By DANIEL TAUB
At a recent cocktail party celebrating the National Football League's decision to bring a new football team to the Memorial Coliseum, prospective owners Edward Roski Jr. and Eli Broad mingled with a veritable Who's Who of local politics.
Among those attending at the Bonaventure Hotel's Top of 5 restaurant were L.A. City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who hosted the affair, Councilman Michael Feuer, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, Coliseum Commission President Sheldon Sloan, and Rocky Delgadillo, L.A.'s deputy mayor for economic development.
Notably absent: Michael Ovitz, who is competing with Roski and Broad to own L.A.'s NFL expansion team.
The fact that Ovitz wasn't invited to the reception speaks volumes about what may be his biggest hurdle to becoming an NFL team owner. Roski has spent two years working closely with and gaining the political and personal support of Ridley-Thomas, members of the Coliseum Commission and other L.A. and state officials. By bringing Broad onto the New Coliseum Partners LLC investment team in January, Roski also created a strong connection to Mayor Richard Riordan, who is a close friend of Broad.
So what about Ovitz?
"He starts way back because he hasn't established relationships either on the state or city level," said one source close to the negotiations.
Ovitz, the source said, has to quickly build the same kind of relationships that Roski and Broad have spent years establishing with the City Council, the county Board of Supervisors, the L.A. Conservancy as well as with officials in Sacramento, because the Coliseum is owned by the state.
"These are the kinds of things that have to happen in order to move this project forward," the source said. "(Ovitz and his partners) don't have a concept of what they have to do yet. They have not started conversations with anyone."
As of late last week L.A. Football LLC, the investment group headed by Ovitz and supermarket magnate Ron Burkle, had not registered to undertake lobbying on the state level, according to the Secretary of State's office. Neither Ovitz nor Burkle had registered personally, either. Anyone lobbying state officials must register with the Secretary of State's office within 10 days of hiring a lobbyist. (New Coliseum Partners long has employed lobbyists in Sacramento, chief among them the Advocacy Group.)
Ovitz did not return calls for comment last week. A source close to Ovitz said his group is talking to officials on the state and local levels the "usual suspects," the source said.
"Has he been contacting people?" asked state Sen. Kevin Murray, D-Culver City, in whose district the Coliseum lies. "I don't think so. He hasn't contacted us, and I would think I would probably be one of the people he would contact."
Furthermore, Murray said, it would be difficult for Ovitz to garner much public support for his team at this late date, because most elected officials who have an interest in the Coliseum have already thrown their support behind New Coliseum Partners. "While I respect Mr. Ovitz's abilities, I have over this time formed what I think is a good relationship with Mr. Roski, and I have to commend him for his work on this project and doggedly seeing it through," he said.
Until shortly before the NFL's Expansion Committee announced it had chosen the Coliseum as the home of L.A.'s next football team, Ovitz had been pushing a plan to build a stadium-retail complex in the city of Carson.
As part of that effort, Ovitz had garnered support from members of the Carson City Council, even convincing them to allocate $180 million in city funds to help build the proposed facility. But because the stadium was to be built on private land in a city other than Los Angeles, Ovitz had no need to garner support from L.A. city or county officials, or state officials.
All that changed last month when NFL officials and owners announced that while the L.A. stadium has been chosen over the Carson site, Ovitz was free to develop his own business plan and design for the Coliseum and compete with Broad and Roski.
But NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stressed that any successful business plan must be a "public-private partnership" that is, there must be financial participation from the public sector. And securing such financial participation requires first drumming up political support.
Though the NFL's emphasis on public-sector support has sparked objections from some sectors including City Councilman Joel Wachs' office and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association New Coliseum Partners already has made some headway in that regard.
As part of its original business plan, New Coliseum Partners anticipated $20 million in revenues from a tax on Coliseum tickets, and $20 million from new property taxes on the Coliseum that could be redirected toward paying off construction costs. Those planned revenue streams were identified through work with local and state officials.
Last month, the NFL said the Coliseum needs about 10,000 more dedicated parking spaces than New Coliseum Partners had originally planned. So that group is revamping its plan including looking for new sources of public money to meet that additional requirement.
Ovitz might have a harder time working with public officials to find similar revenue streams.
When asked at the Bonaventure reception where Ovitz could turn for public support, Feuer said, "I don't know." Similar views were expressed by Ridley-Thomas. "I don't know how he resolves that part of it. I just don't know how," Ridley-Thomas said.
Added Councilman Mike Hernandez last week: "He's never bothered to call me. From my perspective, nobody's talking about Michael Ovitz's plan."
It doesn't help Ovitz's situation that his relationship with many of the officials connected with the Coliseum can be described as chilly at best.
During last month's NFL press conference announcing the Coliseum site, Ovitz sat next to Coliseum Commission President Sloan and casually asked, "How're you doing?" Sloan responded with, "Better, now that your son has finally moved his car out of the alley behind my house," Sloan recalled.
Ovitz, according to Sloan, defended his son by saying, "Well, he told me his tires had been slashed."
"That may be true, but it shouldn't take 10 days to move," Sloan sniffed. (Ovitz's son apparently was visiting a schoolmate who lives next door to Sloan.)
The exchange may reflect a deeper animosity toward Ovitz. "None of us are very excited about his decision to dump Carson and come over here," Sloan said.
But while Ovitz may be light on political connections, his partner, Burkle, is a major Democratic fund-raiser. Gov. Gray Davis' wife, Sharon Davis, was program director for Burkle's Ralphs/Food 4 Less Foundation until last summer, and Burkle co-chaired the committee that convinced the Democratic National Committee to bring its 2000 National Convention to Los Angeles.
But Broad was the other co-chairman of that committee and is a major Democratic fund-raiser himself. Sources close to the situation said it's unlikely that Davis would endorse either of the two football plans, and thereby risk alienating either Broad or Burkle.
While the Coliseum is owned by the state, a Davis spokeswoman said the issue is a local one, and the governor would not have an opinion on it.
Some sources characterized Ovitz's search for public support as relatively unimportant, because in the end, the NFL is likely to choose the Broad and Roski group. The reason NFL owners haven't chosen New Coliseum Partners already, they say, is because they want to demonstrate they are controlling the process.
"They are looking for a way to show they are not being dictated to," said Peter Whittingham, a deputy to Supervisor Mike Antonovich who has been tracking the negotiations. "They don't like to be dictated to."
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