The vote was never in doubt and, in the opinion of the city of Los Angeles’ politicians, neither is what the future holds, but just in case anyone owning an NFL franchise was unsure, the country’s second-largest television market made clear last week what it’s about.
“We make a statement to the NFL and to Roger Goodell that L.A. is now open to business,” said Tim Leiweke, CEO of AEG, the world’s largest owner of sports teams, venues and events, who has spearheaded the most successful effort in recent memory to get L.A. back into the NFL.
Leiweke made his pronouncement on the heels of a 12-0 vote by the L.A. City Council last Friday that approved a plan to build a $1.5 billion downtown stadium with designs on luring at least one NFL team and perhaps two back to an area bereft of the NFL since the Rams and Raiders simultaneously left following the 1994 season.
The idea that the NFL has not had a presence in Los Angeles in nearly 20 yearsseems absurd, but it is a fact that has been difficult to alter as one stadium effort after another came up dry. But with the success of AEG’s Staples Center in revitalizing a dank section of downtown, a growing feeling has persisted that the political in-fighting and logistical nightmares of building a new stadium amidst a crowded city that sits on an earthquake fault line were things of the past.
“We’re not trying to steal a franchise and we’re not trying to force them to move before they make a decision to move,” said Leiweke. “That’s up to the individual owners out there today. But we will be very active in letting them know, despite what a lot of people thought, we have a deal with the city, we’ve gone through this process and we are shovel-ready.”
Sure they aren’t. With the NFL at 32 teams and unlikely to expand because, frankly, they already have several cities on life support (Jacksonville, Buffalo, San Diego, Oakland and, coincidentally, St. Louis, where the original Rams landed) adding any new ones seems problematic.
What is not is the idea that someone is soon coming to L.A. in the second great land rush. Whether it’s one franchise or two is debatable and the cost of shifting a franchise into what many believe could become the most lucrative market in the country will be high, but not high enough to dissuade someone like Patrick Soon-Shiong, a former surgeon turned bio-tech and pharmaceutical entrepreneur who is allegedly the richest man in Los Angeles.
Being the richest man in L.A. is saying something, but not enough for Soon-Shiong, who was on hand for the council vote and is seen as the most likely to purchase AEG for its expected $6 billion-$8 billion asking price. Soon-Shiong admitted during a recent interview with Reuters that he has already had discussions with the NFL to understand the process and requirements to become an owner, but it would seem he already has them: He is richer than half the countries in the world and willing to spend it to join a most exclusive fraternity.
“He has made it very clear to everyone he’s interested in AEG and he’s interested in the NFL,” Leiweke said after the vote. “When I talk about the kind of people we are talking to now, who will buy this company from Philip Anschutz, I am extremely confident that everyone is going to feel very good about the kind of ownership group we’re going to put together.”
AEG already owns the L.A. Kings, L.A. Galaxy and 30 percent of the L.A. Lakers as well as the Staples Center, Home Depot Center, a partnership with boxing promoter Oscar De La Hoya and the second-largest live entertainment operation in the world, so why not add pro football to the résumé?
That’s a question a lot of NFL owners are asking, but why would they sell if they can simply move into the already named Farmers Field around 2018 after a few years at the Rose Bowl or the Coliseum? Hard to know, but someone will say because the money will be right. For the first time in more than a generation there’s reason to believe the country’s most popular sport soon will be back in the country’s entertainment capital.
Frankly, it’s about time.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald.