|USC Legends News|
Before the National Football League can take over the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in preparation for its return to the region, its most serious obstacle may well be USC's football program.
The collegiate powerhouse has made the Coliseum its home for 83 years. And since the departure of the Raiders in 1994, USC football has basked in its stature as the Coliseum's prime tenant — indeed, as the closest thing to professional football in town.
But the school's rent is capped at a level that was set before its football program's recent return to national prominence, and some critics say that favorable lease terms have been shortchanging the Coliseum.
A Times survey of stadium costs faced by other major universities has found that USC enjoys a marked financial advantage over other schools. What one Coliseum commissioner called USC's "sweet deal," and the university's efforts to extend it, may well entangle negotiations to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles.
A majority of the Coliseum Commission, the joint state-county-city body that manages the state-owned facility, now believes that the only way to finance a major upgrade of the aging stadium is to turn over the Coliseum to the NFL. The idea is to make the NFL its prime tenant, with key design and operational authority over the property. In return, the league would pledge as much as $800 million in private funds for a state-of-the-art refurbishment.
USC would become a subtenant of the NFL. However, the university has signaled its unhappiness with any deal that would give the NFL unqualified authority over the school's tenancy at the Coliseum, which currently seats 92,000.
Although USC might benefit from playing in a modern Coliseum renovated with NFL money, it arguably has much to lose from a return of pro football to the stadium. Foremost is its highly advantageous lease.
The current lease, which extends through the 2007 season, caps USC's rent per game at 8% of gross ticket revenue based on a maximum of 70,000 tickets sold. That has enabled USC to pocket nearly all the financial gain from a surge in attendance experienced from 2001 to 2005, during which its average home crowds rose nearly 60%, to 90,812 from 57,744.
Meanwhile, USC has dodged a major expense faced by schools with stadiums on campus — upkeep and renovation. Over the last five years, many of the school's gridiron rivals have launched upgrades for campus facilities at prices ranging from $80 million to $226 million.
The Coliseum hasn't had a major renovation since 1994, a seismic refurbishment largely financed by the federal government. Commission officials say renovations estimated at tens of millions of dollars, including the replacement of the scoreboards and all 92,000 seats, are badly overdue.
"They have kind of a sweet deal," says David Israel, a television producer who is the school's most outspoken critic on the commission. "They're a private tax-exempt program playing in a taxpayer-financed stadium."
USC argues that its record as the Coliseum's only permanent tenant since the stadium's opening in 1923 justifies special consideration. "Everyone else has come and gone," says Todd Dickey, USC's senior vice president for administration. "What would have happened to the place without us?"
The list of fugitive pro football tenants includes the Rams, Raiders and Chargers. UCLA, which had played in the Coliseum since its opening, moved to the Rose Bowl after the 1981 season in a disagreement over the commission's negotiations with the then-incoming Raiders.
Over the last 12 years, since the Raiders' later departure left Los Angeles without an NFL team, the league has played the Coliseum off against such other potential sites as the Rose Bowl, Anaheim and Carson. Last month, the NFL approved spending $10 million for design studies at the Coliseum and in Anaheim, which means the final choice of a location may not take place for months, if ever.
A delegation of NFL executives is scheduled to meet today with Los Angeles city officials and local business leaders to gauge the extent of community support for a team. The visitors will meet with Orange County business leaders Thursday to discuss the Anaheim option.
USC's discontent with the course of negotiations burst into the open May 22, when the university made public a letter from its president, Steven B. Sample, to the commission. Sample assailed a provision in a draft NFL lease that would require the league only to "attempt" to reach a mutually satisfactory sublease with the university.
"This language would leave USC totally vulnerable because the NFL could dispatch with its obligation in a single and inconclusive meeting with us," he wrote. He asked the commission not to sign a lease with the NFL until USC reached its own "acceptable" deal with the league.
He also sought assurances that the Coliseum would seat at least 80,000 for USC home games (NFL specifications call for about 68,000 seats for pro games), and that construction would not dislodge the school for more than two seasons.
"If no deal can be reached between USC and the NFL," he wrote, "USC could be forced out of the Coliseum forever, with our athletic program reduced to shambles."
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