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Trojans must brace for more crowded L.A. sports market

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LOS ANGELES -- As USC Trojans fans wait eagerly for this week’s NFL draft to see when some of their cardinal and gold heroes are selected, three possible NFL teams are looming just over the western sunset and looking to grab some of the biggest Southland sports headlines since the Los Angeles Dodgers moved from Brooklyn back in 1958.

Considering nearly an entire generation of Los Angeles fans have never seen live NFL football in this city, you can bet if one or two professional teams come to L.A. that the publicity tsunami will be immense, intense and will affect the surrounding local sports entities, especially those that play the game of football.

For the record, the last time there was regular-season NFL football in L.A. or Orange County was 1994 when both the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Raiders were in town.

It’s hard to believe (but sometimes not hard to believe) that 21 years have passed since the last NFL tackle or touchdown in Los Angeles. The new generations of Angelinos were weaned on football success by Pete Carroll’s Trojans, which some would say were more like NFL teams than actual NFL teams.

It really doesn’t matter whether the incoming NFL team is the Rams, Raiders or San Diego Chargers or a combination of two. What should matter will be a sense of urgency for the Trojans athletic department, which must address the impact an NFL team or teams will have on their product. At least one transfer figures to be here as soon as the 2016 season.

Thus far, the Trojans have been able to capitalize both on and off the field with the absence of the NFL. Unless the locals were willing to make the trek down the I-5 to San Diego to view the Chargers, the general L.A. football fan has forked over his wallet in favor of the Trojans, and those dollars flowed during Carroll’s reign of college football success.

With no NFL team, Carroll’s Trojans dominated the football landscape in every aspect, going 67–7 over 74 games, winning two national championships (one vacated), and playing for another. And let’s not forget that 34-game winning streak along the way and seven consecutive Pac-12 championships.

It was the perfect storm for the Trojans football program with no NFL team in which to compete for the all-mighty SoCal sports dollar. The Trojans more than held their own against L.A.’s traditional professional sports entities like the Lakers and the Dodgers.

So with all signs pointing to the imminent return of the NFL, where does that leave the Trojans and athletic director Pat Haden, once a quarterback on the old Los Angeles Rams?

Haden could probably argue successfully that fans of USC will remain Trojans fans no matter what the NFL has in store for this area. This would be mostly true. However, in the L.A. market, as even former vilified USC head coach Lane Kiffin acknowledged, you have to win big and be Hollywood-level entertaining at the same time.

What Haden and the rest of us don’t know is just how many fans will forsake college football in general -- Are you listening UCLA? -- and line up in front of the reborn NFL box offices.

The financial numbers could be overwhelming in battling for the Los Angeles sports dollar, but that is just one of several key points. In Los Angeles, it’s all about who is hot and sexy even in sports, and history has shown no matter what the level of competition, you had better win, baby, and win big.

The Trojans must do it beginning this coming season before the NFL and its high-powered publicity machine overwhelms the Los Angeles sports market. If you think that the sports talk shows here are already widely discussing the potential moves of teams along with new stadiums being built, just wait until it all becomes a reality.

The key to the Trojans inoculating themselves from the NFL is having success on and off the field and by using some creative high-powered marketing, but it won’t be easy. If the Trojans are mediocre on the field and make continued trips to the Holiday Bowls of college football and not the College Football Playoff, times could get mighty dicey.

Naturally, the Trojans will put on a smiley face when the official announcement is made that an NFL team is coming to L.A. One of the ways they will do that is to make sure that the new NFL team, which will be in the process of building its own stadium, will pay rent for Coliseum usage if used, and this money will help pay for those much-needed and anticipated Coliseum renovations.

The Trojans might also draw a little cushion of luck if the transferring NFL team doesn’t get off to a first-year playoff start, which might temporarily stymie some of the new-guy momentum. And you can bet that behind closed John McKay Center doors, the Trojans brass probably won’t be jumping up and down if the new NFL franchise quickly makes it to the Super Bowl.

The Trojans have a window of opportunity to prepare for the inevitable. This week’s NFL draft will probably be the last where attention is solely focused on USC players being selected. The 2016 NFL draft figures to usher in a whole new era of Southern California football and interest, and the USC Trojans best be ready.