Dan Beckerman may not suit up and hit the floor during the heat of the battle, but he is a major-league baller. As such, the president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) is well versed in the idiosyncrasies that rule player behavior, especially during the intensity of a playoff series.
Stepping onto the hallowed playing surface of STAPLES Center, where the Los Angeles Lakers have won 5 of their 16 NBA championships and the LA Kings have triumphed in two of the past five Stanley Cup finals, Beckerman gingerly avoids treading on the Los Angeles Clippers’ red, white, and blue logo at center court. “It’s bad luck,” he explains with a laugh, but it’s clear that he is serious.
It’s a mid-May afternoon, and the Clippers are embroiled in a tight NBA playoff series with the Houston Rockets, which they would eventually lose, despite Beckerman’s careful footwork on this particular day.
Beckerman relishes the home-field advantage that the $3B L.A. LIVE sports and entertainment district provides. Not only did AEG develop the property, which includes STAPLES Center, Microsoft Theater (formerly Nokia Theatre L.A. LIVE), The Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott L.A. LIVE hotels, and The Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. LIVE, it also owns the LA Kings, Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy, and management of the 30-percent stake in the Lakers owned by AEG’s Chairman Philip Anschutz. It’s not a stretch to say that AEG has singlehandedly given Downtown Los Angeles a competitive edge by offering a definitive multi-purpose hub for sports and entertainment. And when one factors in the company’s worldwide holdings, which include portions of 12 professional sports teams, more than 120 elite venues, and global concert promotions, AEG is the largest owner of sports teams, events, and venues on the planet. It also operates the most profitable sports and entertainment venues in the world and is the second-largest presenter (behind Live Nation) of live music and entertainment and owners of the second-largest ticketing platform AXS (which merged with Veritix in June). In 2001, the company entered the burgeoning world of music festivals when it acquired Goldenvoice, which puts on the massively successful Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
A UCLA economics major who earned his M.B.A. in finance from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, Beckerman joined the AEG team in 1997, serving as chief financial officer for the LA Kings. “I was involved in the acquisition and development of every single team, every single building, every single construction project,” he recalls. Beckerman reported directly to CEO Tim Leiweke, a dynamic personality who had been instrumental in the company’s growth thus far.
A whirlwind series of events began in September 2012 when Anschutz announced the company was up for sale, with a multi-billion-dollar deal potentially in the works. Six months later, AEG was abruptly taken off the market and Beckerman was elevated to CEO, replacing Leiweke. Admits Beckerman: “If not for the fact that I was CFO for all those years, and was so hands-on [with financial aspects of the organization], I might not have been as comfortable” with the task of running the multi-faceted organization.
Operating on a level playing field
Those who know Beckerman well will tell you he is consistent, fair, trustworthy, and exudes an engaged authenticity that makes those around him feel special. “He can walk with the elite, and he can hang out with the guys in the parking lot,” says former NFL’er-turned-CBS sportscaster Jim Hill, who has interviewed Beckerman numerous times, adding that the 45-year-old executive has that elusive “it” factor of a natural leader. “Sooner or later, Dan was going to get the chance to do what he’s doing now,” he says. “I know he and Tim had a great relationship, and Dan learned a lot from Tim.”
In the course of my far-reaching conversation with Beckerman, which begins in the lobby of the AEG executive offices, we engage in a “walk-and-talk” tour during which few topics—or locations—are off limits. While traversing the “secret” passageway under Chick Hearn Way that bridges L.A. LIVE and STAPLES Center, Beckerman points out that athletes and celebrities alike, some of whom have residences at The Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. LIVE, favor this route to avoid the inevitable public crush upon entering and leaving the area during games or concerts.
As we chat courtside in an empty STAPLES Center, it’s clear that Beckerman is a man who is in touch with his privileged position of local sports royalty—he’s not consumed by it, nor has he become numb to the exhilaration of being so close to the action. He is an executive first and a fan second, but it’s far from a runaway. We make our way into the player locker rooms, lingering in a lounge area where the athletes customarily hang out after games when they want to avoid the media. As we take in various celebratory and historic photographs that adorn the walls, Beckerman vividly relates the triumphant feeling of hoisting the Stanley Cup above his head on the STAPLES Center ice in 2012 following the Kings’ first NHL championship in the franchise’s 45-year history.
