- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- There will be NFL football this season after the owners and players agreed on a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement, ending the league's 132-day lockout.
Meanwhile the NFL's lockout of Los Angeles has reached 6,060 days (as of Thursday) and counting.
There is, however, more reason now than ever to believe the league's absence from the second-largest city in the country and the former home of two NFL teams will soon be over.
After establishing long-term labor peace, the NFL will gradually shift its focus to the great enigma that is Los Angeles, where two billionaires are prepared to privately finance and build state-of-the-art football stadiums if they are able to lure an NFL team to the city.
Tim Leiweke's office looks more like a trophy room than a workplace. There are framed jerseys autographed to him from David Beckham and the Manchester United football club and a WWE championship belt resting in front of a dozen awards lining a corner desk.
The only items that seem to attract the attention of the AEG president and CEO at the moment, though, are the helmets sitting above his desk: a Farmers Field logo adorns the left one and an AEG logo is on the right one.
In a room filled with tangible rewards, the helmets represent a long-term dream Leiweke believes will soon become a reality now that the NFL has a new collective bargaining agreement.
"Getting the CBA resolved clears up a lot of time and energy and focus for the league," Leiweke said. "I think clearly the league and the players are going to want to grow the revenue. That's the whole point of this, to have a bigger pie for everyone to get a piece of. If that's the case then clearly L.A. solves a problem for a low-revenue team and makes them a top-revenue team."
Since beginning plans last year on a $1.2 billion football stadium and events center that would be connected to a remodeled L.A. Convention Center, Leiweke viewed the league's work stoppage as an opportunity to strike an agreement with the city, get a plan in place and ready to present to the league once the lockout was over.
AEG has a tentative deal in place with the city, otherwise known as a "memorandum of understanding," which will be voted on by City Council before Aug. 20. If passed it will essentially serve as an agreed-to framework of a deal between AEG and the city to move forward with the project.
"The fact that the NFL has resolved their collective bargaining agreement around the same time we're resolving our political agreement and getting our memorandum of understanding is something we had hoped would come together," Leiweke said.
"It gives us a great moment in time for momentum here. It's a huge moment in time for the city. It sends a very strong message to the NFL that this is going to happen."
Once AEG has the memorandum from the city, it will spend $45 million on design drawings for a new West Hall of the convention center and for Farmers Field, Leiweke says. Architectural firms Populous, which is designing the new West Hall, and Gensler, which is designing Farmers Field, have already started the process. The $45 million would also represent the largest financial commitment AEG head and billionaire investor Philip Anschutz has made to the project so far.
The next hurdle would be an environmental impact report, a study of how the project would affect the surrounding area. AEG is nine months into the process and hopes to have the report completed by May 2012. AEG also hopes to have a deal finalized with the city around the same time. If everything goes as planned Leiweke wants to begin construction by June 2012, to have Farmers Field ready by September 2016.
"If we're in a position where we start late then we start talking September 2017," Leiweke said. "Now we're five years away and a team has to play in a temporary stadium here for five years. That is too large a hurdle to overcome with teams and the NFL. They want to know that we're done. There is no way they will accept 2017; it has to be 2016."
It is unlikely AEG would begin construction without a commitment from a team, so which team would commit to moving to Los Angeles before June 1, 2012? Well, the San Diego Chargers can announce their intentions to leave San Diego between Feb. 1 and May 1 of each year through 2020 if they pay an early termination fee tied to the bonds used to expand the 45-year-old Qualcomm Stadium in 1997, which would be about $24 million, a figure Leiweke said AEG would have no problem paying.
Leiweke has known many of the Chargers' executives since the team held training camp at the AEG-owned Home Depot Center in Carson. The Chargers are one of five teams, along with the St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Minnesota Vikings, with which Leiweke says he has had conversations.
Farmers Field will be built to accommodate two teams, and there is a financial incentive for AEG to bring a second team in; the naming rights for Farmers Field go up from $700 million to $1 billion over 30 years if the stadium is the home to two NFL teams. A strong candidate for that second team could be the Rams, who were in Los Angeles for nearly 50 years before moving to St. Louis in 1994.
The Rams, who are owned by Anschutz's friend and fellow Denver billionaire Stan Kroenke, can get out of their lease agreement with the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission in 2015 if the Edward Jones Dome doesn't rank among the top-tier stadiums in the NFL. It is one of the league's older buildings thanks to the stadium boom that came after the Raiders and Rams left Los Angeles. Since 1995, 21 new stadiums have been built for 22 teams. The chances of St. Louis getting the necessary improvements to become a top-tier facility seem almost as remote as the Chargers getting a new stadium.
