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JOE BEL BRUNO Staff Reporter

With the increasing likelihood that the L.A. Lakers will move to a new downtown area, Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling is in talks to move his NBA team from the aging Sports Arena in Exposition Park to a proposed new venue in Inglewood.

"We've approached the Clippers directly through Donald Sterling," said Inglewood's assistant city manager, Norman Cravens. "There will continue to be discussions so long as he's interested."

The L.A. City Council has given tentative approval to a deal that would bring the Lakers and Kings from Inglewood to a planned new arena next to the L.A. Convention Center.

With prospects dim for renovating the existing Sports Arena, Inglewood officials are optimistic that a deal can be struck for the Clippers to play in a new arena at one of two sites owned by Hollywood Park Operating Co.

"We've prepared information needed for them, and they've prepared the information we needed," Cravens said. "We have to wait and see what happens with the Lakers and Kings, and then it has been agreed we'll focus more on the Clippers."

Inglewood is making its own bid to keep the Lakers and Kings, but Cravens and others have acknowledged that Inglewood has taken a back seat to Los Angeles.

"All you have to do is look at what's going on to see that L.A. has been ignoring the Clippers," he added. "They've gone out after the flashier team and the flashier arena and ignored the arena they have. That would tend to make the Clippers owner a little nervous about staying in LA."

Sterling did not return calls for comment, but Clippers executive vice president Andy Roeser confirmed that talks have been underway. He refused, however, to say whether the team is close to making a decision.

"Anything can happen," Roeser said. "Other than that, I can't say anything."

Hollywood Park officials say the negotiations are serious, and that several meetings have been held most recently a month ago.

"I think it is certainly possible to have the Clippers in a new arena before the Lakers or Kings move into something downtown," said Michael Finnigan, Hollywood Park's chief financial officer. "I don't think anyone would characterize our discussions (with the Clippers) as being superficial."

The Clippers are on a year-to-year lease at the Sports Arena, which opened in 1959 and is run by the city-county-state Coliseum Commission.

The arena which lacks the seating and concession amenities common in more modern facilities is linked to a $229 million plan to renovate the Coliseum to attract a new National Football League team.

In various artist renderings prepared for L.A. city officials, the Sports Arena site has been envisioned in its current use as well as for a park or a site for the "NFL Experience," a sports theme park highlighting pro football history.

The Coliseum project is being spearheaded by the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency, which also is coordinating plans to build a new arena for the NHL Kings and NBA Lakers.

CRA administrator John Molloy acknowledged last week that the agency is unlikely to push plans to upgrade the Sports Arena if plans for the downtown arena are approved by the City Council.

"It has always been in the realm of possibilities to renovate the arena, but with a new arena going in up the street I'm not sure any more," Molloy said.

And if the Clippers move from the existing Sports Arena?

"It would certainly be a marvelous site, if the NFL were to return, for an NFL Experience," Molloy said.

For Inglewood, the chance to land the Clippers would soften the blow from the anticipated loss of both the Kings and Lakers to the downtown arena.

Kings hockey team owners Edward Roski and Philip Anschutz have approved key elements of a plan for a new sports-and-entertainment complex next to the Convention Center, although the plan must still pass final City Council approval.

Without a replacement team, Inglewood stands to lose important tax revenue.

"Professional sports maintains the viability of our entire sports and entertainment complex," Cravens said. "We have a good mix between the Forum and Hollywood Park both bringing in several million visitors a year."

On the table is a plan to build a $200 million arena on one of two sites adjacent to the Hollywood Park race track one at the southeast corner of 90th Street and Prairie Avenue, the other at the northeast corner of Century Boulevard and Prairie Avenue.

Officials say the facility would be financed through up-front contributions of about $40 million split between Sterling and Hollywood Park. The rest of the financing would be completed through the sale of personal seat licenses, deposits on club suites and signage rights.

Inglewood might also add some financial incentives, Cravens said.

The Great Western Forum would be demolished, Cravens said, with the site being used for some combination of commercial development and possibly as parking for the new arena.

Lakers owner Jerry Buss who also owns the Forum did not return calls for comment.

However, the Lakers owner has indicated in the past that the Forum is too costly to operate without steady revenues from a professional team. The 1967-vintage Forum is also considered to be outdated compared to new arenas, which come standard with luxury boxes and thousands of club seats.

The National Basketball Association is monitoring the situation but unlikely to raise any objections, a spokesman said.

"It is so speculative on their future location, but we leave the business decisions up to them," said NBA spokesman Peter Land. "Obviously the team isn't going to move without our involvement and we are keeping a close watch on what is happening in Los Angeles."

Speculation over a possible move by the Clippers has been ongoing since the team began playing a few games each season at The Pond in Anaheim. The Clippers play to capacity crowds in Orange County, but only rarely fill the 16,500-seat L.A. Sports Arena.

NBA officials believe Sterling wants to stay in the Los Angeles area.

"Sterling wants to be a force in L.A., and that's why he hasn't moved down to Anaheim," said one source, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Things might be getting crowded in downtown, so Inglewood would be the best choice if the Clippers are to remain in L.A."

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