.”

A Football Name

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Morey and Burrows largely work behind the scenes, leaving public affairs to Anthony Davis, whose football days at USC in the early 1970s made him a household name in Los Angeles.

Davis, 45, went from USC to a less-successful pro football career that included stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Houston Oilers as well as the Canadian Football League and World Football League.

His football career was cut short by injuries. Davis later said he regretted not also pursuing a career in baseball, where he also held great promise at USC. “I could have played both, like Bo Jackson,” he said.

More recently, Davis has worked as a motivational speaker, served as a spokesman for Nike and performed in several film and television shows. He runs a small real estate business.

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Davis acknowledged that most of his development experience is limited to foreclosures and new construction but said his background with the NFL is what counts.

“I’ve been in most of the NFL stadiums, so I can truly say that Irvine is a prime site,” he said.

The stadium plan began to come together last fall when Davis, Morey and Burrows first toured the base site. They were impressed by both its location and the surrounding open space, where they hope to build an international sports museum complete with memorabilia displays and exhibit halls. They also see the potential for restaurants, hotels and an entertainment complex surrounding the 85,000-seat stadium.

“Instead of just coming to a day game, this could be a place where families come for an entire weekend of activities,” Davis said.

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The partners initially got involved with Irvine by joining the city’s stadium committee. But after feeling out several potential investors, Morey, Davis and Burrows resigned from the committee and began putting together their development proposal.

For much of the winter and spring, they completed market research and hammered out details of the proposal with investors.

To Burrows, the El Toro site is superior to those in Los Angeles because it is a “clean piece of land. . . . You don’t have the crime, or the urban decay. You don’t have to displace homes or businesses.”

But some experts are skeptical.

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Robert Baade, professor of economics at Lake Forest College in Illinois, said it makes more sense to locate a new NFL team in Los Angeles because of the city’s central location in the heart of Southern California.

“Your primary fan identity generally extends in a 20- to 40-mile radius from the stadium, and that makes Irvine a problem because it is at the south end of the region,” added Muhleman, the Charlotte sports consultant. “It’s going to be hard for people in Brentwood or Northridge to get to Irvine.”

Steven L. Soboroff, a close advisor to Riordan who crafted the deal for a downtown arena set to open as the home to the Lakers and Kings in fall 1999, said that any stadium in Los Angeles is likely to draw fans from Orange County and across Southern California, while an Orange County stadium is not as likely to draw fans from Los Angeles and communities to the north.

But Peter Ueberroth, the Newport Beach businessman and former baseball commissioner, disagrees, saying football fans are traditionally willing to travel some distance to see their team in action.

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“It would be more difficult with baseball where you have 162 games. But with football, you are only talking about a dozen games,” he said. “I’ve always believed Orange County could support a football team. This area has one of the finest fan support bases in the country.”

Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports consultant who helped the Rams move from Anaheim to St. Louis in 1993, expressed a similar view: “Orange County has good demographics. There are a lot of people who are interested in football with good income and good mobility.”

Still, Ganis and others note that the trend in football is to build stadiums in downtown areas--such as those in St. Louis, Charlotte and Atlanta--not in the suburbs.

Tough Competition

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The league is expected to award its next expansion franchise over the next year. Los Angeles, along with Houston and possibly Toronto, are considered leading contenders, but the new team probably won’t play until at least 2001.

Top NFL officials toured the El Toro site as well as several in Los Angeles this spring but have declined to say which one they prefer. In addition to the Coliseum and Carson, developers have proposed stadiums near the new basketball arena in downtown Los Angeles, near Hollywood Park in Inglewood and next to Dodger Stadium.

The Irvine stadium proposal is part of a larger fight over the county’s plans to convert El Toro into a commercial airport.

Irvine and surrounding cities oppose the airport and see the stadium as one piece of a non-airport plan for the 4,700-acre base that includes a huge park, offices, homes, a university and an arts center.

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But the partners as well as Irvine officials say the stadium is still viable even if the airport is built because each project is located on different sides of the base.

Irvine officials Shea and Christensen also have made it clear that they will only support a stadium plan that does not require taxpayer subsidies. The sports group says it can build the stadium solely with private funding.

While the political climate across the country is turning against tax dollars for sports complexes, some experts question whether the Irvine project is viable without a public handout.

Even if it can be done, the heavy debt load carried by the owners might prevent them from fielding the most competitive team, Muhleman said.

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“If all the revenues you get from sponsorships, concessions and namings are going to pay off debts, how do you pay for the star players?” he said. “It affects the quality of the team.”

But Irvine is a long way from talking about free agents and trades. First, it must secure financing for both the stadium and the team and get the federal government to convey the base land. Second, it must find an owner--preferably a high-profile tycoon like Irvine Co. Chairman Donald L. Bren. Then, it must convince the NFL that the financing and site are viable.

“It’s a huge undertaking, and you have to have the right people to make it work,” Baade said. “You have to start with the right foundation.”

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Times librarian Lois Hooker contributed to this report.


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