One of the perks of his position includes three White House visits to meet the President following championship runs by AEG-owned franchises. In 2012, both the Galaxy and the Kings won league titles, marking the first time that two teams held by the same ownership in one city had won their respective championships in the same year. “We wanted to do something unique, so we brought both teams to the White House,” he says. “Both teams on the podium with President Obama in the center. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime event, we thought. It’ll never happen again, so we gotta get both teams out there.” When the Kings and Galaxy repeated as champions in 2014, Beckerman did the considerate and historic thing in terms of booking a visit with the most powerful man in the world, once again consolidating one White House visit for both teams earlier this year.
Hockey great Luc Robitaille played 20 years in the NHL, beginning and ending his career in Los Angeles. He won one Stanley Cup as a player, in 2002 with Detroit. After hanging up his skates, Robitaille joined the Kings’ front office as president of business operations. He calls Beckerman “the shoulder I’ve been leaning on ever since I retired,” adding that the CEO’s quick wit is legendary, especially when traveling with the team during the playoffs. Having won two more Stanley Cups as part of the Kings’ front office, Robitaille says the elation of accomplishment is equally fulfilling, yet there’s a stark contrast in perspective. “When you’re on the management side, you suddenly realize how many people in the community that it touches. As a player, I don’t think I was aware of that.”
Building an empire and elevating the galaxy
As with any empire, the AEG juggernaut had comparatively modest beginnings. “When I started back in 1997, it was the LA Kings and that’s all there was,” says Beckerman. “So everything that AEG is today has happened in the last  years.”
That includes the company’s “all-in” belief in soccer, which emanates from Anschutz himself. “Football” may be the world’s most popular pastime, but historically it’s been the red-headed stepchild of North American professional sports. Major League Soccer is still a toddler with respect to the more tenured “big four” professional sports leagues of baseball, basketball, football, and hockey. Formed in 1993 under the auspices of enticing FIFA to award the 1994 World Cup hosting rights to the U.S. (which ultimately happened), the sport is maturing from ugly duckling to swan as subsequent generations of American kids discover the game through youth and intramural leagues.
“Mr. Anschutz invested a tremendous amount of time and energy into soccer,” Beckerman tells me. “It’s incredible to see the league where it is today.” AEG purchased the Galaxy in October 1998, and the franchise has won more MLS Cups (5) than any other franchise. The team plays at StubHub Center in Carson, another AEG property, and made international headlines back in 2007 when it signed David Beckham as the league’s first Designated Player.
The Beckham signing “clearly had a lot to do with raising the profile of the league, certainly internationally,” says Beckerman, adding that Beckham “helped create the Galaxy brand.”
Back in the early 2000s, however, MLS was struggling for relevance in the States, with many wondering if the fledgling league could survive. At the time, there were 10 teams, and 6 were owned by Anschutz and AEG. Rather than cut its losses, AEG dug in deeper, and in 2003 developed the first soccer-specific stadium in Los Angeles, The Home Depot Center (renamed StubHub Center in 2013), hosted its first game.
“Sooner or later, Dan was going to get the chance to do what he’s doing now. I know he and Tim had a great relationship, and Dan learned a lot from Tim.”
AEG had hoped to finance the project but encountered such difficulty that it ultimately funded the $150mm stadium unilaterally. “Having an owner like Mr. Anschutz, who is willing to take risks, who has capital, and believes in the sport, [allowed us to build] the stadium with $100 million in equity and contributions from Mr. Anschutz,” recalls Beckerman. “Without Mr. Anschutz’ help and taking those kinds of risks, that stadium probably doesn’t get built.”
Today, the league is expanding at a robust rate; there are currently 20 MLS franchises, with 4 more set to join the league in the next three years. While guesting on a panel at the Milken Global Conference in Santa Monica earlier this year, Beckerman felt a measure of vindication when the topic turned to major sports. “The moderator was asking a question, and he included MLS in the list,” says Beckerman. “It was a point of great pride and joy, because it came from a third party who wasn’t an insider.”
