- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- Stadium developers cleared the final political hurdle to bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles on Friday when the city council unanimously approved plans to build a $1.5 billion football stadium downtown.
The next step before construction can begin, potentially next spring, is to convince an NFL team -- or maybe two -- to move.
"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 Tim Leiweke, CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, the company behind the project. "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."
The city council's approval, which was widely anticipated, came in a packed council chambers at city hall. Among those in attendance were Los Angeles Lakers Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ex-USC quarterback Rodney Peete, two local high school football teams, a large contingent of former Los Angeles Rams fans and dozens of union workers.
But the most notable member of the audience was billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who is expected to make a strong bid to purchase AEG. The impending sale of the company had emerged as a potential stumbling block to the stadium proposal, but Leiweke said it was not a coincidence that Soon-Shiong attended Friday's vote, which went 12-0 in AEG's favor.
"He has made it very clear to everyone he's interested in AEG and he's interested in the NFL," Leiweke said. "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."
With the deal approved, there is now a 30-day window for legal challenges, which must be resolved within 175 days, under legislation passed in Sacramento last year with this project in mind. If everything goes according to plan, builders could break ground on Farmers Field by March 2013.
Friday's news was another blow to a competing stadium plan proposed by real estate magnate Ed Roski in the City of Industry.
If NFL owners approve a team's move to Los Angeles next spring, the city will issue bonds to pay for a projected $314 million convention center building next door to the stadium. Those bonds eventually would be repaid by AEG.
It could take about four years for the stadium and adjoining convention center to be finished, but an NFL team could move to Los Angeles before then and play in one of the existing stadiums in the city.
"This project means we are one step closer to building an NFL stadium and bringing one or two teams to Los Angeles," Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said. "Moreover, a modernized convention center means that we will become one of the nation's top-5 convention and meeting destinations, which means thousands of new jobs for L.A. It will create a world-class public space in Gilbert Lindsay Plaza and will provide significant upgrades in our streetscape and public transit system.
"L.A. Live already has created 6,000 jobs since its opening, and Staples Center has four million visitors annually. This is truly a game-changer for Los Angeles."
Leiweke signed a five-year extension with AEG last week, sources told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi, and Leiweke said he intends to be with the company until Farmers Field is built.
Anschutz, 71, has thought about selling his business since the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in June.
AEG owns the Kings, reigning MLS Cup champion Los Angeles Galaxy and a 30 percent stake in the Lakers. AEG also owns and operates the Staples Center (home to the Kings, Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Sparks) and the Home Depot Center (home to the Galaxy and Chivas USA of MLS).
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams in July stating that any franchise interested in relocating for the 2013 season must apply between Jan. 1 and Feb. 15 of that year. A franchise also must prove it has exhausted all attempts to remain in its current location.
The sale of AEG, estimated to fetch $6 billion to $8 billion, would have to be completed before the company could attempt to buy a share of an NFL team. That makes it more likely the process of relocation would begin in early 2014, with Farmers Field opening in 2018. A team could play at the L.A. Coliseum or the Rose Bowl in the interim.
Casey Wasserman, founder and CEO of Wasserman Media Group and partnering with AEG on the Farmers Field project, commended the unanimous vote.
"Today, the Los Angeles City Council and my friends at AEG, led by Tim Leiweke, brought us one step closer to seeing an NFL team in Los Angeles," he said. "I applaud Mayor Villaraigosa, whose fortitude shaped this idea from my initial napkin concept into a statewide effort to bring football to the second largest market in the country."
City councilwoman Jan Perry, one of the driving forces behind Friday's vote, called it, "The day we bring football back to L.A.," and "a giant step forward for the city."
Opponents include the Play Fair at Farmers Field Coalition, which spoke out against the project before the vote and has sued the State of California over a law that allowed AEG to expedite an environmental impact report.
There was little mystery about which way the vote would go. Council member Richard Alarcon brought a football with him to Friday's meeting.
"We make a statement to the NFL and to Roger Goodell that L.A. is now open to business," Leiweke said.
Information from ESPNLosAngeles.com's Arash Markazi was used in this report.
Stadium developers cleared the final political hurdle to bringing the NFL back to Los Angeles on Friday when the city council unanimously approved plans to build a $1.5 billion football stadium downtown.