What’s billionaire Phil Anschutz got up his sleeve with the sale of AEG?

AEG owns the Staples Center, where Justin Bieber recently performed.
AEG owns the Staples Center, where Justin Bieber recently performed.
Image: AP Photo / Invision / Matt Sayles
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Phil Anschutz, America’s most reclusive billionaire, with his fingers in everything from international properties, to movies, to entertainment, is expected to start accepting bids on the sale of his Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) at $10 billion and up. AEG is a major and very profitable part of the Anschutz Empire. He’s spent years putting together the conglomerate, which is now the world’s largest owner of sports teams, plus the stadiums they play in, including Los Angeles’ Staples Center, the home of the Lakers, as well as the Kings hockey team. AEG is also the world’s second largest promoter of live concerts and entertainment extravaganzas featuring such stars as Justin Bieber, Celine Dion, Taylor Swift, and Jennifer Lopez. He was even set to bring Michael Jackson back on his ill fated “This Is It” Tour.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the upcoming sale is that it would mean Anschutz’s relinquishing his ownership in six Major League Soccer teams, including the L.A Galaxy for which he personally wrote a check for the $500 million package it took to get David Beckham, along with Posh, on board. So, why is he prepared to give all that up for the sake of several billion dollars he doesn’t exactly need?

Based on his track record, even though Anschutz is 72, no one thinks for a minute he is looking to cash out. He has always had a plan, and quite often, this has involved liquidating an existing investment and swiftly moving into another opportunity. He spent years building the Union Pacific railroad, which he sold at a huge profit, while retaining the rights to build along the tracks. This allowed him to form Qwest Communications and build the first national all fiber optic network. He is a staunch fundamentalist Christian who started a movie company, Walden Media, to make wholesome family films. After several years of losing money, he produced “Ray,” the life story of Ray Charles, complete with drugs, sex, rock & roll—and ultimately redemption. It won two Oscars and made more than $75 million at the box office. You can never take what he is doing at face value, because when Anschutz puts a deal together, there are often wheels within wheels that only become clear later on.

Perhaps the key to the current mystery is that just over two weeks ago, Los Angeles City Council signed off on a deal with AEG worth more than $1 billion to build a downtown football stadium, which in turn, would hopefully attract a National Football League (NFL) franchise to the city. As is typical with most cities faced with the prospect of picking up a national team, Los Angeles had ignored its unhealthy budgetary situation and extended massive tax breaks and other pot sweeteners to have Anschutz sign off on the deal. To be fair, AEG informed the council it was putting itself up for sale a couple of days before the vote, and vaguely promised that the new owners would honor the deal. But by that time, the train was leaving the station and none of the council members wanted to miss that fun-filled NFL bar car.

The beauty of all this for Anschutz is that he upped the price of the company from the early estimates of $7 billion or so, to $10-billion-plus, and he no longer has to actually deliver a football team. That’s up to the new owners of AEG, meaning they are the poor saps who will have to live through an increasingly common affliction amongst builders of humungous, but empty, sports stadia… The Al Davis Syndrome. Named after the Oakland Raider’s long-time owner, Al Davis who used to shop the Raiders around to cities dumb enough to put up a couple of million for an exploratory meeting. Al would hit town, have the meeting, then leave town, obviously with the money. Irwindale, California, famous for its sand and gravel pits, became notorious in 1987 for establishing the “Al Davis Syndrome Record,” when they gave him $10 million for the privilege of a couple of brief meetings.

But just to prove that your average billionaire is as crazy as the next one, Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, and the third richest man in America, is considering making a bid for AEG. Rumor has it; the big attraction will be moving that highly prized NFL team to Los Angeles. I mean, why not, he owns everything else. He’s the guy who shows you his new atomic-powered helicopter, which is parked on the deck of his new battleship sized yacht, which is moored at his new island. Ellison recently cashed out some Oracle shares for a total of $4.3 billion and told CNBC that the money was for just in case I go shopping and something catches my eye.”

For what it’s worth, my bet is that Anschutz has something truly ambitious cooking, even by his standards, and needs the mountain of cash this sale would generate. He has never taken on major debt and wouldn’t start now. Because of his right-wing politics, religious beliefs, and prior experience in entertainment and communications, could we be looking at the founding of a new TV/digital/internet/social channel whose express purpose would be the propagation of the beliefs Anschutz holds dear?

Whatever it is, it will be ambitious. We should know more in a few weeks.