When you think Carson, you think car dealer Don Kott long before you think wheeler-dealer Michael Ovitz. Carson is a residential city that socially and geographically bridges the distance between Compton and Torrance. It's got Nissan Motors' U.S. headquarters, a Cal State campus, Kott's sprawling auto dealerships and an IKEA-anchored mall, plus some of the scraggly bare spots that, in metro L.A., usually connote abandoned dumpsites.
One of these latter venues got Carson in the news last week, with the airing of a landfill-based proposal that would turn this burg of 90,000 into an NFL city, complete with a half-billion-dollar stadium-cum-mall.
It was a big day for Carsonites. There, on the front of the morning Times, was a tinted sketch of what appeared to be a luminous, 77,000-seat Taco Bell.
The eulogistic article (which determined that this project was, instantly, “the leading contender” for the NFL's proposed 32nd team) struck some townsfolk with much the same impact as those “you're a $100 million winner” mailings hit the gullible.
That night, about 300 Carsonites overflowed the 140-capacity council chamber to find out what this bid meant to them, and what the city's contribution (ranging from $100 million to $180 million) would mean to a municipality with an annual operating budget of under $40 million.
The so-called Hacienda Stadium package is a fast-track proposition if ever there was one. Discussion of an NFL stadium in Carson, which competes directly with a proposal to place a team in the Los Angeles Coliseum, had only begun this year. But by last Tuesday, there were artists' drawings, the open involvement of Ovitz and partners including basketball star Shaquille O'Neal and actor Kevin Costner – plus a necessary demand for an official commitment from the National Football League by the time of this week's league meeting in Kansas City.
It all happened so fast that some skepticism on the part of Carsonites was to be expected. They knew the L.A. Coliseum proposal, backed by that city and developer Ed Roski, was ready to go to the NFL. But how had Carson gotten into the game? And in the council chambers, city officials boosting the project did little at first to a reassure the citizenry: Their answers were vague going on hostile. Had the proposal been voted on then, it might have failed.
But proponents were better prepared when the council met again two days later. Actual numbers seeped out while the two key council members in favor of the project – both in a more accommodating mood – made the case that Carson's risk was minimal.
The $1.5 billion proposal was laid out by a consultant, John Stainbeck, key council-member supporter Daryl Sweeney and Mayor Peter Fajardo. They portrayed a project with no downside. Ovitz and Partners, they explained, would try to lock up the NFL franchise – Cleveland recently paid $530 million for its new NFL team. The up-to-$180-million city contribution goes toward both the stadium and an adjacent (and long-planned) 1.2-million-square-foot shopping mall, which would include a football museum. In case the sports-stadium-and-shopping-mall concept slowed you down, we'll get back to it in a moment.
The Carson number crunchers' most important claim was that their agreement absolves the city from paying that bonded debt out of the city's regular budget. Moreover, they claimed that Carson will net around $14 million a year, almost risk-free. This is over and above some $11 million in annual debt service that's also supposed to be produced by revenues from the facility. (Right now, the city's bond rating is, according to Moody's, a middling “BAA1.” It's too early for Wall Street to weigh in on the proposed stadium bonds.)
Sweeney said Carson's resolute proposal is tough enough to compete with those already on the table from the Coliseum promoters and the city of Houston. After three hours of discussion, the council backed the proposal with four votes and one abstention. That sealed the deal for the city to make its proposal.
Thus first-term officeholder Sweeney obtained in two days from little Carson what veteran Los Angeles Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas has been unable to get from Los Angeles after years of trying: a council majority behind a plan for a pro-football franchise.
But the deal's real fomenter was nowhere near Carson City Hall last week. Enigmatic magnate Michael Ovitz was represented at the crucial second meeting only by a young Munger Tolles attorney, whose sole contribution was a suggestion (rejected) that the city not cap its participation offer at $180 million.
