LAFC breaks ground on stadium project, unveils reorganized ownership group

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Expansion team touts league's largest sponsorship deal during stadium ceremony.

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles FC on Tuesday announced what it proclaimed the largest sponsorship deal in Major League Soccer history as it held a star-studded groundbreaking ceremony for a new stadium slated to open at Exposition Park in spring 2018.

The expansion club, which will play it’s the same year, also introduced a trio of new managing partners, with equity fund executive Larry Berg taking over as lead managing owner from venture capitalist Henry Nguyen in a restructuring of club management completed earlier this month.

NBA legend Magic Johnson, comedian Will Ferrell and motivational speaker Tony Robbins, all members of a large and varied ownership group, led the owners, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and local politicians, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, in shoveling a little dirt -- with Johnson and Ferrell operating heavy machinery -- to ceremoniously commence with stadium construction.

The planned 22,000-seat venue, on the site of the Los Angeles Sports Arena and next to the iconic Memorial Coliseum, will be called Banc of California Stadium. The deal with the Irvine-based bank, Berg announced, was “the largest sponsorship in the history of MLS ... and we know this partnership will be the most impactful in MLS, as well.”

The decision to build on the site of the Sports Arena was announced 15 months ago. The facility's price tag is up to $350 million, according to Bloomberg Markets, which reported that about half the cost would be financed through a loan by Goldman Sachs Group, Inc.

LAFC officials would not divulge the amount of the sponsorship deal with Banc of California, and club president Tom Penn said there was no contingency plan to play elsewhere if the stadium isn't ready on time.

“Our target is spring of 2018, and we'll see how they do with the project,” Penn said after the festivities. “We're on target for spring of 2018, and this is an uncertain project. A lot has to go right, and, god willing, it will. Safe and on time.”

The Sports Arena, which closed with dates for Bruce Springsteen's “The River” tour in March, is being dismantled piece by piece, an operation that will take the rest of the year, executive vice president of soccer John Thorrington said.

Banc of California Stadium would be the 20th soccer-specific venue built by MLS clubs. Garber, who called the festivities “a great historic moment” for American soccer, said the league never expected to have so many.

“When the original business plan came together, there was no plan for soccer stadiums. That was only 20 years ago,” said Garber, who has been commissioner since 1999. “They thought that MLS would play in everybody else's large buildings as a secondary tenant. And this team will be our 20th [with its own stadium]. That's billions of dollars of investment and lots of support from public figures to help sort of bring this sport to communities. It's what's transformed our league.”

Nguyen, the point man as LAFC built its ownership group and took its initial steps toward constructing the stadium, stepped back from most of his duties with the club earlier this month because his business interests are leaving him little time to deal with LAFC responsibilities. He was on hand Tuesday but was not made available to media.

“His business is on fire in Vietnam ... and it's kind of a tough commute,” Penn said. “He's still super-involved. It's all good.”

Berg, who brought Ferrell into the ownership group, will be assisted by investment firm founder Bennett Rosenthal and video games mogul Brandon Beck, who will serve as co-managing owners. All were introduced Tuesday, to fanfare from the club's Black Army supporters' group, which formerly supported Chivas USA.

U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati was on hand, as was former L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and former U.S. national team star Paul Caligiuri. Garcetti used the occasion to push for Los Angeles' bid to host the 2024 Olympics and the U.S.' aim to stage the 2026 World Cup.

Johnson, a Lakers icon who said he lives across the street from Berg, quipped he “almost killed him, because his name is Larry Berg.” The audience roared to his allusion to former Boston Celtics rival Larry Bird.

Ferrell, who is from Irvine and attended nearby USC, kept things loose, jokingly asking fans not to “abduct me,” noting that he'd received a club scarf to take “the chill off” on a warm morning, and noted that he'd spent a month inside the Sports Arena filming “Blades of Glory,” the “seminal movie on figure skating.”

“What is my role on the team? I'm just the eye candy. I'm the show pony,” Ferrell quipped. “These guys have done all the heavy lifting, but I have found out I'm going to be head groundskeeper. I don't know anything about horticulture or ... plants, but I've got two years to learn. It's going to be the best turf in MLS, guaranteed.

“I also want to make a bold prediction. We don't have our roster yet, we know there's a lot of interest from coaches and players to come and play here in Los Angeles, but I do know this: We will go undefeated in our inaugural season. I don't know how hard that is to do ... but we will do that. And if not, you can come up and tackle me in the parking lot, OK?”

With the groundbreaking done, LAFC is focused on identifying a head coach and players, and the team is is in conversations with entities about a permanent training facility.

“We'll shift focus to some soccer-operations matters, practice facility,” Penn said. “We're setting up our sales center, our [stadium] experience center up the street on Pico [Boulevard], which will be killer. A spectacular way to experience what the venue is going to be all about.

“We tried to do that here [on the stadium site], but the tent was so hot.”