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NFL deal looks remote

As league officials downplay chance of a team here, Coliseum Commission begins negotiating a `master lease' with USC.

October 26, 2006|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

With the possibility of an NFL deal fading, Coliseum and USC officials have launched negotiations aimed at securing the school's future role at the stadium.

"We are actively discussing with the Coliseum Commission the possibility of a lease," USC Senior Vice President Todd Dickey said Wednesday. "The details we have yet to work out."

Word of the negotiations came a day after the NFL said the cost of a new or renovated stadium in the Los Angeles area could top $1 billion, more than double the estimate of a few years ago. At their annual fall meeting Tuesday, several team owners said a return to the region was not a top priority.

That prompted frustration and exasperation from some influential members of the Coliseum Commission, who earlier this month said they might investigate non-NFL alternatives if no significant progress was made at the league meetings.

"I think they regressed," said David Israel, a state appointee to the commission. "I basically think the deal is done. It isn't going to be made."

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also serves on the commission, said it became apparent over time that if the NFL really wanted to make a deal with the Coliseum, the league would have made one already. He, too, said it's time for stadium officials to move on.

"When you ask a girl out 25 times and she says no 25 times, maybe the 26th time you just don't call," he said.

New NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, a key player in L.A. talks over the last decade, said the league is by no means giving up on the nation's No. 2 market but acknowledged the rising cost of building a stadium makes a complex situation even more challenging.

"I'm still positive about the Los Angeles market," Goodell said. "I think the NFL and Los Angeles together can be a win-win combination."

The league's team owners seem far less optimistic. Recognizing there's virtually no public money for a stadium in the Southland, they seem resistant to footing the entire bill themselves.

Among those who said they were not interested in funding a $1-billion L.A. stadium was New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson, who has been rumored to be positioning his team for a relocation to Southern California. Despite record ticket sales and a rebuilt Superdome, there was uncertainty about the viability of the New Orleans market even before Hurricane Katrina.

But Coliseum backers cannot wait indefinitely for an NFL deal because the commission's 50-year lease agreement with the state recently expired. Annual rent is expected to soar from $80,000 to $2.5 million in the next deal. USC leases the stadium from the commission, and that two-year agreement ends after the 2007 football season.

At the commission's monthly meeting earlier this month, member Bill Chadwick introduced the idea of entering into a "master lease" with USC, which would effectively transfer the day-to-day operations of the stadium to the university.

There are strong indications the master-lease concept is being discussed in the current discussions with USC.

Chadwick said he would be in favor of a USC master lease on three conditions: an appropriate increase in rent; that the community could still use the stadium on occasion; and that the university commit to making significant capital improvements. He said a rough calculation for that commitment is $200 million in improvements over 10 years.

Although he said he doesn't have enough information to know whether the current NFL negotiations are finished, Chadwick said he "got a definitive signal that I have to determine whether there's a viable Plan B."

The stadium negotiations with the NFL have been fraught with mixed messages over the years. Often, deals that seem dead spring back to life. As recently as Friday, specialists hired by the league were doing environmental testing at the Coliseum.

"To assume this deal is dead is not the right approach," Chadwick said. "But to assume it's alive is not the right approach. Until a definitive agreement is signed with somebody, all options are open."

Pat Lynch, general manager of the Coliseum, said the venue has held up relatively well over the years but needs improvements to its video board, scoreboards and concession stands. He said the seats need to be replaced, but "we can get by with them for a little while, a couple of years."

Another issue is the future of the Sports Arena, which now is used for various community events and as a filming location. Its days of playing host to college basketball games are over, especially with USC's $130-million Galen Center opening last week.

"The Sports Arena is doing OK, not great but not bad," Lynch said. "But it's probably not the highest and best use of that property."

Even as it appears the commission is united about looking into other options for the stadium, there is some tension about the reasons for doing so. Yaroslavsky, one of the commission's three county representatives, questioned why the state plans to raise the rent so dramatically.

"I'm beginning to wonder, why doesn't the Coliseum Commission just get out of this whole thing and give the Coliseum back to the state?" Yaroslavsky said. "Let the state charge itself $2.5 million in rent."

But he reserved his most pointed criticism for the NFL.

"I think this is going to leave a bad taste in the mouths of the body politic in Los Angeles," he said. "This is the second time that the Coliseum has been stiffed by the NFL. The first time, there was some rationale to why it fell through, with Houston being the primary reason. In this case, when the Coliseum Commission has basically written a blank check to the NFL, they still stiffed us."

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