Farmers Field: L.A. edges closer to building $1 billion football stadium

Farmers Field – a planned $1 billion football stadium in downtown L.A. – takes a few small steps toward reality this week. It could be finished by 2015. But many hurdles remain.

This image provided by AEG shows the proposed football stadium, to be named Farmers Field, in Los Angeles.

"I miss the Raiders,” says Dave Turpack, an insurance man standing in line for a latte at a corner coffee shop here.

“I miss the Rams,” says Jeffe Rodriguez, a day laborer. “Those were the good ol’ days. I still can’t understand why a city as big as L.A. has no pro football team.”

This week, the wishes of the duo that pro football return to the Los Angeles area for the first time since 1995 took several small steps toward being realized.

On Tuesday, the backers of a plan to build a football stadium downtown announced that they have reached a stadium naming-rights deal worth $700 million. Then on Wednesday, the Los Angeles City Council took two votes to move the process forward. It voted to hire an independent financial analyst to assess the overall financing plan and make a recommendation to the council before they vote, and it also voted to set up a work group to negotiate the overall deal.

Both votes were unanimous.

There remain a locker room full of “ifs,” however. A plan has not yet been submitted, for one, and hoped-for assistance from the L.A. City Council – an exemption from the state’s environmental quality act and a $350 million bond – might not materialize.

Not to mention the fact that the developer, sports and entertainment giant AEG, is pushing forward without any commitment from the National Football League that L.A. will ever get a pro football team.

Backers say these are problems that easily be overcome. Skeptics suggest it could make AEG's bid to bring pro football back to L.A. merely the latest in a long line of failures.

'Just a PR ploy'?

“I think this is just a PR ploy to keep this idea on the public radar,” says Rick Eckstein, author of “Dollars, Private Stadiums: The Battle over Building Sports Stadiums.”

He and others note that ideas for NFL teams and new stadiums pop up here regularly every two years or so and then fizzle out. "They make the announcement, journalists write about it, and the idea stays on the map to live a little longer,” says Mr. Eckstein, also a professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania.

In an agreement announced with Farmers Insurance, the largest auto insurance company in California, the 65,000-seat stadium would be named Farmers Field. To some, the deal is no small thing.

“AEG seems to have taken a significant step by securing what appears to be an attractive naming rights deal with Farmer’s Insurance,” says Richard Grant, a corporate lawyer with McGuireWoods in Los Angeles, which has an emphasis on sports transactions.

America's second-largest metro area has been without an NFL team since 1995, when the Rams and Raiders departed for St. Louis and Oakland, Calif., respectively. Councilwoman Janice Hahn has been a leader in trying to bring a football team back to L.A.

“It is a great opportunity for me to be a part of this process of bringing an NFL team to our city,” said Councilwoman Hahn in a press release. “The naming of Farmers Field is an important milestone,” she says.

As chair of the Council’s Trade, Commerce, and Tourism Committee, which oversees the L.A. Convention Center, Hahn is reminding everyone who asks – and many who don’t – that it is not just about 10 pro football games per year. AEG's plan would also renovate the convention center.

“It is about expanding and modernizing our convention center so that it can compete for more conventions," said Hahn. "The convention center aspect of this plan is as important as the stadium, because these conventions bring tourists to our city – who stay in our local hotels, eat in our local restaurants, and shop in our local stores. The second largest city in America needs a football team, and this will help us get a modernized and expanded convention center.”

Key officials such as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are backing the deal, as well as sports greats such as Magic Johnson.

The hurdles ahead

But experts warn there are lots of hurdles to be cleared before the idea becomes reality. Activist groups are already lobbying the state to stop the project for environmental reasons.

“We don’t think there should be a separate legal system for rich people in California,” said David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is fighting a needed exemption from the state’s environmental quality act. NRDC says if an exemption is granted for this development, others will want one, too.

For its part, AEG has promised that not a nickel of public money will be necessary to build the stadium. AEG officials say it can be ready in time for the 2015 NFL season. But the plan involves tearing down and rebuilding a section of the existing convention center – a project that might require $350 million in bonds. AEG says that ticket tax revenue from the new stadium would be enough to pay off that debt, and the company would cover any shortfalls.

But author Eckstein says cities should beware. “Stadiums have a way of costing way more than anyone could envision, and the public often winds up footing the bill,” he says.

And who might play in that stadium if it is ever built. Teams that might consider moving here would be Minnesota Vikings, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers, Buffalo Bills, and perhaps even the St. Louis Rams, says Cliff Kaplan, president of Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, a sports marketing firm.

“I think the NFL is in the position of saying, 'This would be nice to have,' but certainly is not a must,” says Mr. Kaplan.

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