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Coliseum deal: USC to cash in on turnover

Under the Coliseum lease deal, USC gets the historic stadium's lucrative assets. But taxpayers receive few benefits.

May 31, 2013|By Paul Pringle and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times
  • The entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is shown. A proposed lease for the venue, which sits on state-owned land, “seems to be a huge giveaway to USC,” said an expert on sports economics. The deal, which could win final approval next week, was carved out largely in secret.
The entrance to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum is shown. A proposed lease… (Francine Orr / Los Angeles…)

About five years ago, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky denounced USC's proposal to take control of the taxpayer-owned Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and its revenue.

"Some people on the board of trustees of the University of Southern California thought they could bully the Coliseum Commission into giving away the facility to the university for 75 years for nothing," said Yaroslavsky, a longtime member of the stadium panel.

"We were about to give away the naming rights, the parking revenue rights, the concession rights, all those things, to a private university.... I won't stand for it," he told a homeowners group.

Yaroslavsky and the rest of the commission rejected USC's bid then. Now, however, the panel has agreed to give USC everything it wanted — and then some. And they have secured relatively little for the public in return.

The commission has approved a new lease to replace a 25-year agreement that was signed a few months after Yaroslavsky's address. The new document could win final approval next week, when a state board is scheduled to vote on it.

But even some who believe USC would run the venue better than the trouble-plagued Coliseum Commission say the deal shortchanges taxpayers.

The proposed lease "seems to be a huge giveaway to USC," said Victor Matheson, a professor at College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and an expert on sports economics.

Commission leaders carved out the new deal largely in secret, saying it was necessary to keep the 90-year-old Coliseum from going bankrupt and falling into disuse. And they did it in a hurry, retreating behind closed doors in the summer of 2011 to set a 75-day timetable for the handoff negotiations, according to commission records obtained by The Times.

DOCUMENT: Read about the 75-day timetable

Renata Simril, a negotiator for the state, which owns the land beneath the Coliseum and nearby properties, defended the lease package as "a deal that we think is balanced."

Stressing that the commission is on the brink of insolvency, she noted that USC would make the renovations that the current lease assigns to the commission. "The Coliseum Commission cannot fulfill its responsibility," she said.

The agreement grants USC naming rights and other advertising prerogatives, ticket and concession receipts — nearly all of the property's moneymaking assets — without requiring the school to buy the Coliseum complex, which includes the nearby Sports Arena.

It would run for 98 years, granting USC most of the benefits of ownership but leaving taxpayers on the hook if an earthquake levels the stadium or other catastrophe strikes.

In addition to the Coliseum upgrades, USC would pay for maintenance, operations and rent on the state land, but it would stop automatically sharing receipts from its highly successful football ticket sales.

Taxpayers would get a renovated stadium and 5% of the money from naming rights, but no guarantee of further income. And they would lose some of the parking for the free state museums that the public visits on adjacent land.

After 20 years, USC could cancel the lease by giving notice, but the government could end it only by proving that the school violated its terms.

The agreement was an abrupt about-face for the agency, a joint authority of the city, county and state. Long after the existing lease was signed in 2008, commissioners were still speaking of a rosy future for the stadium that has hosted two Summer Olympics and is the former home of the Dodgers and the NFL's Rams, Raiders and Chargers.

The panel planned to sell the naming rights, ramp up concert business and tear down the less stately Sports Arena to make way for a Major League Soccer stadium or amphitheater.

Then a corruption scandal hit. Following a Times investigation, bribery, embezzlement and other charges were lodged against three former Coliseum managers and three people who did business with the venue. Stadium executives were driving luxury cars, having massages and playing in golf tournaments at the public's expense, records and interviews showed.

The revelations also spotlighted perks that the unpaid commissioners enjoyed, such as multiple free passes to USC football games and a luxury suite for Bruce Springsteen concerts and other events at the Sports Arena. Yaroslavsky and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, another commissioner, used their Coliseum positions to score NFL tickets.

Meanwhile, the red ink was flowing, apparently unknown to the commissioners. Months after the scandal erupted in 2011, then-Commission President David Israel said the Coliseum was not losing money. Later audits found it was millions in the hole and fiscal controls had been weak for years.

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