BUILDING ITS REP
When sports’ biggest projects are designed and constructed, CAA Icon often has a seat at the table
by Don Muret
Acting as an owner’s representative can be a rough business. Sports teams hire those specialists to keep the design and construction of their massive projects on time and on budget, and that sometimes means butting heads with architects, builders and consultants.
Over the past 30 years, nobody has been more successful at it than Tim Romani, co-founder of Icon Venue Group, who sold his company to CAA Sports two years ago. The firm rebranded as CAA Icon after the sale with Romani in charge as CEO.
Owner’s reps such as Romani play a critical role in sports. They guide the project from start to finish, beginning with the initial vision for the facility and forming a budget, and continuing through the process of design and construction to completion.
Romani is considered by those he has worked for to be the best at what he does in a space with few major players, dating to New Comiskey Park, his first project, which opened for the Chicago White Sox in 1991. And now, Icon has the weight of sports business powerhouse CAA Sports’ brand behind its business.
So far, it’s paid off pretty well. Since the merger was completed in March 2016, CAA Icon has captured more than a half-dozen projects. Some have especially high profiles, such as the Raiders’ new NFL stadium in Las Vegas, a $2 billion project, and Chase Center, the Golden State Warriors’ $1 billion development that extends to a pair of office towers going up next to the San Francisco arena. Overseas, CAA Icon is owner’s rep for Stadio della Roma, AS Roma’s $400 million stadium project themed in part on the Colosseum.
“We were at a pretty strong growth cycle even before we did the CAA transaction, but for sure, the merger had an accelerating effect on our business,” Romani said.
For those three projects, CAA Icon got its foot in the door because of the relationships CAA Sports already had with those respective properties through marketing deals.
“But all of that is just establishing channels of communication,” he said. “These clients are astute. They hire us because we’re able to prove a high level of value to help deliver their projects.”
On its own, CAA Sports provides property sales, licensing and media rights advisory services, plus consulting on team mergers and acquisitions and corporate financing. Most recently, CAA Sports became one of three partners in forming Elevate Sports Ventures, an agency specializing in selling PSLs, premium seats and corporate hospitality.
Many of those services fit the needs of CAA Icon’s clients as they develop sports facilities, and it’s largely what drove CAA Sports to buy Icon Venue Group, said Mike Levine, co-head of CAA Sports.
“We were reaching a point where there was only so much more that we had to offer,” Levine said.
“We had a lot of team owners that we were friendly with, but there just weren’t that many ways in which CAA Sports could be engaged,” he said. “Here was an opportunity for us to put some of those relationships to work, because there’s no team that doesn’t have a venue … and at some point, they’re in need of some of these services. It was an interesting match in that regard.”
Looking back, the deal was a smart one for both CAA Sports and Icon Venue Group, said Oak View Group CEO Tim Leiweke. He considers the two companies best-in-class. The field of owner’s reps alone includes competitors Legends Global Development, PC Sports, Brailsford & Dunlavey and one-man shops such as Jack Hill and John Stranix. (OVG owns VenuesNow magazine).
Leiweke has known Romani for 25 years, and they’ve completed 11 projects together, starting with Pepsi Center in Denver, which opened in 1999. Leiweke considered acquiring Icon Venue Group soon after launching Oak View Group in the fall of 2015, but the company was still in its infancy and Leiweke took a pass because he thought it was too soon to make that kind of acquisition.
Their relationship remained intact. Oak View Group hired CAA Icon as owner’s rep for the redevelopment of Seattle’s KeyArena, where OVG intends to put an NHL team, and Romani’s group is competing for additional services for the New York Islanders’ arena at Belmont Park, another OVG project, after completing a design review of the project.
Romani’s crew, which includes CAA Icon President and CEO Art Aaron and executive vice presidents Marc Farha and Charlie Thornton, has a sharp eye in working with designers to reshape the fan experience and generate revenue through technology and new premium spaces, Leiweke said. As a result, they have played a key role for changing the way sports venues are developed.
“This is a business that isn’t going away,” Leiweke said. “It’s not just about getting these things designed and built. It’s about thinking 10 to 20 years ahead and where does this industry go? We sense within them a like mind and drive and energy to go find new ideas of entertaining the customer.”
In addition, many team owners aren’t developers but rather high-net-worth individuals who have never supervised construction and are embarking on a project valued in the several hundred millions of dollars. Romani’s experience is critical for helping them navigate through a complex process, said sports architect Dan Meis, who is designing the AS Roma stadium.
Owner’s reps have taken on even greater responsibility in recent years, as their oversight extends to mixed-use projects that more teams are creating to generate revenue outside the sports facility. CAA Icon’s work has touched the rebirth of downtown Edmonton tied to Rogers Place, the NHL Oilers’ arena; the 1060 Project at and around Wrigley Field; and the entertainment district across the street from the Milwaukee Bucks’ new arena, which opens late this summer.
“Tim has done a good job of adapting … to those types of new issues that arise through the real estate side,” said Ray Baker, chairman of the Metropolitan Football Stadium District in Denver. That public entity worked with Icon Venue Group to open Sports Authority Field at Mile High, home of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, in 2001.