Ovitz's influence came before – when he met with the little city's officers and overwhelmed them. If onetime client megastars such as Dustin Hoffman and Barbra Streisand have melted before Ovitz's luminosity, what chance did Sweeney and Fajardo have? Ovitz also had a recent, persuasive schmooze at his own Brentwood palazzo with the NFL brass hats, league commissioner Paul Tagliabue and stadium-committee chairman Jerry Richardson.
Ovitz certainly had found an available site, a quarter-square-mile swath that has been desolate for nearly 40 years. But there's good reason for that. The accursed acreage squats atop 1.2 million gallons of toxic liquids. Previous development attempts include fizzled proposals for Rams and Raider stadiums, while a suspect residential plan (involving Orange County fixer and fireworks kingpin W. Patrick Moriarity) got two entrepreneurs indicted and bankrupted an Irvine S&L. Owned by a union pension fund, the site was most recently to be turned into something called MetroMall by a developer named Herbert Glimcher.
Carson and Glimcher had a falling-out, but Ovitz brought him back as a real estate partner, complete with his vital state permits (and state-approved toxic-abatement plans) for the site cleanup and construction of the previously planned mall.
Here's where Ovitz obviously did his homework. He knew that the site was available, the $35 million site-cleanup plan was approved by officialdom, and he already had an in with Glimcher, with whom he's now formed a separate real estate holding company that city officials refer to as “The Glimcher-Ovitz Entity.” Hence the retail-sports connection: Glimcher finally gets his mall and Ovtiz gets his stadium.
But why Ovitz? How did Hollywood's onetime most powerful agent get to turning deals for football stadiums? Well, for one thing, he needed something to do. “America's fixer,” as Ovitz liked to be known, was in a slump after he got canned two years ago as the number-two manager of Disney just 16 months into the job. Ovitz did capture a nine-figure platinum parachute from Disney (to the rage of stockholders), but suddenly, at age 50, his perfect career had leaped into a void: He spent ever more time in New York, that perennial court of exile for Hollywood titans unaccustomed to not having their calls returned.
Now he's back in town, albeit in pro sports, which is probably the most competitive field in which he's never before labored. But he's working just as he's always worked. Noel Koch, in the Columbia Journalism Review, quoted a source who said, “He has a great instinct for the weak spot in any chain of command.” Witness how he worked Sweeney and Fajardo.
Will Ovitz succeed? Will his monstrous pink piece of 21st Century Mission Kitsch – designed by Planet Hollywood architect John Rockwell – actually loom over the 110-405 intersection? Will its proposed “mission” bells chime six rings for every home-team touchdown, making the South Bay sound like the coronation scene from Boris Godunov? Will Don Kott give away Carson NFL sweatshirts with every new Escort he sells? Hard to say.
For besides the other contenders for a team, there's Ovitz's own track record – the reality as opposed to the hype. Writer Koch noted that Ovitz's media coverage has been so deferential that few recall how participants in some of his biggest deals have taken billion-dollar baths. You could ask Sony how it came out in its deal to purchase Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola in 1989 or how Matsushita benefited from its purchase of MCA a year later.
Yet Ovitz has been the king of entertainment packaging ever since he founded Creative Artists Associates in 1975 to serve as agent for the rich and famous of Hollywood. Maybe he can bring to sports the packaging he brought to all-star film productions like Rain Man. Of course, some former associates question whether Ovitz's follow-through has ever quite matched his magnificent initial pitch.
This is something that the future of the Hacienda Stadium may or may not demonstrate. But in Carson there's a lot of emotion – hardy skepticism, along with some soaring hopes – for this project. In the past, Ovitz has been able to shelter his mistakes by media manipulation and because his industry-hotshot victims have had reason to keep quiet. If he fails here – if there's a major screwup in the site cleanup, say, or the new team's owner pulls out after a few years, a la Al Davis – 90,000 angry Carsonites will be looking for someone to blame. And then Mr. Power Lunch may have to go farther than New York to find someplace to hide.