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Coliseum Draws No Support From NFL

June 15, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Boosters of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum say the facade of the 79-year-old venue can encase a world-class NFL stadium with futuristic canopies, palm-tree lined restaurants and luxury suites. But league power brokers and team owners don't share that vision.

"Trying to put a new dress on an old hooker is not the way I want to go dancing," Baltimore Raven owner Art Modell said.

With the announcement Friday by the downtown coalition that it plans to withdraw from the stadium derby, attention turns to the possibility that the Coliseum might--once again--provide a home for an NFL team.

But among many questions about the viability of renovating the Coliseum for that purpose are these: sources of funding, identifying a developer and the lack of support from Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn.

Even so, it's the strident nature of comments by team owners and league executives, and the unmistakable declaration of NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, that most strongly suggest the chances of the league ever returning to the Coliseum are close to nil.

"Whenever the Coliseum is presented as a permanent venue, everyone [in the owners' meetings] shakes their head and refuses to discuss it," said an influential team owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He added: "We're not going back to the Coliseum. Anyone who attempts to do so won't get the support they need."

There is even talk among owners and league executives that any team interested in relocating to the Coliseum would be barred from receiving a "G-3" loan, a loan for as much as $150 million that existing franchises can get from the league for the construction of a new stadium.

If that loan were denied, it would be crippling to the Coliseum's hopes of luring a team.

Advocates of the Coliseum say they have seen the league reverse its stance on the stadium before. They point to the league owners' derision of the venue after the Raiders left in 1995, only to see Tagliabue stand atop the Coliseum steps in 1999, spread his arms and proclaim the stadium the future home of the league's 32nd team. Of course, that expansion team later was granted to Houston when Texas businessman Bob McNair outbid competing Coliseum groups with a $700-million offer.

The problems plaguing the Coliseum are real and perceived. They concern the difficulty of tinkering with a historic landmark; the red tape of dealing with the stadium's governing body, the Coliseum Commission, which is made up of representatives from the city, county and state; and the issue of parking in the area.

Coliseum officials say all those problems are either fixable or the result of misinformation. For example, over the years, the neighborhood surrounding the Coliseum became less affluent and fell into neglect. The mere perception the area was unsafe kept fans away and created problems. In fact, crime rates in the area are low, according to USC officials, who count their campus among the 10 safest in the country.

"I think the NFL is living in the past in one respect," said County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a member of the Coliseum Commission. "They have some biases against the Coliseum because of things they associated with the Coliseum years ago. Owners who are on their ventilators are trying to remember something that happened in 1978 at a Rams' game or in 1994 at a Raiders' game."

Likewise, Yaroslavsky said, executives from the NFL, which is based in New York and has headquarters on Park Avenue, are guilty of "boneheaded" thinking.

"Like a lot of things in this country," he said, "people living between the Atlantic Ocean and the Hudson River think they know everything."

He also said: "I'm glad the Coliseum is fighting for itself. We are at the crossroads of the Coliseum--either it becomes a relic to come look at like they do in Rome ... or a state-of-the-art 21st century stadium."

The Coliseum, as much a part of L.A.'s civic identity as the Hollywood sign, is the only stadium in the world to stage opening ceremonies for two Summer Olympics. It played host to the first Super Bowl and, on a sweltering evening in 1960, was where Sen. John F. Kennedy accepted the Democratic nomination for president. Evel Knievel sailed over 50 cars and Mary Decker stumbled and fell to her knees during the 1984 Summer Games here. When it was the home of the Dodgers, 93,000 fans illuminated the place with lit matches in a tribute to Roy Campanella, who had been disabled in a car accident.

"If you believe the NFL, the Coliseum should be stacked up side by side with the Roman Colosseum to say, 'This is where they used to play football,' " Yaroslavsky said. "That's not the way we feel."

Last week, the Coliseum Commission allotted up to $1 million to pay for legal, architectural and financial advisors who might help in the process of courting an NFL team. Their work would augment that done by Ed Roski's group in 1999. Roski, a real-estate magnate, was part of the coalition looking into building a state-of-the-art stadium adjacent to Staples Center.

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