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In a rare interview granted to the Los Angeles Times on Thursday — his first since 1988 — reclusive Denver-based billionaire Philip Anschutz said he remains interested in bringing a NFL team to L.A. and said he is “optimistic” that it eventually would become a reality.
However, the 73-year-old chairman of AEG also said the league would have to be an “active party” to any deal.
“We’re not going to make the NFL happen by ourselves,” Anschutz told the Times. “The NFL is a player here. They have to decide what they want to do.
“We’re open for business to do a deal. It’s not rocket science,” he added. “We’ll do a reasonable deal, but we won’t be pushed into a deal.”
Anschutz has said he wants to be a minority owner of a team that moves to L.A., but he’d like to retain complete control over operations, marketing, licensing and many other aspects of the business. No NFL team currently operates under that arrangement.
AEG would rent the team a place to play in Farmers Field, the $1.3 billion stadium Anschutz plans to build with help from the city of L.A. and the state of California. The City Council in September voted 12-0 in favor of the Farmers Field Environmental Impact Report, setting the stage for the construction of the 72,000-seat stadium next to Staples Center and the adjacent L.A. Live entertainment complex. AEG sold the stadium’s naming rights to Farmers Insurance more than two years ago.
But Anschutz said there have been no conversations with the NFL about a deal in the eight months since AEG announced plans to sell L.A. Live, Staples Center and its interests in the L.A. Lakers, Kings and other properties. Since it was founded in 1997, AEG has grown into a global empire with interests in everything from concerts and arenas to soccer teams — more than 100 properties in all. In a release Thursday, Anschutz announced the company had been taken off the market.
AEG never said how much it was asking in the sale, but analysts figured Anschutz expected about $10 billion. That apparently did not happen. While there was interest, bids reportedly were closer to $6 billion.
In another hurdle for the NFL deal, word that the AEG sale had been called off included an announcement that longtime AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke was leaving the company. He’ll be replaced by AEG’s COO and CFO Dan Beckerman along with a group of other executives — as well as Anschutz himself, who said he would now take an active role.
Leiweke had been the frontman, head cheerleader and driving force behind the effort to attract a pro football team and had navigated the tricky political process seeking funding and environmental and other approvals in the face of considerable opposition. The city has been without an NFL franchise since the Rams and Raiders moved out after the 1994 season.
For his years of work in making AEG’s Los Angeles properties a lucrative showcase and his formidable efforts to sway politicians and city leaders, the AEG release dryly said Leiweke left “by mutual agreement”: “We appreciate the role Tim has played in the development of AEG, and thank him for the many contributions he has made to the company. We wish him well in his new endeavors.”
Now Anschutz enters the picture, apparently taking a more personal and hands-on role. A self-made billionaire who Forbes estimates is worth about $10 billion (making him the 44th-richest American), he made his fortune in oil, railroads, telecommunications and in recent years even movie exhibition as an owner of Regal Cinemas, the nations largest theater circuit.
Anschutz also tried his hand in Hollywood with Walden Media, a company that has specialized in family films in keeping with his conservative Christian beliefs. While Walden, working closely with Fox, has had a few hits — most notably The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, which grossed $745 million worldwide in 2005 — the company overall has had an uneven record and produced some notable flops including 2007’s Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, starring Dustin Hoffman and Natalie Portman.
In early March, Yahoo Sports reported AEG’s efforts to bring a team to L.A. and plans for a downtown stadium were “essentially dead” and not because of the pending sale. In fact, there was a lot of sentiment that if someone with deep pockets and a more flexible attitude were to buy AEG, it might help with efforts to bring NFL back to Southern California.
Yahoo reported that for the NFL, the Anschutz deal’s numbers just don’t add up. The news organization did not see how he could service his debt.
Other articles have said the tough terms Anschutz was demanding also were an obstacle. In his interview with the L.A. Times, Anschutz seemed to be challenging the NFL to come around to his way of doing business.
“Anschutz repeatedly said that the ultimate decision on football at the Farmers Field site at L.A. Live needs to be a financial one,” the paper reported.
All signals are that remains very much a long shot.
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