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Chief Tim Leiweke says AEG set on goal of L.A. stadium, NFL team

Chief Tim Leiweke says AEG set on goal of L.A. stadium, NFL team
Tim Leiweke, center, president and chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group, walks with his daughter Francesca Leiweke after a news conference announcing that a naming rights deal had been reached with Farmers Insurance for the football stadium planned for downtown Los Angeles.
(Al Seib, Los Angeles Times)

Tim Leiweke stepped away from a meeting in his L.A. Live office last week to take a phone call. On the line was Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), one of the most powerful men in the state capital, and he wanted some answers.

“I’m not going anywhere,” said Leiweke, the president and chief executive of Anschutz Entertainment Group, better know as AEG. He assured the Senate president pro tem, who has thrown his weight behind an effort to bring a National Football League team to Los Angeles, that AEG was committed to closing the deal.

Since the news broke late Tuesday that AEG had been put up for sale, Leiweke has been on the defensive with business and political leaders who felt blindsided, even betrayed.

Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz owns AEG, the Los Angeles sports and entertainment giant behind Staples Center and L.A. Live, but Leiweke is the public face and deal maker seen running the international company.

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Leiweke’s promises on behalf of AEG have been central to the company’s $1.5-billion proposal to improve the city’s downtown convention center, build an adjoining football stadium and secure an NFL team to play there. State and local politicians traded numerous concessions with AEG, and now many worry the deal could collapse. In the last few days, Leiweke has been working overtime.

“It’s been like this all week,” he said in an interview Thursday with The Times.

On Monday morning he must face a City Council committee that is expected to vote on a recommendation to the full body on whether to support AEG’s plans when it considers the matter later this week. Many Angelenos are baffled at Anschutz’s decision to put the company on the block now, with the council’s crucial vote pending and negotiations with the NFL in perhaps the homestretch.

Leiweke, an ordinarily plain-spoken Midwesterner, has been cautious in his public statements about the planned sale, saying only that the timing of the announcement wasn’t up to him. He said Anschutz has a long history of building and selling businesses when they are at peak value.

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But it’s clear to observers that football is a key driver in the decision to sell AEG. People familiar with the company predicted Anschutz’s demands would be an impediment to making a deal with a team to come to L.A.

Anschutz, 72, risked billions of dollars backing AEG’s Los Angeles developments starting with Staples Center in the late 1990s, and he insisted on being rewarded with a piece of a football team at below-market value, some observers said. Team owners have been clear, however, that they believe a discount sale would devalue all their franchises at a time when team prices have been dramatically rising.

With a new owner in charge, many believe, L.A.'s chances of getting a team improve. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told Leiweke that he wants an owner who will be committed to L.A. football for decades as a condition of NFL support.

“Roger made it clear that he wants to see 20 years of predictability of success here,” Leiweke said. “He wants to see a business that’s creating new revenues — and we are very good at selling.”

Potential buyers have already stepped forward. Los Angeles billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, part owner of the Lakers, says he’s interested. So has Santa Monica investment firm Colony Capital, whose owner, Tom Barrack, tried unsuccessfully to buy the Dodgers this year. Analysts say AEG could fetch as much as $7 billion.

No matter who the new owner is, Leiweke plans on staying put. He and his dozen top executives recently signed long-term contracts to stay with AEG. Their presence is widely considered to be a crucial asset. Leiweke is considered one of the country’s savviest sports and entertainment executives, perennially rated near the top in industry journals.

“I hope whoever buys it is smart enough to leave Tim in charge,” said boxing promoter Jeff Wald, who has put on fights at Staples Center.

Now 55, Leiweke grew up in St. Louis. His father, who once played for the California Rams football team, was an insurance salesman. His mother died of cancer when he was 12. Tim skipped college and dabbled in the life insurance business before finding his calling in 1979 as assistant general manager of the St. Louis Steamers indoor soccer team.

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Leiweke and his younger brother Tod, who is now chief executive of the Tampa Bay Lightning, threw themselves into creating a sense of drama for the audience through lighting and music while wooing them with free promotional items. The circus-like atmosphere was a hit, and NBA Commissioner David Stern came to refer to the Leiwekes as “the Flying Wallendas,” he told the New Yorker.

“He’s a bit of a freak of nature,” Randy Freer, co-president of Fox Sports Media Group said of Tim Leiweke. “His sheer force of his will gets things done that clearly no other human being would have the patience and persistence to get done.”

Leiweke’s climb led to Denver, where he became president of the Denver Nuggets and then head of the U.S. ski team. It was there that he met Anschutz, who lured him away in 1996 to become president of the Los Angeles Kings.

Leiweke came to L.A. with a three-year contract and an edict from Anschutz to build the Kings — which played in the Forum in Inglewood with the Lakers — a new arena. By 1997 he was in negotiations with city officials to build public support for a downtown stadium.

Some city leaders, particularly then-Councilman Joel Wachs, clashed with Leiweke in efforts to reduce taxpayers’ financial risk and won concessions from Anschutz and his partners that allowed arena construction to go forward.

In early 1998, civic leaders decided to try to get the 2000 Democratic National Convention held in Los Angeles. Leiweke did his part by buttonholing President Bill Clinton at a party at the home of Hollywood mogul Lew Wasserman, his grandson Casey Wasserman recalled. The convention was held at Staples Center less than a year after it opened.

“He is full of big ideas,” said Wasserman, now a sports agent. “This is a guy who came here to run a hockey team and ended up building Staples Center and L.A. Live.”

Leiweke didn’t build them on his own, of course. But his relentless persuading, promising and nudging made him the key actor in their creation in the eyes of many. Some grumbled out of earshot that he was arrogant and overbearing in his approach. But others quickly forged relationships and smoothed his path.

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“He has a bit of P.T. Barnum in him,” said David O’Connor, managing partner of talent agency Creative Artists Agency, which represents acts booked by AEG. “He’s a great salesman and a bit of a showman.”

Leiweke seems to enjoy the spotlight unlike his boss, Anschutz. Some who have dealt with AEG through the years say they have been irked by Anschutz’s remoteness and occasionally by his involvement with religious and conservative causes.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles), whose district includes the downtown area, said he would rather deal with Leiweke.

“I was not a fan of Mr. Anschutz,” Pérez said. “You don’t want to move forward on major projects like Staples, L.A. Live and the football stadium without knowing there is someone in a decision-making place that is committed to delivering on everything that is an element to getting to yes.”

Last year the Legislature approved special legislation intended to speed approval of the stadium.

Leiweke has vowed to be there for the kickoff of the first football game, perhaps as soon as 2017, and is already cooking up lavish visions of more downtown development on land AEG doesn’t own.

On his desk overlooking L.A. Live he keeps a book full of architectural drawings of buildings, restaurants and stores he’d like to see connecting L.A. Live with downtown’s financial district. The route would be in a pedestrian corridor along little-used Francisco Street, now a sea of asphalt and concrete.

“Farmers Field,” he said, “is just the beginning.”

This week may decide how far his downtown vision will get.

“Monday’s meeting is important to go a long way, I hope, to calm people down and bring clarity,” City Councilwoman Jan Perry said. She appears to be willing to work with a new AEG owner in what she hopes will be a long association.

“This may open the door for a new generation of NFL ownership, and that might not be a bad thing,” she said. “We’d have new capital and somebody who is going to be around for a while.”

roger.vincent@latimes.com


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