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AEG sale may be a bolt from NFL blues

Anschutz was never really sold on NFL in L.A. But a new local owner might be.

T.J. Simers

2:40 PM EDT, September 19, 2012

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Right now it's just an experienced hunch, the NFL's version of two plus two equals the return of the Chargers to Los Angeles next March in partnership with the new owner of AEG.

And with the mention now of Patrick Soon-Shiong, the richest man in Los Angeles, as a potential AEG owner, which would give the NFL a local presence, it really does add up.

Knowing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell as I do and how he has brokered deals in the past, I would not be surprised if he has already met and given his full blessings to Soon-Shiong.

Our Bill Shaikin passed along the following statement from Soon-Shiong's rep: "Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is keenly aware that AEG is in play," the statement read. "We have the utmost respect for Phil and Tim and what they have accomplished in entertainment and sports and in revitalizing the downtown community.

"We clearly are interested in furthering this legacy for Los Angeles."

If so, this makes this mega AEG sale all about football and the construction of a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles.

Philip Anschutz, the Denver recluse, has never really had an interest in football here. Or spending much time here.

His contentious discussions with owner Dean Spanos to bring the Chargers to Los Angeles have become a major hindrance in making good on plans to build a stadium downtown.

And the NFL is ready to return to Los Angeles whether we care or not.

The downtown stadium has always been Tim Leiweke's baby. Only one itty-bitty problem: He's never been the money guy.

Leiweke is big on ideas, and he has repeatedly told everyone it's Anschutz who needs to approve such a deal.

But I go back 17 years to an interview I did with Anschutz, Anschutz making it clear he had no interest in the NFL in L.A.

Anschutz lent his name to a Football L.A. project to bring the NFL back to town but only to repay Ed Roski for helping him engineer the deal to buy the Kings.

Over the last 17 years, AEG has occasionally dabbled in the NFL stadium game, but it's always been Leiweke, the talk eventually dying out.

But this time around, Leiweke put his AEG career on the line with a grand plan, not everyone convinced in the AEG empire it would be money well spent.

It was an extraordinary yet curious deal, Leiweke spending millions to explore the possibility of building a stadium but never really getting the green light from Anschutz.

In time their relationship became strained, Anschutz in his 70s and not all that excited about an expensive long-term project that was becoming more and more costly.

With almost everything in place to start construction, most people probably still don't believe such a project is possible.

But Leiweke has remained gung-ho, believing a new stadium and control of the convention center would further support, if not save, L.A. Live.

The NFL has had every chance to go with a ready-to-build Roski project in the City of Industry, but obviously it has been waiting for the downtown project to take shape.

When Anschutz finally agreed to go all in on the stadium, he took it upon himself to negotiate with other NFL owners without Leiweke's assistance.

In a strange twist, he went from someone who had no interest in football to wanting to buy majority interest in a team.

The scary thing about that: The Raiders probably were the only team capable of giving Anschutz everything he wanted.

That's probably the only way the Raiders could return to L.A., if owned by a Denver recluse.

But in time most of the new stadium discussion has centered on the Chargers, the roadblock being the differing value Spanos and Anschutz placed on the team.

Meanwhile, Anschutz extended Leiweke a new contract and the two men seemed to settle their differences. But with Leiweke moving the stadium project forward and now almost ready to go, it was going to be up to Anschutz to work out the deal to bring an NFL team here.

And that wasn't going well.

Now here's where I see the handiwork of Goodell. Goodell made a name for himself in NFL circles before becoming commissioner by dealing with teams on the move and building new stadiums.

I don't know, and it's strictly a guess, but I wouldn't be surprised if Leiweke dropped Soon-Shiong's name on Goodell. There's also the possibility that Goodell already knew all about Soon-Shiong, who bought out Magic Johnson's minority interest in the Lakers.

Forbes recently estimated Soon-Shiong's worth at $7.2 billion, which means the doctor and biotech investor can talk the language the NFL knows best.

If Soon-Shiong has an interest in becoming a bigger player in L.A. sports, having already failed to secure the Dodgers in the bidding process, is there any better way than aligning himself with the NFL and the AEG brand?

If Soon-Shiong is successful in coming to terms with Anschutz, he not only increases his stake in the Lakers, but continues to give Leiweke his Los Angeles platform while benefiting from Leiweke's downtown and NFL influence.

While initially it's a bombshell to hear AEG has been put up for sale, it begins to make sense when considering football and a new downtown stadium as the centerpiece.

The 2-0 Chargers began this week with 12,000 unsold tickets for Sunday's game against Atlanta. The team will be free in a few months to buy its way out of San Diego and begin play elsewhere next season.

NFL owners gather annually each March to discuss league business. Hello, Rose Bowl.

P.S. And before anyone actually tries to count, I believe this is the 458th story suggesting the return of the NFL to L.A. is imminent.

But this time it maybe really is.

t.j.simers@latimes.com