"We're free to go talk to any team," Leiweke said. "We all know which teams ultimately have the oldest facilities in the league. We all know which teams are at a competitive disadvantage in the league now. We will continue to look at the teams that can't find a solution to their revenue and stadium problems within their marketplace."
Before Leiweke leaves for another meeting, he walks over to his desk and picks up a stack of drawings and outlines he has received from an architectural firm and flips through them.
"There's a certainty for everyone now," Leiweke said. "There's a certainty that we have a team and certainty that they have a project. A lot of things are coming together now. This project is beginning to look real, feel real and it is real and it scares you a little bit because we have $1.5 billion here and no one has ever done this before."
John Semcken and Ed Roski stood on the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum last week, next to a model of their proposed football stadium in the City of Industry, and smiled.
It was Roski, a billionaire developer, and Semcken, a vice president in Roski's Majestic Realty Company, who nearly brought the NFL back to Los Angeles in 1999 when they were behind a proposed renovation of the Coliseum. The plan eventually fell through and the expansion team that had initially been awarded to Los Angeles, contingent upon certain league demands being met, went to Houston. Now, 12 years later, they believe they have the perfect plan in the perfect location.
They want to build a football stadium in the center of a 600-acre site on the north side of the 57 and 60 freeway interchange in the City of Industry, which would become a football oasis on Sundays, with an entertainment and retail complex.
The project has been "shovel ready," according to Semcken, for more than a year but the group was unable to get past the preliminary stages in its conversations with league and team officials as the NFL focused on a new collective bargaining agreement. Now that the league has that in place, Semcken says he believes it is only a matter of time before the group can attract a team.
"It was the only thing holding us back," Semcken said. "We're excited for the commissioner and his staff to get reengaged now. Their stadium committee has been engaged all along but there are a lot of people at the NFL and we're excited for them all to get engaged.
"We're done. We can literally break ground tomorrow if we had a team today."
Semcken, who has had choice words for Leiweke in the past but refuses to comment on the downtown project now, says he believes when league and team owners see their plan in the coming months they will agree that "Grand Crossing," the name they are giving to their 600-acre site, is the perfect location for the NFL.
"What we have -- and nobody seems to understand this -- is our stadium has zero compromises," Semcken said. "We're not compromising on traffic, we're not compromising on parking, we're not compromising on the size on the building, we're not compromising on the scheduling of the building and we're not compromising on events and things we can have around the stadium, whether it's athletic training fields or themed restaurants and retail."
Roski and Semcken worked on Staples Center with Anschutz and Leiweke more than a decade ago, but their visions for a football stadium in Los Angeles couldn't be more different.
While AEG talks about downtown's ample parking garages, growing public transportation and diminished weekend traffic, Semcken wonders how the NFL could turn down the blank canvas of his 600-acre property to shoehorn a roofed stadium in downtown.
"Now that the collective bargaining agreement is over, we look forward to telling our story to all the owners," Semcken said. "Once they analyze it, this location is the absolute most phenomenal location. You're 25 miles from Newport Beach and 25 miles from downtown Los Angeles. This is where the NFL belongs."
Only one stadium will be built, and the first group to attract a team and begin construction will win this 17-year marathon to return the NFL to Los Angeles.
While AEG's downtown project seems to have the momentum at the moment, with constant news coverage of its ongoing approval plan, it is still a year away from catching up with Roski's project in Industry.
Both AEG and Roski would like to buy an NFL team and move it into their venue but would settle for a minority stake of around 30 percent and signing the team to a long-term lease agreement.
In terms of turnaround time, Roski's stadium could be completed in 30 months, according to his plan, while Farmers Field would take two years longer to finish, with the added demolition of the West Hall of the Convention Center and the construction of a new hall.
Roski's group will tell you there are many reasons their project makes more sense than AEG's but perhaps none is greater, at least in the short-term, than that extra two-year wait. If a team chooses to partner with AEG instead of Roski, it is essentially choosing to play in a temporary facility -- most likely the Coliseum or Rose Bowl -- for four years rather than two.
Then again, what's another couple of years for a city and a league that have waited nearly two decades to be reunited?
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
With the NFL lockout settled, it's time for L.A. groups to push hard again.