Into the Chick Hearn media room they flock, news, business and sports reporters alike, mingling uneasily if affably in the bowels of Staples Center. No journalist can afford to miss this news conference: After an absence of seven years, the NFL is absolutely, positively coming back to Los Angeles.
In the room are the civic leaders whose political and financial clout will deliver the only missing piece in L.A.'s sports landscape--a football team playing in a proposed $450-million, 64,000-seat football stadium near Staples. On the dais, Tim Leiweke, president of the sprawling conglomerate that built and operates Staples, confers with developer-partner Edward Roski Jr. Sitting quietly between them is a handsome young man with neatly tousled black hair, a strong nose and a toothy grin. He is Casey Wasserman, whom GQ magazine dubbed a "Jewish Tom Cruise, a kosher Kennedy." Today, dressed in a gray three-button suit, his white shirt splashed with a baby blue tie, he looks like an earnest college grad readying for a job interview.
His age, 28, and a determined deference to his elders peg him as "junior partner." On the surface, he brings to the partnership little more than ownership of the one professional football team in town--the Avengers of the indoor Arena Football League, a fringe sport that has failed to capture much public attention. As Mayor James K. Hahn emphasizes that no public funds will be used for the stadium, and Leiweke muses that the new stadium could bring millions of tourist dollars to Southern California by hosting Super Bowls, the media ignore Wasserman.
Perhaps they shouldn't. For while this news conference is, ostensibly, about a new stadium, it's also the coming-out party for Wasserman. Born to Hollywood royalty, platinum spoon squarely in mouth, he has been groomed for a life of wheeling-dealing by the man who invented and perfected those very moves: his grandfather, legendary MCA/Universal head Lew Wasserman. Indeed, Casey has used his family's name and fortune to amass a networking base that rivals Leiweke's. He's on almost as many boards of directors as Phil Jackson has championship rings--including the Amateur Athletic Foundation, the L.A. Sports Council and the Jules Stein Eye Institute. His advisors include Democratic Party stalwart Vernon Jordan, former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley and prominent entertainment attorney Ken Ziffren, who also happens to be his father-in-law.
It was Wasserman who ignited this football stadium plan, approaching the partners, including supermarket magnate Ron Burkle. With Leiweke and Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz's firm, Anschutz Entertainment Group, Wasserman quietly scoured South Park for the proposed site along 11th Street and purchased options for the land. Finally, he established a beachhead with the NFL through a friend, executive vice president Roger Goodell, to pave the way for league approval of the deal and, not so incidentally, a $150-million loan. The only remaining question, it seemed, was which team would move to L.A.: the San Diego Chargers, the Arizona Cardinals or the Minnesota Vikings.
As Leiweke says, only half-jokingly: "If this works, Casey gets all the credit. If it doesn't, he gets all the blame."
Wasserman smiles. The heir apparent is ready for some football.
Weeks later, Wasserman's world has turned upside down. The stadium deal unraveled swiftly. After meeting vociferous resistance, the partners withdrew the proposal. And, Lew Wasserman, whom Casey describes as "my best friend, my father and my grandfather all in one person," succumbed to complications from a stroke at the age of 89. "I can only do what would have made my grandfather proud, which is to continue on with life," young Wasserman says. "You can't sit around and mope."
It is a summer day in Wasserman's office. Wearing tan pants and a blue Oxford shirt open at the neck, he looks nothing like a GQ poster boy. Sniffling with allergies, his face sullied by two days of bearded scruff, he appears exhausted. "My grandfather is the first family member I've lost," he says. "And to have the most dominating presence in my life be the first . . . " His voice trails off.
As advertised, he seems wizened beyond his years. The comparison to John F. Kennedy Jr. is ambitious but not without some merit, and not necessarily because of his looks. Rather, he carries gracefully the expectations of his family's name. "Casey has a kindness to him, a lightness to him, that attracts people to his humanity," says longtime friend Skip Paul, a former Universal board member and chairman of IFilm, an online collection of movie clips and short films.
Wasserman claims he is frustrated, not angry, at opposition to the stadium. The County Board of Supervisors voted to sue Los Angeles, claiming that including the project in the city's downtown redevelopment plan would usurp tax revenue from the county. Faced with the prospect of extinction, the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, which operates the Memorial Coliseum, dusted off a plan to renovate the stadium and demanded a seat at the NFL trough. Community groups derided the stadium as a lucrative windfall for multimillionaire developers in an area of the city that desperately needs affordable housing. (Those developers--Anschutz, Roski and Burkle--are all on Forbes' magazine's list of the nation's 400 wealthiest people.) Finally, except for Hahn, no elected official endorsed the proposal.
