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Anschutz Considers NFL Site

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Philip Anschutz, the billionaire who built Staples Center and last month broke ground on a $120-million sports complex in Carson, is investigating the possibility of constructing a privately financed football stadium in downtown Los Angeles, The Times has learned.

Anschutz, the majority owner of the Kings and four Major League Soccer teams including the Galaxy, has never before indicated an interest in pro football. But if the numbers look right and he decides to build a stadium, it would be with the understanding the NFL was coming back to L.A. for the first time since the Raiders and Rams left in 1995, sources said.

Anschutz has already formed a powerful coalition to study the new stadium effort. It includes Tim Leiweke, president of Anschutz Entertainment Group and Staples Center, and Casey Wasserman, the grandson of movie mogul Lou Wasserman and owner of arena football’s L.A. Avengers. Also involved are billionaire financier Ron Burkle and real-estate magnate Ed Roski, both of whom were part of failed attempts to land an expansion franchise for L.A. in 1999.

Speaking on behalf of the group, Wasserman confirmed a stadium proposal is in the works but declined to elaborate on the details.

The site the Anschutz group is discussing is unclear, although the entire complex--complete with parking lots--would require about 55 acres.

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With 32 teams broken into eight four-team divisions for the upcoming season, the NFL has no plans to expand in the foreseeable future. Therefore, any team that L.A. gets will be an existing franchise that relocates.

Wasserman and Leiweke recently met with Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn to inform him about the stadium proposal and discuss the prospects of the NFL’s return to L.A.

Hahn attended this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans as a guest of the league and met with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue a few hours before kickoff. Hahn said he believes L.A. will have an NFL team within five years. Others, such as Dallas Cowboy owner Jerry Jones, think a move could come sooner.

“I can’t give it a time frame,” Jones said. “But I think there’s some significant interest in moving a team to L.A. in more than one circle.”

Among the teams that could relocate to L.A. are San Diego, Indianapolis, New Orleans or Buffalo, although the list is in almost constant rotation as leases expire or loopholes spring open.

Jones says he expects no movement this season but that interested teams will be assembling at the starting line in a year, after San Diego plays host to the Super Bowl.

“That will put a lot of focus on the issue, by having the Super Bowl on the West Coast that close to Los Angeles,” he said. “It will serve as a reminder, an instigator of, ‘Let’s go to work.’”

The subject of pro football in L.A. is not on the docket at the league meetings, which begin today in Orlando, Fla., and will be attended by owners, general managers and coaches. However, getting the NFL back to the nation’s No. 2 television market remains a hot topic with the league.

“We’re working on Los Angeles,” said Joe Browne, one of the NFL’s senior vice presidents. “We like to think we’ll leave no stone unturned when it comes to L.A.”

Browne dismissed the notion football fans in Los Angeles have grown increasingly apathetic about having a hometown team.

“The issue in Los Angeles is not the passion of the fans,” he said. “The issue is where the team is going to play. The market is not the No. 1 challenge; the stadium is the No. 1 challenge.”

Although Anschutz lives in Denver, he has proved he has the ability to navigate L.A. politics and get major projects done. He is the founder of Qwest Communications and has built a sports and entertainment empire that includes ownership of the Kings, part-ownership of the Lakers, and five European hockey clubs. Forbes Magazine estimates his net worth at $9.6 billion, putting him 16th on the 2001 list of richest Americans and 54th on the 2002 list of world’s richest people.

Anschutz has been a major force in reshaping downtown. In September, the City Council approved his plans for a 27-acre development near Staples Center--a $1-billion, 4-million-square-foot project built around one large hotel and theater.

AEG, a collection of 32 companies, manages Staples Center, the Forum, the Kodak Theater--which is the new home to the Academy Awards--and L.A. Live, the 7,000-seat theater to be built across from Staples.

Although he is only 27, Wasserman has already assembled an impressive portfolio of accomplishments. As chairman of the Arena Football League’s television and properties committee, he helped broker a network TV deal with NBC, which next spring will begin broadcasting arena football games each Sunday. NFL owners will decide Tuesday whether to exercise their option to acquire 49.9% of the AFL. League sources say the owners probably will exercise that option.

Browne said L.A. has always been on Tagliabue’s radar screen.

“The commissioner is being very aggressive on it,” he said. “He has been aggressive on that front, going back to the late 1990s when the 32nd franchise went to Houston.”

