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By SAUL RUBIN

Staff Reporter

If you're Michael Jordan, remaining economically viable outside professional basketball is pretty much a slam dunk.

But not so for operators of the Los Angeles Sports Arena and the Great Western Forum, both of which face the grim prospect of surviving without an assist from the National Basketball Association.

Next fall, the city's two professional basketball teams will be moving to the new $300 million Staples Center in downtown L.A. leaving the Forum and the Sports Arena, home respectively to the Lakers and Clippers, without their prime attractions. The Forum absorbs a double whammy with the departure of the Kings, which also will make Staples its home.

That leaves both venues on the prowl for everything from minor league hockey to trade shows in order to fill thousands of seats.

"The basic problem is that the economic driver for these buildings is a premium sports franchise," said Michael Hallmark, principal architect with NBBJ Sports and Entertainment Architects, which designed Staples Center and other sports complexes around the country. "Two arenas can't exist in one city without one of them clearly being a stepchild. Three arenas is pretty much of a tough deal."

The Sports Arena and the Forum will be competing not only against the state-of-the-art Staples Arena, but Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim and the Los Angeles Convention Center. That could mean saying goodbye to premium events and hello to second-tier acts like tractor pulls and motivational seminars. The two venues did get a temporary reprieve when last-minute negotiations salvaged part of this year's NBA schedule.

Despite the bleak outlook for the fall, no one at either facility is ready to throw in the towel yet. In fact, Forum President Jeannie Buss, daughter of Jerry Buss, owner of the Lakers and of a management group that owns the Forum, remains defiantly optimistic.

"This doesn't mean the Forum is obsolete," she said. To prove it's no idle boast, she traveled last week to Biloxi, Miss., to meet with several minor league hockey team owners, hoping to coax one of them to move a team from the West Coast Hockey League into the Forum next season.

Buss has scheduled two games there Jan. 23 and 24 with the Ice Dogs of the International Hockey League, a team that currently calls the Long Beach Arena its home.

One basketball team is staying at the Forum the Sparks of the Women's National Basketball Association. Buss' long-term goal is to keep the Forum viable until 2012, in the event that Los Angeles successfully bids for that year's Olympics. A Forum spokesman wouldn't release any financial information about how much it would cost to keep the building open during that time, or how much revenue will be lost by the departure of the Kings and Lakers.

Options for the Sports Arena now that the Clippers are leaving range from turning it into a Grammy museum to leveling it to make way for a parking lot.

"We're taking a wait-and-see attitude," said General Manager Pat Lynch. "We could do a lot more concerts, which we can't do right now because we don't have a lot of Saturday nights open, which are profitable."

Other possibilities include renting the building for film shoots and hosting shows such as the circus and figure skating exhibitions.

Sheldon Sloan, vice president of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and Sports Arena Commission, which leases the arena from the state of California, says the facility is showing its age, making it more costly to operate. The Sports Arena was built in 1959, in time to host the Democratic National Convention in which John Kennedy was nominated for president.

"The economies of running a facility like the Sports Arena are increasingly adverse," said Sloan.

There are some positive signs for the two arenas. With three professional sports teams occupying Staples Center for more than 100 dates during the regular season, as well as possible playoff events, it may book up fast, forcing others to move on to second choices.

And Jeannie Buss says a union contract negotiated last year that reduced wages for stagehands allows her to offer the Forum at attractive rates. That might prove appealing to performers such as Pearl Jam and Garth Brooks, who have expressed concerns about keeping ticket prices low.

In another era, the Forum and Sports Arena were premier stops for marquee entertainers like Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. But the market for such shows has fallen off in recent years, with many acts opting for the Pond or amphitheaters at Irvine and Universal City. The Forum hosted more than 50 concerts 10 years ago, but fewer than a dozen last year.

Lately, the Forum has had to make do during the recent NBA lockout by booking events such as a success seminar scheduled for later this month. The program theme of striving to succeed against great odds is one that should resonate with managers of the city's two aging arenas.

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