According to Wasserman, the Coliseum's efforts were the deal-breaker. "We didn't think the Coliseum would come back because the NFL couldn't have been more clear: They're never going back there," he says, his voice beginning to rise. "For some reason, the commission doesn't understand this. Let's be clear. Six professional and college teams have left that facility--the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Los Angeles Rams, the Los Angeles Raiders, the UCLA Bruins . . . " Actually, the sixth never played at the Coliseum. The Los Angeles Clippers had played at the Sports Arena, which is administered by the commission, before departing for Staples.
Wasserman says his group has surrendered most of its options to purchase the downtown land. He says he's pursuing other deals that he politely, but firmly, refuses to detail. Besides the Avengers, he owns minor league indoor-football franchises in Fresno and Bakersfield.
He doesn't deny, however, that the partners might reenter the fray, perhaps after the football season. "In six months, if the Coliseum's dead and there's a groundswell to bring us back, we would step back in," he says. "I'm a very strong believer in football and its value to the city of Los Angeles. But we're not going to get our heads handed to us every day in the press, and we're not going to get manipulated and abused by city politicians who don't have the city in their best interests."
Wasserman operates from the third floor of a squat, glass-enclosed office building he owns at the western edge of Beverly Hills. He knows the neighborhood well, having grown up in 90210, just blocks from his grandparents' house. He still lives nearby, with his wife, Laura, who works as a music supervisor in the movie industry. He's long been a regular at Dan Tana's restaurant and Nate 'n' Al's, the old-school Jewish deli.
His spacious corner office looks like a sports junkie's fantasy hideaway. An "NBA Blitz 2000" video game stands sentry at the doorway, while a muted television shows the U.S. Open golf tournament. Framed autographed jerseys of baseball slugger Mark McGwire and L.A. Kings forward Ziggy Palffy compete for floor space with a box of footballs. An autographed copy of "The John Wooden Pyramid of Success" sits on a windowsill, near a ticket from the second Evander Holyfield-Mike Tyson heavyweight bout. On one wall is a gift from the NFL's Goodell: a poster-sized photograph of the 1932 title game, played indoors because of inclement weather.
Next to his desk, opposite two computer screens, are family photographs, including one featuring his grandfather, sleek silver mane in place, smiling behind his trademark oversized black glasses, which director Steven Spielberg once quipped looked like "two movie screens." To describe Lew Wasserman simply as MCA's chairman is like saying Shaquille O'Neal plays basketball. Wasserman's influence in Hollywood was unsurpassed. He resolved labor disputes between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild, championed television production when the new medium was considered a threat to movies, built Universal CityWalk to increase revenue streams, raised millions for the Democratic Party, and funded numerous local charities, including the Jules Stein Eye Institute and the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
By the time he sold control of MCA to Matsushita Electric Industrial in 1990, he was among the wealthiest men in America. Lew and his wife, Edie, had it all--power, money, entree to movie stars and U.S. presidents. Everything but a son. "I was unfortunate not to have a son," he once told Los Angeles magazine.
In his biography of Wasserman, author Dennis McDougal wrote that Lew and Edie's only daughter, Lynne, struggled to find her identity as the child of a "workaholic absentee father and a spotlight-hungry mother." Lynne's first marriage, to MCA agent Ron Leif, ended in divorce. (They had a daughter, Carol Ann, Casey's half-sister.) So, too, did her second marriage, to stockbroker Jack Meyrowitz. The two were married in 1970, and changed their name to Myers.
Casey Myers, born in 1974, was 7 when his parents separated. He was raised, he says, "essentially single-handedly" by his mother. He says he last saw his father in 1996, the year he graduated from UCLA. They occasionally speak by phone. By all accounts, Lew stepped into the paternal void. He rearranged his schedule to watch Casey play high-school tennis matches at the exclusive Brentwood School. Every Saturday and Sunday, the two would schlep to Nate 'n' Al's. Lew would have his usual breakfast--pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese, and bacon--then they'd drive to Universal and stroll around.
"Lew was disappointed he never had a son," McDougal says in an interview. "In his typical fashion, by dint of his power and his money and his overbearing personality, he took what he wanted. He essentially stole Jack Myers' son. By the time Casey was a teenager, the die was cast. He was Lew's little boy."
In 1995, Casey changed his last name to Wasserman. He says it was a repudiation of his father, who had been convicted in a money-laundering deal gone bad, and an acknowledgment of his "real" family. "It's no secret that I have, at best, a strained and awkward relationship with my dad," he says. "The Wasserman family--my mom, my sister, Lew and Edie--raised me. They are the people I define as my family."
Jack Myers now lives in the Palms Springs area, where he plays scratch golf and cares for his aging parents. He's reluctant to speak about Casey, fearful that he'll "say something wrong" to further strain their relationship. "I was not represented by legal counsel [for my divorce] because I believed all issues, including visitation rights, could be resolved amicably," Myers says in a written statement to the Los Angeles Times Magazine. "While I did see Casey while he was growing up, we did not forge the kind of relationship I had envisioned. I love my son and I am optimistic that we will spend more time together."
