By LARRY KANTER
Recent moves by Rupert Murdoch's Fox Group to purchase a stake in the new Staples Center arena, as well as a portion of the Los Angeles Lakers, demonstrate that professional sports has become just another facet of show business.
By partnering with an industry player such as Fox, arena officials hope to turn the facility into a year-round entertainment juggernaut capable of attracting customers to games, concerts, ice shows, circuses and other events 250 days a year, and then beaming those spectacles to audiences worldwide via satellite, cable and pay-per-view television channels.
The new arena will be "the largest, most technically advanced sound stage in L.A.," said Tim Leiweke, president of the L.A. Kings hockey franchise, which along with the Lakers will move into the Staples Center when it opens late next year. "Concerts, special events, family shows, made-for-TV events these are events we can create, control and own.
"For an entertainment company to forge an alliance with a sports entity and an entertainment center makes all the sense in the world," he said.
Leiweke confirmed last week that arena officials are negotiating such a partnership with Fox, and are discussing similar deals with several other entertainment firms as well.
"Clearly, Murdoch is going after content, content, content," said Steve Cesinger, an analyst with Greif & Co. "He believes that sports content is one of the most exportable properties we've got. The Dodgers were the start, and the Lakers are good follow-on to that."
Murdoch's strategy of acquiring a stable of sports properties mirrors that of other media titans. Walt Disney Co. owns ESPN, the Angels and the Mighty Ducks hockey team. ESPN reportedly plans to launch another cable channel devoted to regional sports events a channel that would directly compete with Murdoch's Fox Sports West.
Fox holds the cable rights to the Dodgers, Lakers, Kings and Clippers. It also has a 20 percent stake in New York's Madison Square Garden, making it a co-owner of the New York Rangers hockey team. Murdoch also has strung together a group of regional sports channels into a network with national reach and controls virtually every major regional sports network in the country.
If Murdoch's interest in the arena and the Lakers is driven by an appetite for content, arena officials are almost equally hungry. The idea is that a partnership with a major media conglomerate will help the facility attract events above and beyond sports events, said John Semcken, executive vice president of Majestic Realty Co., one of the companies that spearheaded development of the Staples Center.
"We've always talked about having an entertainment partner," Semcken said. "It's only natural. The arena will be the ultimate entertainment venue. It will be more than 82 nights a year for basketball and hockey. If we're booking this as a 250-night facility, the majority of programming will not be sports-related."
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