Ed Roski Jr. is a billionaire in the mold of Warren Buffett, folksy and soft-spoken. But get the 70-year-old Southern California real estate developer going about the gleaming football stadium he plans to build just outside Los Angeles, where the 57 and 60 freeways intersect in the City of Industry, and he beams with evangelical conviction. This hash-marked Taj Mahal will be "revolutionary ... unbelievable ... incredible." It will boast swank suites, a beer garden, a music stage and, this being L.A., a private entrance for celebrities and luxury suite denizens.
This is an article from the Oct. 26, 2009 issue
It will also be a place for The People, a 75,000-seat bandbox as intimate as a college stadium, with loads of affordable seats. And it will be green, Roski stresses, invoking today's mandatory buzzword. Even the $800 million price tag sounds reasonable, especially because Roski will use no pubic financing. (It's far less than the $1.2 billion Jerry Jones and munificent Texas taxpayers coughed up for the new Cowboys Stadium.) And a final bureaucratic hurdle to construction appears to have been cleared: Last week the California Senate approved a onetime environmental exemption for the stadium. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bill sometime this month.
The pieces of a plan 12 years in the making are falling into place, and when you listen to Roski's breathless description, watch his promotional videos and study the architectural models, you can't help but envision pro football being played on balmy fall Sundays before a backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains. One vital element, though, is missing.
Los Angeles, of course, has no NFL team.
There hasn't been a regular-season NFL game in the L.A. area since Christmas Eve 1994, when the Raiders lost to the Chiefs at the Coliseum, a stadium that smudges the line between venerable and run-down. Less than a month later Rams owner Georgia Frontiere packed up her franchise and bolted from Anaheim to St. Louis. The following summer Raiders owner Al Davis followed her out of town, hauling his team back to Oakland. "Fifteen years," says Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is "way too long not to have a team in the second-largest [city] in America."
Since then a handful of NFL clubs have threatened to up and leave for L.A., and as late as 2006, in his final year as commissioner, Paul Tagliabue vowed that Los Angeles would be an NFL city again by the end of the decade. But the plans have never borne fruit. Why? You'd have a hard time arguing that L.A. simply isn't a football town. More than a dozen pro clubs have existed there since the 1930s, starting with the L.A. Dons of the All-America Football Conference. And that's to say nothing of USC and UCLA, whose games draw crowds to rival those of most NFL teams.
The most obvious reason for the prolonged absence is L.A.'s lack of a modern venue. For years the city's best hope was to upgrade the Coliseum, which was built in the early 1920s. But with each passing year the old place has become more dowdy. Now even Villaraigosa is resigned to finding a venue other than the Coliseum, even if it means venturing outside the city limits. But that creates a classic chicken-and-egg quandary. The NFL isn't going to massage the relocation of a team to L.A. until there is a suitable place to play. (Further expansion is not in the plans.) Yet no one is going to shell out hundreds of millions for a stadium without assurance that there will be a team to call it home. The situation is particularly fraught in referendum-happy California, where voters have made it clear time and again that they will not use public revenue to build or renovate stadiums. No coincidence, then, that three of the NFL's oldest venues are in San Diego, Oakland and San Francisco.
That's where Roski comes in. Like some angel sent to give the city's NFL fans hope, he has pursued a stadium at considerable personal cost. He has leased the land from the City of Industry, secured the various entitlements and lined up the financing, all private. He's spent more than $10 million out of pocket to undertake an environmental impact report, required for any major construction initiative in California.
Roski says he has also had to "compensate" (read: buy off) communities bordering the City of Industry for potential costs and inconveniences caused by the stadium. Earlier this year he agreed to cut a check to the city of Diamond Bar for $20 million in exchange for the city's promise not to challenge his environmental report. Dealing with the city of Walnut was more problematic: It went to court to stop construction and then, Roski's group says, submitted a wish list that came to tens of millions of dollars and included a new banquet facility and aquatics center. In September the parties reached an agreement: Roski's group will make a onetime payment of $9 million to Walnut and contribute an annual six-figure fee to cover costs, such as additional police, incurred because of the new stadium.
Roski, who has reportedly seen his net worth drop by $1 billion (to $1.5 billion) during the recession, isn't going to such effort out of altruism or to become a leasing agent. He already owns minority stakes in the Lakers and the L.A. Kings—"I get a good parking spot," he says—and now Roski craves a place in what might be sports' most elite circle, the club of NFL owners. He won't put a shovel into the soil until he is guaranteed at least a majority share in a team. "The day I sign a deal, the team moves to L.A. and we start to build," he says.
But which team? Roski's group has considered relocation candidates, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, San Diego Chargers, Minnesota Vikings, Buffalo Bills, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and, in a bit of grid-irony, the St. Louis Rams, who've hired Goldman Sachs to solicit potential buyers and evaluate bids. It's ultimately up to the other NFL owners to approve a sale to Roski, but the league office can certainly facilitate the process. Roski has vowed that a franchise in Los Angeles will be among the league's top five revenue generators—a sharp selling point to the owners, considering that every NFL team would share in the revenue generated in the L.A. market. Already, Roski's employees claim, they've fielded more than 3,000 requests to reserve the 176 luxury suites and almost 80,000 for the 12,500 club seats.
That interest is one reason the NFL, which once looked at Roski's Los Angeles Stadium Project as the quixotic dream of a billionaire, now takes the developer seriously—which might be the best news NFL fans in L.A. have heard in nearly two decades. "Ed's an extremely capable guy, good businessman, good developer—he has a lot of things going for him," says Eric Grubman, the NFL's executive vice-president of finance and strategic transactions. "L.A. is a big, attractive market, and we don't trifle with it. We want to be there, but we don't want to artificially push it across the finish line."
Which is fine by Roski. "Look, they're not going to fail three times here," he says. "They're not coming until they have the perfect deal. Well, this is the perfect deal."
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For more from Jon Wertheim on efforts to bring an NFL team to L.A., go to SI.com/bonus