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Thursday, March 14, 2013
Philip Anschutz's commitment is key

By Arash Markazi
ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- The vision was originally born from an idea hatched by Casey Wasserman and eventually backed by the deep pockets of Philip Anschutz, but make no mistake about it, Farmers Field has always been Tim Leiweke's baby.

He was the one who spent countless days and nights in front of the Los Angeles City Council and California State Senate, and schmoozed with Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and California Gov. Jerry Brown to get AEG's proposed $1.8 billion football stadium in downtown Los Angeles to its current "shovel ready" state.

When Leiweke first announced plans for a downtown football stadium that would be attached to a refurbished Los Angeles Convention Center three years ago, most thought he was dreaming. There was no way the plan would get through the red tape of City Hall and Sacramento. Yet, there Leiweke was last year, on the steps of City Hall, announcing that Farmers Field was almost a reality.

Philip Anschutz, Tim Leiweke
As owner of AEG, Philip Anschutz, front, never seemed to be the biggest fan of the Farmers Field project, according to Tim Leiweke, back, the now departed president and CEO of AEG.

The only thing left was the small detail of bringing an NFL team to Los Angeles.

"We're going to cut a ribbon and I'm going to be the one cutting it," Leiweke said at the time. "I may cut my arm off with the ribbon at some point, but we're dedicated to getting this project done. We're going to get Farmers Field done; we're going to cut that ribbon."

Not only will Leiweke not be cutting the ribbon, but the prospects of there even being a ribbon-cutting ceremony seem like a long shot now.

On Thursday, the Anschutz Company announced it would retain ownership of Anschutz Entertainment Group, and terminate the sales process for AEG, which was the company behind Farmers Field. They also announced that Leiweke, the president and CEO of AEG, was leaving the company.

Leiweke never hid the fact that Anschutz was never the biggest fan of the Farmers Field project. He openly admitted he had to convince Anschutz that this plan was viable and worth pursuing. In fact, when Anschutz put AEG up for sale in September, Leiweke viewed it as a shot in the arm for Farmers Field.

When I spoke with Leiweke last year, he said he believed the new investor or investors would be more passionate about Farmers Field and being part of the NFL than Anschutz was.

There won't be any new investors or Leiweke after Thursday's announcement, and the big question moving forward is where does all of this leave Farmers Field?

On the surface, anyway, the plan will remain on track.

Dan Beckerman, who takes over for Leiweke and previously served as the chief financial officer and chief operating officer of AEG, said Farmers Field is still a priority for AEG.

"Phil's active re-engagement in the operations of the company has brought a renewed spirit and passion to the management team's focus on AEG's next steps," Beckerman said in a statement. "Priority projects going forward include the development of Farmers Field adjacent to our L.A. Live campus and the pursuit of our plan to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles."

Beckerman, who joined AEG more than 15 years ago, was Leiweke's right-hand man in the Farmers Field project. Ted Fikre, who joined AEG in 1997 and was Leiweke's left-hand man, will become vice chairman of the company and continue as AEG's chief legal and development officer. The fact that both men remain at AEG and are committed to the project leaves AEG in a good position moving forward even with Leiweke gone.

Tim Leiweke
Tim Leiweke championed the idea of Farmers Field in Downtown L.A., but now he won't get the chance to see the project through if, and when, it ever becomes a reality.

The biggest question, however, is how committed is Anschutz to the project? It's really the only question that matters at this point when discussing the NFL in L.A.

Leiweke isn't the only one who said Anschutz wasn't always engaged in bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles. Multiple NFL sources said Anschutz was trying to buy an ownership stake in the San Diego Chargers at a discounted price and said talks with Chargers owner Dean Spanos ended quickly when he refused to budge on his demands.

Maybe Anschutz has changed. Maybe he's now fully committed to bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles. Leiweke and Beckerman always pointed to the more than $40 million Anschutz has spent over the past three years to get Farmers Field to this point as an example of his commitment. But, realistically, for a man whose net worth is projected to be $10 billion by Forbes, that's a drop in the bucket.

His real commitment will be shown when he pays market value or above to bring an NFL team to Los Angeles and makes Farmers Field a reality.

Anschutz was hoping to get $10 billion when he put AEG up for sale. He was hoping that taking plans for Farmers Field and a remodeled Los Angeles Convention Center to the finish line would help drive up the value of his company. The truth is, no one bidding on AEG was factoring in his blue prints and legal documents into the sale and he wasn't even able to get an $8 billion bid.

If Anschutz wants someone to pay top dollar for AEG, including Farmers Field and an NFL team in Los Angeles, he's going to have to make it a reality first. Maybe, just maybe, that fact alone will motivate Anschutz to make it happen.

Either way, the NFL's long and winding road back to Los Angeles took another turn Thursday with the departure of Leiweke, who became another in the list of dozens who hoped to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles but ultimately fell short.