For CAA Sports, buying Romani’s firm was just the beginning of a growth spurt. In October, CAA Sports purchased Barrett Sports Group, a California firm specializing in market research, feasibility studies and financial planning, all of which occur on the front end of facility development before Romani’s group takes the reins for managing design and construction. Barrett’s group competes against Brailsford & Dunlavey, Inner Circle and Legends’ CSL International, as well as investment banks.
It was Romani who advised CAA Sports to acquire Barrett Sports Group after Icon Venue Group became part of the CAA family. At that time, Romani sat down with Levine and fellow CAA Sports co-head Howie Nuchow to discuss ways to further expand business.
Dan Barrett founded Barrett Sports Group in 2000, and in the midst of his more than 1,000 sports projects over the years, there were many times he sat across from Romani at the bargaining table. Barrett often represented public entities, while Romani worked for the teams. They knew each other well, which made it easier for CAA Sports to acquire Barrett Sports Group.
“The time was right and the fit was right,” Barrett said. “We’ve certainly butted heads in the past, but there’s always been a mutual respect between us.”
One project on which they both worked was Golden 1 Center, the arena that the NBA’s Sacramento Kings moved into in fall 2016. The Kings hired Icon Venue Group and Barrett’s firm represented the city of Sacramento. Sports executive Chris Granger, now with Ilitch Holdings in Detroit, was president of the Kings during that period and had an insider’s view of both men at work as they hammered out a deal that ultimately kept the team from leaving Sacramento.
On the city side, Barrett was a tough but fair negotiator and he helped get a better deal for everybody involved to pay for the $560 million venue, Granger said. For the team, Icon’s command of the space enabled project officials to identify potential construction issues before they occurred, which made them a trusted partner in the process.
“You’re talking about combining two of the very the best in the business at what they do,” Granger said. “Kudos to CAA for bringing everybody together. It continues to show CAA’s commitment to the venue space from a sales, research and construction management standpoint.”
There will undoubtedly be circumstances where Romani and Barrett sit across the table again, representing competing interests, although it hasn’t happened to this point, Romani said. There could also be more situations where they both work for the same client. Considering they’re now part of the same firm, it becomes a disclosure issue to make sure both sides are comfortable with the situation, he said.
There are other several other areas of business in facility development that CAA Icon thinks are underserved and wants to get into, some through potential acquisitions. Romani declined to identify them at this time because he doesn’t want to telegraph their strategies. but he promises the firm will be aggressive in growing its overall business.
“I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my professional life,” Romani said. “Now, I’m part of the CAA team, which encourages me to be entrepreneurial. I’ve never had more fun in my career than what I’m doing right now.”
OFFER CHANGED ROMANI’S MIND ABOUT HOLDING ONTO FIRM
Tim Romani was in Rome on business when his cell phone rang at 1 a.m.
It was July 2015, and Howie Nuchow, co-head of CAA Sports, was calling to tell Romani that CAA Sports wanted to discuss acquiring Icon Venue Group. The two met after Romani returned to the U.S. and things progressed quickly from there toward a merger that was completed the following spring, Romani said.
Romani initially had no intention of selling his company. In 2012, Romani bought the 50 percent share in Icon Venue Group held by Philip Anschutz, the billionaire owner of AEG, and he was content for Icon to remain an independent entity.
Icon Venue Group had completed the five projects Anschutz wanted to build. Those five buildings — MLS stadiums Toyota Park and Red Bull Arena, plus Sprint Center and the O2 arenas in London and Berlin — were all projects where AEG managed or had an investment stake.
“When I brought the company under my full control, it was my plan to own it independently forever,” Romani said.
And that remained the plan after Romani first met with Nuchow six months before that overseas call. At the time of that visit, in early 2015 at CAA Sports’ headquarters in Los Angeles, Romani had reached out to simply catch up with Nuchow. They knew each other from Nuchow’s days with Mandalay Sports. At the end of the meeting Nuchow popped a question: Had Romani thought of selling Icon Venue Group and being part of CAA Sports? Romani brushed him off, saying he didn’t intend to sell his business.
That all changed over the course of 2015. As negotiations got serious and an offer was made around the Thanksgiving holiday, Mike Levine entered the picture. Levine, who shares CAA Sports co-head duties with Nuchow, took the lead on the transaction. Levine knew of Romani’s strong reputation in sports business and they had mutual friends, but they had not spent much one-on-one time together.
“It was a getting-comfortable process for both him and us to get to a place where he felt it was a match that worked for him and his entire team, and one that we felt comfortable with as well,” Levine said.
Romani said he changed his mind about selling Icon Venue Group, in part because of the high esteem in which he held CAA Sports officials, as well as to take care of his 60 employees long term.
“I was still carrying the company on my own personal balance sheet, which I never had any hesitation about,” he said. “But it was a better opportunity for the employees of Icon Venue Group to have a strategic partnership like somebody with CAA and give us a much stronger, more stable platform to grow even further.” —Don Muret