Coliseum, USC to negotiate lease

LOS ANGELES -- The Coliseum Commission, the nine-member governing body of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, unanimously voted Wednesday to engage in negotiations with USC on a master lease for the 88-year-old stadium.

An agreement is expected to be reached within 90 days and would give the university the exclusive right to use, manage and operate the stadium.

"We are pleased that the Coliseum Commission has voted to enter into negotiations with USC," said Thomas Sayles, USC's senior vice president for university relations. "We hope that through these negotiations the parties can agree upon a long-term lease that allows the Coliseum to be restored to its former glory and ensures its viability for many generations to come. Our goal is to make the Coliseum a proud landmark and gathering place for all Angelenos."

The vote was 8-0, with committee member Rick Caruso, who is a state appointee on the Coliseum Commission and on the USC board of trustees, recusing himself from discussions.

The only member of the commission who was adamantly against USC's request for the master lease was councilman Bernard Parks. He was the only one in an 8-1 vote in 2008 who was against USC's current lease because he objected to USC's having veto power over an NFL team returning to the stadium, a decision that effectively ended the Coliseum's 13-year pursuit of an NFL team.

On Wednesday, however, Parks seemed more open to the possibility of USC obtaining the master lease.

"What I voted for was for the [commission] to begin negotiations," Parks said. "There is nothing that obligates us. The process for discussion is what we voted on. You can always have the option of voting against the lease agreement if one should be forthcoming."

Parks said he would be open-minded during the negotiations and would be open to the university's gaining the master lease if the stadium, which is jointly owned by the State of California, Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles, remains accessible to the public.

"We'll see. It's all a part of the negotiation," Parks said. "My big concern is this facility is a public facility and what I want is for it to remain public as much as possible."

After the vote was announced, Coliseum Commission president David Israel and Kristina Raspe, USC's associate senior vice president of real estate and asset management, spoke briefly under the peristyle entrance of the Coliseum.

Both sides have yet to talk about the legal and financial details of a deal, but after preliminary talks it seems the commission and the school will be able to come to an agreement before the commission's Dec. 7 meeting. Even if Parks is unable to be convinced, an 8-1 vote would likely be the result, according to one commission member.

USC has wanted to gain control of the Coliseum for years and is finally poised to do so after commission members acknowledged earlier this year they would be unable to keep their promise to USC to make $50 million in improvements to the aging facility. Four years ago USC offered to pay $100 million to renovate the Coliseum in exchange for the master lease, but the commission rejected it. They believed a naming rights deal for the Coliseum would net them just as much, if not more. The economy, however, crashed soon after and with it went a couple of naming-rights deals the commission was working on.

After gaining control of the Coliseum, USC officials say they will begin plans to return the Coliseum to the condition that made it the home of two Olympic Games and two Super Bowls.

"Our goal is to ensure that the facility continues to be a long-term asset for the community and for the university," Sayles said. "As a loyal and dedicated tenant of over 90 years, we want to return the Coliseum to its former glory and be the caretaker it deserves for future generations. ... We have believed for some time that having a master lease would be in the best long-term interests of the community and the university."

The private university hasn't had a problem raising money for high-profile projects in recent years. USC will open a new $70 million athletic center next year and opened a $136 million student center last year. Five years ago USC opened the $147 million Galen Center, which is the home of the school's basketball and volleyball teams.

USC will launch what it's calling "the most ambitious fundraising campaign in the history of higher education" on Sept. 15, as the university seeks to raise $6 billion. A portion of that figure would go toward capital projects and infrastructure. The university has already raised more than $1 billion toward the $6 billion goal and anticipates reaching or exceeding its goal within seven years.

"There are those of us that see it as a potential opportunity to really rehabilitate the Coliseum to its greatness," said supervisor Don Knabe, who is the vice president of the Coliseum Commission. "Our opportunities for revenue raising is somewhat limited and with [USC] being the No. 1 tenant, there is that opportunity."

The Coliseum has recently been brought up as a potential temporary home of an NFL team if one decides to relocate to Los Angeles while a permanent home is being built. AEG has promised city officials it will make every effort to have an NFL team play temporarily at the Coliseum if ground is broken on Farmers Field. USC officials said they would be open to the possibility of an NFL team playing at the Coliseum on a temporary basis, with the revenue generated from those games being used to further improve the stadium.

The Rose Bowl, however, has expressed interest in serving as a temporary home to a Los Angeles NFL team as well and is in the midst of a $152 million renovation. A total of $168 million has been spent refurbishing the 89-year-old Rose Bowl since 2007. Meanwhile, the Coliseum has slowly been decaying since the Raiders left for Oakland in 1995, as commission members waited for an NFL team or a big naming-rights deal to come in and save the stadium.

"I agree with some of the complaints USC has made," Israel said. "During this period where there has been no NFL, [the Coliseum Commission] was waiting for the NFL to come back and make it perfect and modern again. So capital improvements were delayed and delayed and the decay became worse and worse because they kept waiting for the salvation of a National Football League team. The NFL did not want to play at the Coliseum and frankly they're right to not want to play at the Coliseum. The Coliseum is a wonderful place for USC and college football. The NFL and college football have completely different needs for a live audience."

Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.