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Disney CEO Bob Iger aims to bring an NFL team back to professional-football-starved L.A.

Bob Iger, Willow Bay

Willow Bay, left, with husband Bob Iger at the 2015 Golden Globe Awards.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

It’s been one of Hollywood’s favorite guessing games for years: What will Robert Iger do when he steps down as chairman and chief executive of Walt Disney Co.?

The speculation has long centered on politics or public service. On Wednesday, a new scenario emerged: pro football.

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In agreeing to join efforts to bring the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers to the Los Angeles metropolitan area, Iger set in motion a play that could lead to an ownership stake in one of those franchises — and with it membership in one of the nation’s most exclusive clubs, the NFL.

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Iger’s new team must first persuade the NFL owners to choose the Raiders/Chargers plan for Carson over a competing bid by the St. Louis Rams to move to Inglewood.

“This is a major deal that Iger is a primary stakeholder,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the USC Marshall School of Business. “Iger would not have agreed to do this if he didn’t think his involvement could help drag the proposal over the finish line.”

One of the most respected leaders in corporate America, Iger has engineered a series of strategic moves and bold acquisitions that have made Disney the envy of the entertainment world. Iger spearheaded the acquisition of beloved film brands, including Pixar Animation Studios and Marvel Entertainment. Next month, Disney could obliterate box-office records when it releases “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from Lucasfilm.

Since Iger took over Disney 10 years ago, the company’s stock has soared more than 380%. His employment contract ends in June 2018, and he’s not expected to seek an extension.

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In his new position as non-executive chairman of Carson Holdings, Iger will earn $1 a year; he earned $46.5 million at Disney in fiscal 2014, according to the latest regulatory filing. He will be in a position to achieve something that no one else has accomplished in 20 years: bring an NFL team back to professional-football-starved Los Angeles.

“Should the owners approve the move, Los Angeles will proudly welcome two incredible teams to our community and build a stadium worthy of their fans,” Iger, 64, said in a statement distributed by Carson Holdings. “L.A. football fans will enjoy unprecedented access to games during the season, in a state-of-the-art stadium designed to deliver the most entertaining, exciting and enjoyable experience possible.”

The move would certify Iger’s membership in the upper echelons of Los Angeles civic circles.

The involvement of Iger in the Carson bid is structured so that it does not interfere with his duties at his Burbank company. Iger would oversee the design, construction and operation of the stadium as well as hiring decisions and naming rights.

Disney owns sports juggernaut ESPN, which has a $1.9-billion annual contract with the NFL for “Monday Night Football.” The agreement with Carson Holdings was structured so that Iger could recuse himself from issues dealing with the stadium project that would pose a conflict with his day job.

The Carson Holdings team recruited Iger to be on their team, in part, to send a signal to the NFL that its stadium project would be of high quality and commercially viable. Who better to entrust the project to the executive who has decades of experience in building fan-pleasing theme parks?

“He has great knowledge of the Southern California market, and a command of the intersection of the sports, media and entertainment worlds,” Carter said. “He has relationships in the sports business world, and internationally, which ultimately could help the NFL.”

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Iger has plenty of experience and savvy that could help the NFL fortify its position as the nation’s most popular sport as well as open doors internationally. There has long been speculation that the NFL would like to expand teams to Europe and Latin America, and it has scheduled three NFL games for London this season.

The NFL has long wanted to expand beyond the U.S. as the market here is nearly saturated and soccer is gaining traction with America’s youth.

Iger has roots in the sports business. Before he started climbing the corporate ladder at the ABC television network, and then at its parent, Disney, Iger was part of Roone Arledge’s team at ABC Sports during the headiest days of “NFL Monday Night Football” and “Wide World of Sports.”

Iger would not have agreed to do this if he didn’t think his involvement could help drag the proposal over the finish line.
David Carter, USC Marshall School of Business

“He’s a very talented individual,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist. “He has much more of an ability to be influential now in trying to lift the visibility and desirability of Carson versus Inglewood as an outsider who happens to run one of the most important media networks in the country and one that’s involved in the NFL. So I think he will be a powerful player in terms of what happens in the next several months.”

Some media insiders speculated Wednesday that Iger’s involvement with the NFL could ultimately position him to become the next NFL commissioner — a scenario that a person close to Iger quickly dismissed. Zimbalist agreed, saying that NFL commissioner has become a much harder job in recent years.

“The job of commissioner has escalated. It used to be a figurehead job largely and it has become a CEO job,” Zimbalist said.

“It requires you to keep the media happy, you’ve got to keep the owners happy and you’ve got to keep the players union happy, and you’ve got to be constantly active and effective. You have to do lobbying in Congress.”

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Hollywood insiders also have long gossiped that Iger might have political interests and could entertain a bid for California governor or a senator of his home state of New York — another scenario flatly rejected by the person close to Iger, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The speculation appears to spring from the belief that when Iger leaves Disney, he still will be healthy and vibrant and perhaps eager to tackle another high-profile assignment.

He orchestrated the rare case of a legacy company getting back on track, a mission usually accomplished by an outsider, not someone who had slowly marched up the ladder.

Times staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.

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