Anschutz, whose net worth is placed at well above $11B, has been referred to as “the man who saved Major League Soccer.” He is one of only four people who has been awarded the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s Medal of Honor, for his contributions to growing the sport in the United States.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber readily acknowledges the contributions that Anschutz and AEG have made to his sport, and he is a particular fan of Beckerman’s leadership style. Since coming on as commissioner in 1999, Garber has gotten to know Beckerman quite well, from his days as CFO to his transition to CEO. “Dan’s greatest skill is he has this everyman skill about him. You’d never know if you met him in a bar that’s he’s running a multi-billion-dollar company. He’s hanging out with Mick Jagger, David Beckham—the best and the brightest. And it doesn’t seem to faze him one single bit.”
Meeting Mr. Anschutz
The path from UCLA business major to CEO of an international sports entertainment powerhouse may not cover much geographical mileage, but Beckerman’s maturation has charted considerable distance in his 22-year career. There was a time, however, that if sports and entertainment were the fork in the road, Beckerman would have been more likely to pursue entertainment. His first job, he recalls, was at Wherehouse Records in Orange County and then in Westwood while attending UCLA.
He is a classically trained pianist, studying for 11 years before recreational sports – tennis, basketball, and skiing among them – inevitably took over. “I was pretty serious about [piano] for awhile,” he says, elaborating when pressed that a Haydn concerto was probably the most difficult piece he’d performed at a recital. “There’s a real correlation between understanding music and mathematics. I’m a firm believer that learning music helps you learn other subjects as well.” For that reason, Beckerman counts the Grammy Museum as one of the key charities he supports.
Beckerman’s entry into the business of professional sports was with the Clippers when he was hired as vice president of finance in 1995. And it wasn’t until after he was hired as chief financial officer for the Kings that Beckerman eventually had his first encounter with Anschutz – in a small underground conference room at The Great Western Forum with a handful of people reviewing the Kings’ budget for the coming year. It was the occasion of their second meeting, however, that made a lasting impression on Beckerman. In September 1997, Anschutz was holding a company retreat at his Colorado ranch, an event that has grown into an annual tradition. The visionary owner was encountering some pushback on plans for building a sports arena Downtown. “The City Council and others were challenging the project, saying it’s never going to work there, this project is a big failure,” recalls Beckerman. “We were an unknown company at the time. Nobody knew Phil Anschutz. When we were leaving the ranch after our two days of meetings, I remember as we were getting back in the truck, he says to me, ‘This project is gonna get done. Don’t worry about it.’ We were all a little panicked about it prior to that. But he was right.”
STAPLES Center broke ground in March 1998 and opened in October 1999. In the ensuing years, the venue has become, quite literally, a staple of the local sports and entertainment landscape, serving as home to the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Sparks, while hosting an average of 250 concerts and events every year.
In September 2005, construction began on the sprawling L.A. LIVE project, which would eventually include Microsoft Square, Microsoft Theater, Club Nokia, The GRAMMY Museum, JW Marriott L.A. LIVE and The Ritz-Carlton hotels and
THE Ritz-Carlton Residences at L.A. LIVE, ESPN broadcasting studios, Regal Entertainment Group’s 14-screen movie complex, and nearly two dozen restaurants, lounges, and hospitality options. AEG relocated its international headquarters there in 2008. “I think the partnership we have built with the city of LA, the Council, and the Mayor over the past 20 years has been a critical part of our success here,” Beckerman points out.
Today, the entire district covers 5.6 million square feet of retail, commercial, hospitality, and event space, with more to come. Recently AEG announced plans for a 750-room expansion of the JW Marriott L.A. LIVE set to begin in early 2016, to be designed by Gensler, the architectural firm that produced the plans for existing JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton.
“There’s a real correlation between understanding music and mathematics. I’m a firm believer that learning music helps you learn other subjects as well.”
The initial skepticism that greeted each phase of the original development, from STAPLES Center to The Ritz-Carlton / JW Marriott, has been dispelled, says Beckerman, borne out by overwhelmingly positive economic results. “It’s served as a catalyst for other developers to come in and invest, not just in retail, but other hotels,” he points out.
