The struggle to attract an NFL team to Los Angeles and build it a stadium is entering the realm of political war.
Over the past several weeks, representatives of AEG, the sports and entertainment giant that has proposed a stadium next to Staples Center, has been meeting with state legislative leaders to garner support for its nascent plan.
Now, billionaire real estate developer Ed Roski Jr., who has been stymied in his efforts to attract a team to play in his proposed City of Industry stadium, is firing back.
He’s hired public relations consultant Ben Porritt, who has no particular experience in the sports world – but is well known as the spokesman for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Hal Dash, chief executive of Cerrell Associates, an L.A. Democratic public affairs firm, noted the opposing camps have political clout, deep pockets and are battling for the support of both local officials and, ultimately, the National Football League on a national stage.
“This is not a sports war, it’s a political war,” Dash said. “This is going to be a fascinating political, media and community relations battle, par excellence. You have Goliath vs. Goliath. It will be a hell of a show.”
Porritt is a partner and senior strategist for Outside Eyes Inc., a Newport Beach-based public relations firm. Porritt previously worked for President George W. Bush and as press secretary to the former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. He declined to discuss how he intends to promote the stadium proposal.
However, he obviously would be a seasoned spokesman if the stadium duel migrates into the public and political arena.
The two stadium concepts are quite different. Roski’s proposal calls for a 75,000-seat open stadium about 30 miles from downtown Los Angeles near the intersection of the Pomona (60) and Orange (57) freeways. AEG’s idea – though no specific plan has been presented – involves an 80,000-seat stadium with a retractable roof built in place of a wing of the Los Angeles Convention Center.
In June, AEG officials met with members of the state Legislature to talk about their plans.
“They talked about how they want to bring a football team to Southern California,” said Nathan Barankin, a spokesman for state Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) who attended the meeting. “They wanted to put a face to the proposal.”
Shannon Murphy, spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, who also was there, offered a similar account.
“They expressed their hope to bring a stadium,” Murphy said. “Other than that, there were no items discussed.”
However, there are persistent rumors that AEG is seeking more than just general support, but an exemption from California Environmental Quality Act. The act could require the company – owned by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, a sometimes partner and current rival of Roski – to undertake a costly and lengthy study on the potential traffic, pollution and other effects of building a large stadium downtown.
That study would put AEG at a disadvantage to Roski, who benefited from a bill signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October exempting his stadium plan from the Environmental Quality Act. The law nullified a lawsuit filed by a community group that charged the project’s already completed environmental impact report was inadequate.
“There are no well-kept secrets in Sacramento. We’re walking the halls every day talking to people. What we’re hearing is that they want the exemption (Roski’s plan) received,” said Tina Andolina, legislative director of the Planning & Conservation League, a non-profit environmental organization operating in the capitol that opposes any exemption.
Andolina recently initiated a petition to state legislators – signed by more than 100 environmentalist groups, businesses and homeowner associations – demanding that the CEQA review process be strictly observed.
“Our goal is to make sure the Legislature knows this is not what the public wants: that no billionaire developers are given special treatment,” she said.
AEG spokesman Michael Roth declined to discuss the Sacramento meeting – except to say that it was not attended by high-level executives – and asserted that the firm is not actively seeking an exemption from CEQA.
“The project is still in the early stages and all alternatives are being evaluated,” he said.
At least one consultant wasn’t surprised that neither party has sought out the press yet, though that time will likely come.
“They want to get their work done under the radar screen for the moment. Like any soufflé, you don’t want to open the oven before it’s cooked,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago consulting firm specializing in stadium construction and team relocations.
Meanwhile, there is some evidence that support for Roski’s Industry plan may be slipping.
Last year, for example, the billionaire developer was honored as sportsman of the year for his efforts to bring an NFL team to the area at an annual dinner held by the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission, a division of the Los Angeles Convention Center and Visitor’s Bureau.
This year, however, the organization’s support seems more tempered.
“We want a team here but we don’t have a preference on location,” said Kathy Schloessman, president of the organization, which is holding its annual dinner July 19, and honoring Steve Soboroff, a developer and former L.A. parks commissioner.