Lew Wasserman included Casey in business dealings, what one observer called "the equivalent of going to business school." Most lessons came via osmosis, through observation of Lew's legendary habits--his 60-hour workweeks, conservative dress code, privacy and civic boosterism. "Lew wasn't one to tell people what to do," says former Universal executive Paul. "He told you what he thought and allowed you to make your own mistakes."
"The only word he ever talked about was 'anticipation,' " Casey says of the advice from his grandfather. "So that's something I hold close to my heart."
Lew introduced Casey to his influential friends. Many of them--including Paul and former Dodgers owner O'Malley--became Casey's mentors and then his confidants. "From his family, Casey was introduced to a lot of knowledgeable people," O'Malley says. "He interacted with others who were older and more experienced. Now he has this incredible combination of the enthusiasm and the energy of youth and the knowledge and experience of a seasoned executive. I've never seen anything like it."
Lew's influence also extended to Casey's personal life. His wife, Laura Ziffren, is the granddaughter of one of Lew's closest friends, the late attorney Paul Ziffren. A former classmate of Laura's called their marriage "a Hollywood merger."
When Casey turned 21, he received a multimillion-dollar trust fund. That same year, Lew made him president of the family's charitable foundation. The Wasserman Foundation has assets of more than $100 million; it doles out 5% of that annually, primarily for education, health and welfare, and Jewish culture. The foundation also gave money for downtown's new Catholic cathedral.
Casey has followed his grandfather's political lead. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Wasserman has donated more than $30,000 to Democratic candidates and the national party since 2000. In January, he hosted fund-raisers for the Clinton presidential library and Andrew Cuomo, then running for New York governor. Last month, Wasserman and his wife accompanied former President Bill Clinton to Africa.
Lew also was a major sports fan, and Casey says he knew from the time he first decorated his room with posters of athletes and team decals that he wanted to be in sports. The family held season tickets to the Dodgers, UCLA basketball and the Raiders. Lew's octopus-like connections extended into the sports world. Through his friendship with NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Lew and Edie attended Rozelle's annual Super Bowl bashes. Another buddy of Lew's, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell, made Casey a ball boy at 12. He flew to Cleveland for home games.
On at least three occasions, says Casey, Lew nearly purchased an NFL franchise. In the early 1960s, Rams owner Dan Reeves offered to sell him 50% of the team, Casey says, but Wasserman's boss, MCA founder Jules Stein, nixed the deal because he didn't believe it was appropriate for an MCA executive. In the early 1980s, when Al Davis first threatened to move the Oakland Raiders to L.A., Wasserman became involved as a court-appointed mediator attempting to resolve the dispute. In one scenario, Casey says, Lew would have obtained a share of an expansion franchise in L.A., and the Raiders would have stayed in Oakland. Later, after Davis moved the Raiders to L.A. and was considering relocating to a proposed stadium at Hollywood Park, Wasserman planned to buy in as a minority partner--and give Casey a role with the team.
"The idea was, I would learn the business," Casey says. "Of course, three years later, Davis moved back to Oakland."
After he graduated from UCLA with a political science degree, Casey and his grandfather made a deal. Casey would find an opportunity, one they would both invest in, to get his feet wet. He looked at minor league hockey in Minnesota and minor league baseball in Georgia before discovering an inexpensive alternative: the Arena Football League. His NFL contact, Goodell, recommended Wasserman to AFL commissioner David Baker. In October 1998, the AFL approved him for an expansion franchise. For a $5-million buy-in fee, the 24-year-old became the youngest owner in sports.
Purchasing the Avengers, says Wasserman, allows him "to get my PhD in sports. There's no way to do it except to do it. They don't teach you how to fire a coach, how to name a team, contract for a stadium lease, design uniforms. That I could learn all this in my home marketplace was an incredible bonus."
Another motive, he admits, was the opportunity to create his own name. "I was willing to accept a bad reputation if I deserved it, but it was going to be based on my actions, not on anybody's history. I'm not running from my family--I couldn't embrace my family more. But I wanted to work in an industry where I could define myself, not be defined by my grandfather's history."
If you go to watch the Avengers play at Staples Center, be sure to bring earplugs. The national anthem and player introductions are punctuated by thunderous fireworks, while P.A. announcer Sam Lagana does his best Sam Kinison imitation, exhorting the crowd to "STAAAND WITH YOUR AVENGERS!" Whenever play halts, snippets of music erupt from gigantic speakers, a selection of songs that can only be described as frat-party rock. Were an earthquake to occur during a game, no one would notice.
