What's Behind Bob Iger's Move to Help Bring the NFL to L.A.

Bob Iger - H 2015
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Bob Iger - H 2015

So far, observers say it’s not clear why the Disney chairman said yes when asked to oversee a proposed football stadium project in Carson for the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

If all goes as planned and Walt Disney Co. chairman and CEO Bob Iger succeeds in bringing NFL football back to Los Angeles, the 64-year-old executive will have pulled off yet another coup in a career marked by several.

So far, observers say it's not clear why Iger said yes when asked to serve as the nonexecutive chairman overseeing a proposed football stadium project in Carson, Calif., that would house the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.

"Why would he want to do it? He loves sports," says one associate. "And if Disney wants to keep him happy — and it's something he can do and not have it interfere with his duties — then by agreeing to let him do it, the longer he'll stick around."

Iger is nothing if not deliberate, so the assumption is that he has motives, whether they are as simple as being a hero to L.A. football fans or they have some connection to the political ambitions that he long has been believed to harbor. He is set to give up his CEO post in 2018.

An associate close to Iger says that the exec "believes that L.A. is a better market for these teams. … He lends an incredible amount of credibility and professionalism to bringing football back" to the city after many others have tried and failed. Also, "he's going to be leaving in 2018 and this will be something else for him to do that he's passionate about."

Adds S&P Capital IQ analyst Tuna Amobi: "I'm scratching my head on this one, but it seems purely personal. … I didn't see this coming."

What's clear is that when it comes to the media world, by now Iger has more than made his mark. Since succeeding Michael Eisner in 2005 at a time when Disney was suffering a leadership crisis, Iger has methodically built the company into the envy of his competitors. He's set up an orderly succession plan that makes for the most unflattering of comparisons with, say, Viacom. And now he may have created a path to a next act for himself. 

Under Iger, Disney has become the world's most valuable entertainment company, worth $196.7 billion as of Monday, more than the combined market caps of 21st Century Fox, Viacom, CBS, Time Warner and Sony. "He has been — maybe 'phenomenal' is the right word," says Amobi. "By any metric, he has completely transformed Disney." Since he was named CEO, Disney stock has risen 467 percent compared with a 69 percent gain for the S&P 500.

Iger already has postponed his retirement at Disney three times, leading some to wonder when he is going to pass the baton — not that investors are eager for him to go anywhere. But in February — after a bake-off that stood in low-key contrast to the demolition derby that Time Warner chairman Jeff Bewkes initiated a few years ago at Warner Bros. — he anointed Thomas Staggs, who seems to have been created in Iger's smooth corporate image.

At Disney, Iger made his first major move in 2006 by restoring the company's shredded relationship with Pixar. Eisner had clashed with Steve Jobs and actually intended to make Toy Story 2 without Pixar's input. Some said Iger overpaid when Disney shelled out $7.4 billion to buy the company, but realistically he had no choice. Allowing Pixar to go to a competitor clearly was not an option. And bringing Pixar's John Lasseter and Ed Catmull into the Disney fold has paid off well beyond the value of hit-machine Pixar in terms of revitalizing Disney Animation Studios, which in turn is key to Disney tradition and to the vibrancy of the entire enterprise.

Curiously, Iger likes to tell a tale of summoning the nerve to ask Jobs to sell Pixar, though sources with knowledge of the transaction say Jobs is the one who forced the deal. The better story for Iger would seem to be buying Marvel Entertainment for $4 billion in 2009 on the strength of Iron Man. Again, other studios have watched in envy as Disney has cranked out one Marvel hit after another, even with titles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, which hardly seemed like sure bets.

"There was never a consensus that these [deals] would be home runs at the time, but they paid off, with much more to come," Amobi says. "I was especially skeptical of Pixar, but also not sure about Marvel. I didn't see how robust Avengers could be."

In many ways, it was natural for George Lucas to sell his Lucasfilm empire to Disney, but had the company not executed so brilliantly with Marvel, perhaps the ground would not have been laid for Disney to close the deal without it even getting onto anyone else's radar. Now, with the Star Wars jewel in the crown, Disney is primed to exploit yet another property that will utilize and benefit the company's massive, well-oiled machine.

Iger had a rare stumble in 2009 when he appointed Rich Ross, from the company's cable TV division, to run the film studio. It was quickly clear that was a failed experiment. Iger corrected course, installing elder statesman Alan Horn in the job. Senior industry executives say that fit is perfect and often remark that Iger's gain underscored the miscalculation of Bewkes, who pushed Horn out at Warners and set off a destructive competition for the top job.

In the film business, executives at rival studios can hardly conceal their fear of Disney's release schedule. At THR's executive roundtable, when talk turned to the upcoming opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman asked: "What are the rest of us who are charged with programming for an audience going to do?"

Says an admiring dealmaker of Iger, "He is the best leader in the whole media business and probably the best-liked as well." And while he doesn't understand why Iger is mixing himself up in the fraught battle to bring football back to Los Angeles, he believes Iger already knows he will succeed. "Bob Iger would not take on something like that and not bring home the bacon," this person says. "He must believe he knows how he can do it."

Paul Bond contributed to this article.