"[Anschutz] is clearly a committed sportsman,” said John Moag, chairman of Moag & Co., a Baltimore-based sports investment banking firm. “He’s not the least bit timid about putting resources into things he believes in. That being the case, he clearly is an ideal candidate to step forward at the appropriate time to lead an NFL effort in Los Angeles.”

Three years have passed since L.A. lost its chance to get an NFL expansion team. Houston billionaire Bob McNair bought the team with a bid of $700 million. To house his Houston Texans--who kick off their inaugural season in the fall--he spent more than $400 million on the NFL’s first retractable-roof stadium, complete with high-definition TV sets on the concourses--another NFL first--the league’s biggest weight room and even an indoor swimming pool. L.A.'s best offer came from Michael Ovitz and Burkle, who were ready to pay the NFL $400 million, agreeing to add an additional $150 million from revenue earned on a new stadium three years after the team began to play.

Tagliabue pulled hard behind the scenes for L.A. and had advised Ovitz that his ownership group could gain approval for a Hollywood Park stadium with a bid approaching $500 million, in anticipation of McNair offering $600 million. But McNair shocked everyone by presenting the owners with a $700-million offer they could not refuse.

This time around, the Rose Bowl probably would serve as a temporary home for a relocated franchise. Last month, Rose Bowl officials got the go-ahead from Pasadena to court prospective NFL tenants.

“Our position is to try to get an NFL team here as a permanent tenant,” Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn said. “Why not the Rose Bowl? We know there are issues here to be addressed. We’ve thought those out.”

The 80-year-old landmark, which has been host to five Super Bowls, would require extensive renovations to compete with modern, more intimate NFL stadiums. And even getting to that point would require clearing seemingly endless environmental, neighborhood and historic hurdles.

UCLA’s contract with the Rose Bowl is up after next season, and, with a new athletic director coming when Peter Dalis steps down this summer, a venue change could be in the offing. Bruin alumni, particularly those who live near the school, and students have long complained about the cross-basin drive for Saturday games.

Like the Rose Bowl, the Coliseum would be seriously affected by a new stadium.

“They will be taking a bite out of our business with Carson, and a downtown stadium would be an additional bite,” said Pat Lynch, general manager of the Coliseum.

San Diego could also feel the bite if the Chargers move. The team already is considering relocating its training camp from La Jolla to Anschutz’s facility in Carson when the complex is completed in summer 2003.

Sports issues have dominated San Diego politics for nearly five years. Disputes over a proposed downtown ballpark for the Padres and a lease arrangement with the Chargers that obligates the city to pay the team for unsold tickets were the top issues in the mayoral election in 2000.

Multiple lawsuits have delayed construction of the Padres’ ballpark for two years; only after the last of the lawsuits was rejected by a judge did construction resume this month. The Charger ticket guarantee, which has cost taxpayers $25.3 million since 1997, is a constant source of conflict.

At San Diego City Hall, officials expressed confidence that the city’s lease with the Chargers, which runs through 2020, will provide sufficient warning if the Chargers try to move.

Deputy City Atty. Bruce Herring, the city’s point man on issues involving Qualcomm Stadium, said that under the lease the Chargers can only “shop” for a new city if they exceed certain salary restrictions imposed by the NFL. Even if the Chargers receive an offer, San Diego retains the right to keep the team if it chooses to match or exceed that offer.

The Indianapolis Colts, whose lease runs through 2014, have multiple escape clauses in their deal with the RCA Dome if their total operating revenue dips below the league average. Beginning after the 2004 season, the Colts have the right to look around if they are below average in revenues and the city chooses not to make up the difference.

The Buffalo Bills have the option to terminate their lease in June 2004, but that would require paying a $20-million termination fee. That fee gets progressively smaller each year until it reaches $2 million in 2012. But NFL insiders say Buffalo is not in danger of losing the Bills as long as 82-year-old owner Ralph Wilson--for whom the team’s stadium is named--has say in the matter.

Tom Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints, has been pushing for a new stadium to replace the Superdome, and, at times, has threatened to sell the team. Complicating matters now is that New Orleans is trying to get the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Some question whether a city with the No. 43 TV market can support two pro franchises.

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Staff writer Tony Perry contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

THE PLAYERS

Philip Anschutz may team with fellow billionaires Ed Roski and Ron Burkle, as well as King President Tim Leiweke and Avengers’ Casey Wasserman.


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