For all its noise, the Arena Football League remains a marginal product. Its claim to fame is that St. Louis Rams quarterback Kurt Warner played for the AFL's Iowa Barnstormers before moving to the NFL and becoming a Super Bowl hero. The 16-year-old league styles itself as a throwback, akin to after-school pickup games, without the parked cars and blacktop. Instead of 11 players, as in traditional football, Arena football has eight players on each side--and six of them must play both offense and defense, unheard of in the NFL. The field is half that of a regulation football field, so scoring happens early and often. It's a sport for the X-Games generation: high-scoring froth that's easily digestible and mildly compelling.
When the Avengers played the Dallas Desperados during the summer, Dallas jumped to a 31-14 lead by half-time. To the delight of the 12,309 in attendance, the Avengers stormed back, scoring on three consecutive drives to take a 35-31 lead. They lost, 62-55. Afterward, players eating pizza wandered into the stands to sign autographs.
Wasserman usually mingles with fans and players after games, but not that night. His grandfather was ill, having suffered the stroke that eventually killed him. Casey watched the game from his Staples Center suite. "They had no idea how long he was going to live," he says. "I can tell you unequivocally: The one thing he would have wanted was for me to go to the game."
After Lew's death, the Avengers wore black "LRW" patches on their uniforms. For the first time in their three-year history, the Avengers made the playoffs.
Operating below the media's radar, Wasserman is learning how to be a sports executive. In 2000, before the Avengers had played a down, AFL owners voted to cancel the season because they couldn't reach a labor agreement with players. As the new chairman of the league's labor committee, Wasserman took over the negotiations. His tenacity during an all-night negotiation session at Chicago's O'Hare Airport Hilton--shades of his grandfather's labor involvement--resulted in a long-term collective bargaining agreement, AFL Commissioner Baker says. "We just got to the point where we couldn't move forward. This meeting was the last chance, and Casey helped to save the season."
Wasserman also chaired the committee that negotiated the league's breakthrough television contract, which begins with NBC next year. The AFL has never had network coverage, a void that severely curtailed its growth. To land NBC, the AFL agreed to two major concessions: the league will shift its start-date to February, or right after the 2003 Super Bowl, and grant NBC the option to buy the TV rights in perpetuity. Again, family connections proved important: the AFL's attorney was Ken Ziffren, Casey's father-in-law, who had previously worked with NBC Sports President Dick Ebersol.
The perpetuity clause could curtail future league profits. Even so, the contract is seen as a coup. "He's been very savvy," says David Carter of the Sports Business Group, a Los Angeles consulting firm. "The keys to success in the sports industry are distribution, which means TV deals, and labor peace. He's shown agility and ability without making a game-over blunder."
Not long ago, L.A.'s sports power brokers were easy to identify. Walter O'Malley uprooted the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1958, then built a beatific stadium. In the 1960s, Jack Kent Cooke created the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, made the Lakers fashionable and introduced NHL ice hockey to Southern California. Gene Autry took his Angels to Anaheim.
Today, L.A.'s most powerful sports figure is Anschutz, whose organization owns a majority share of the Kings and nearly one-third of the Lakers. He also built Staples and owns half of it, runs the L.A. Galaxy, and is building a soccer-tennis stadium complex in Carson. Yet because the media-challenged Anschutz hasn't given an interview since the Nixon years, the public knows little about him--although he has been in the news recently as the subject of investigations into corporate malfeasance as founder and former chairman of Qwest Communications. The heads of other sports franchises are also obscure, for with corporate ownership comes anonymity. Disney owns the Angels; the Dodgers are owned by News Corp. Could anyone identify Bob Daly, titular head of the Dodgers, in a lineup?
With the Avengers, Wasserman took his first steps into this inner circle. His relationship with Leiweke and the Anschutz group assures him access to the city's most influential sports minds. His philanthropic work--along with his Democratic Party and Beverly Hills connections--places him in the middle of L.A.'s political, social and financial vortex. He may not yet have rainmaker influence, but he has the next best thing: the perception of pull.
Says USC's Carter: "He's already a power broker, not because of what he's done but because of what he's capable of doing. In sports business, you can't teach money, you can't teach access, and you can't teach youth. He has those three things. He's going to be a formidable force, long-term, in this town."
Others question whether he has the vision--and the will--to accomplish big deals, their doubts perhaps best summed up by a prominent L.A. sports figure who refused to be identified. "He's had everything handed to him--wealth, access, advice--by his grandfather. He's never had to risk anything of his own."
Wasserman knows that. He also knows that only results count. At some point, the NFL will return to L.A., the nation's second-largest media market. If it's Wasserman who makes this happen, he'll have trumped the efforts of this city's most creative entertainment minds who failed, including one Lew Wasserman.
If he can't pull it off, he says he'll be just fine. "My life is not defined by the NFL being here. I have a lot of things I want to do in my life. That's one of them. If it happens, great. If not, no big deal. I don't need the NFL to be happy or successful."