LARRY KANTER

Senior Reporter

The titans are taking the field in the battle for L.A. football.

On one side is Michael Ovitz and his all-stars: box-office giants Tom Cruise and Kevin Costner, former L.A. Lakers greats Jerry West and Magic Johnson, Northwest Airlines Corp. Chairman Gary Wilson, supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, and Ted Forstmann, the legendary leveraged buyout king.

Across the line are Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz and Ed Roski Jr., joined by former Ticketmaster Group Inc. President Fred Rosen and attorney Alan I. Rothenberg, who helped bring the 1994 World Cup to Los Angeles.

Game Day is Oct. 27 in St. Louis, when NFL owners will look at Ovitz's play for an expansion team in Carson vs. the Roski-Anschutz gambit to put a team in a refurbished Coliseum.

Who is likely to emerge the victor? With both L.A. plans still lacking key financial components, NFL officials say a third proposal by Houston is the odds-on favorite.

But with the second-largest TV market in the country, no one is prepared to count Los Angeles out just yet. And that has led to an intensifying contest between the two leading players: Ovitz and Roski.

Both men are worth several hundred million dollars each and are based in L.A. There the similarities end. In fact, it would be hard to find two more distinct business styles.

Roski, who made his money developing and managing industrial warehouse-type buildings, is low-key, methodical and tends to avoid the glitz and glamour of the Westside.

Ovitz, who founded the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency before a short-lived stint as president of Walt Disney Co., remains one of the most widely followed and chronicled business executives in the United States.

He also has lots of friends in this case, an impressive array of celebrities in entertainment, sports and business who are being tapped to support the football proposal.

"It's a deep bench," said sports marketing consultant and USC business professor David M. Carter.

So far, Ovitz's proposal has received a warm welcome from league officials, many of whom reportedly have been impressed by the former agent's marketing savvy.

The question is, how star struck is the NFL? On that count, most league observers maintain that, despite their penchant for show-biz glitz, the owners remain a hard-nosed bunch, with a strong eye on the bottom line.

"The NFL is not interested in stargazing," insisted Carter. "They are more concerned with the numbers. How solid is the financial plan? How much public financing will there be? Will it be a state-of-the-art stadium? What will be the commitment from corporate America? The NFL is concerned about making money and protecting the image of the league. The rest is window dressing."

But don't underestimate the power of window dressing. Ovitz's star appeal could prove a powerful asset, especially if neither plan stands out financially, according to Frank Deford, senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio.

"All things equal, the league will go with show biz every time," said Deford. "But Tom Cruise is not going to turn their heads. It helps, but it's only icing on the cake."

Ovitz has jumped into the Carson project with his usual boundless energy. A born salesman, he reportedly has spent considerable time chatting up team owners and promoting L.A. as a perfect site to host the Super Bowl.

Roski, who leads the Coliseum team, doesn't have Ovitz's salesmanship or charisma. But he is nonetheless a formidable opponent, especially considering his success in getting the downtown Staples Center approved after public subsidies emerged as a major stumbling block.

He is, in fact, a meticulous businessman who makes sure everything pencils out before bringing a proposal to the table.

"Ovitz has an interesting plan, and a bunch of Hollywood glitter to go with it. But you have to think about who the constituency is," said L.A. political consultant Richard Lichtenstein, who worked with the developers of the downtown sports arena when they were seeking approval from the city of Los Angeles. "If you're from the old school, you might have more trust in Roski than in Ovitz. You get that Hollywood jolt by being around Ovitz. But (team owners) might prefer to look at a more traditional business person. And Ed is a phenomenal business person."

Roski and Anschutz signed on to the Coliseum project last year as they were seeking approval from the city of Los Angeles for the Staples Center, which will be the new home of the NHL Kings which they own and the NBA Lakers and Clippers.

The Coliseum's most outspoken proponent has not been Roski or Anschutz, but the man who solicited their involvement City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, whose district includes Exposition Park, where the Coliseum is located.

Anschutz, who represents the most financial muscle behind the Coliseum plan, did not even attend a recent event in Los Angeles designed to boost public support for the Coliseum, and has refused repeated requests for interviews about the project.

"These are very difficult financial transactions," said Steven L. Soboroff, a senior advisor to Mayor Richard Riordan who was a strong backer of the downtown sports arena.

"It's going to take a very creative approach and a lot of working with the NFL as opposed to just showing up and handing something to the league," Soboroff said. "Ovitz already is doing a lot of that. (Ridley-Thomas) is just starting to do that."

It could be that Ovitz has more to prove than Roski. After building CAA into the most powerful talent agency in Hollywood, he lasted less than a year as president of Disney before being ousted by his friend Michael Eisner.

After Disney, Ovitz stayed out of the spotlight for months. But he stepped back into the entertainment business in a big way last spring, when he invested $20 million in Livent Inc., the Toronto-based theater company behind such productions as "Ragtime" and "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

There are also reports that he plans to launch a new entertainment company based in Beverly Hills.

The football plan, however, is a move away from Hollywood and into real estate development. The proposed stadium would be part of a major retail-entertainment complex.

"Clearly, he has some ego on the line in terms of making a major play," said Steve Cessinger, an entertainment analyst with the L.A. investment bank Greif & Co. "He is trying to capitalize on the relationships he has formed over the years."

But while Ovitz may be a charismatic salesman, questions linger about his business skills.

In Eisner's new memoir, "Work in Progress," the Disney chief enthuses over Ovitz's "boundless energy and tenacity," but when it came down to actually enacting Ovitz's proposals, " in nearly every case, when our strategic planning group ran the numbers, they concluded that the deals couldn't be justified economically. Michael would eventually accept the conclusion, but only after a host of people had invested considerable time and effort."

Said Soboroff: "Ovitz has a great passion for NFL football, but will the numbers work?"

By enlisting such business muscle as Forstmann and Burkle, Ovitz may well alleviate some of those concerns. Carter, of USC, said the addition of Jerry West was a particularly savvy move, and one that could go a long way with the NFL.

"You can have all the money in the world, but at the end of the day, the NFL likes to see people who know the business of sports," Carter said.

In the end it will probably all come down to numbers. Said Deford: "I don't think that the names impress people as much as the wallets."

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, CLICK HERE.