The Expanding AEG World Around Us
Outside the region, the AEG footprint continues to grow as well. In spring 2016, a new, 18,000-seat, state-of-the-art arena will open in Las Vegas, a 50/50 partnership with MGM Resorts International. When finished, the venue will open up opportunities to host boxing, UFC, concerts, and perhaps, even a new NHL franchise.
London’s The O2 arena, considered the No. 1 venue in the world based on ticket sales, is being emulated by AEG’s Mercedes-Benz Arena in Berlin, which recently announced plans to develop its own entertainment district. “These are not cookie-cutter projects,” stresses Beckerman. “We’re very selective about how we program and integrate and become part of the community that we’re in.” AEG’s partnership with China (it opened the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai in 2010) has allowed its live events division, AEG Live, to expand and tour Western artists, such as Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, in Asia, which for various reasons has been a historically tough market for Western artists to crack. “Not that [artists] will play exclusively our venues, but having that network is a good place to start.”
Early in the game, AEG threw its support behind an international event that is coming to Los Angeles in July—the Special Olympics World Games. “All of our staff are volunteering and participating in some way,” says Beckerman. “We’ve really embraced it.” When Beckerman says “we” in the corporate sense, it’s not hyperbole; he is personally invested in the cause.
Todd Goldstein, AEG’s chief revenue officer, joined the company 15 years ago and is keenly aware of the CEO’s selfless advocacy of charitable endeavors. Goldstein, who serves on the World Games board and the development committee, offers: “Dan has been a staunch personal and public supporter of the Games. All of the charitable events that we’ve done as a company, he’s there. Just last December we did an event at Downtown’s South Park Elementary School, and he’s there, painting the walls, doing the nitty-gritty things.” That type of participatory leadership, Goldstein says, is inspiring and perfectly in character with who Beckerman is.
We wrap up the interview in Beckerman’s office, which overlooks Microsoft Plaza, where a deceptively authentic Steely Dan cover band is doing a soundcheck for a performance at a private event later that evening. Amid the multitude of distractions that naturally occur while leading a massive company of 50+ divisions and more than 20,000 employees, the thought occurs that the cacophonous preparatory sideshow happening below is probably little more than white noise to Beckerman, who remains focused and engaged (even though he divulged earlier in the day that Steely Dan happens to be one of his favorite bands).
I ask him about the toughest decision he’s ever had to make in his role as top executive at a company whose value has been estimated to be north of $10B. I await his answer, assuming it will relate to some massive development of local or international scope and how to justify the bottom line or anticipate market conditions. Pondering the question, he replies that player personnel decisions are always the most difficult, and his explanation offers further testament to the fact that Dan the Businessman and Dan the Fan coexist comfortably inside the scope of Beckerman’s areas of responsibility and expertise.
In soccer, he explains, there are “designated” players and it’s possible to sign a player and not be constrained by a salary cap, which is not the case in other major sports. “The decision relates more to whether that player is right for the team and the market,” he says, adding that impact on the field and impact on the business merit separate but equal consideration. In January, the club used its third and final available slot to sign Steven Gerrard, one of the most successful players in English Premier League history and captain of the British National team, to an 18-month Designated Player contract worth a reported $9mm. He will join the Galaxy in July at the conclusion of the 2014-15 Premier League season.
Beckerman offers one more anecdote of a difficult decision he had to make. In 2012 Coachella Music Festival Founder Paul Tollett came to Beckerman with an unprecedented idea that would entail considerable financial risk: Take the most successful and profitable weekend musical festival in the world and expand it into two weekends, with the same programming running on consecutive weekends.
“Actually, that was an easy decision,” he corrects himself after considering the results of the past two years. “It was a tremendously successful grand slam home run.”
Incorporating the well-placed sports analogy into the conversation is second nature to Dan Beckerman, the unassuming front-office superstar. The formula for success has become nearly automatic: Beckerman shoots and scores, parent company AEG takes another proverbial victory skate around the ice, and the city jumps to its collective feet in celebration.