- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Talking about where Los Angeles' potential NFL team might play temporarily while construction occurs on a new permanent stadium is a little bit like a guy debating where he and his ex-wife -- with talks of reconciliation -- will live while their dream home is under construction.
That is if we're talking about a guy who was dumped unceremoniously 16 years ago and hasn't had any serious prospects since.
Hey, we have plenty of time to ponder hypothetical situations, since the NFL season is ready to begin and no team is coming to Los Angeles until spring 2012 at the earliest.
So let's say Farmers Field gets the clearance to break ground and begin construction in nine months. And let's say Philip Anschutz agrees to buy a percentage of an NFL team, signs off on whatever outrageous figure the league decides on for a relocation fee, and has the team in position to be playing in Los Angeles before the 2012 season.
Where would the team play for four years until Farmers Field opens in 2016?
HOME SWEET HOME
Forget everything you've read about the Coliseum Commission and its contentious relationship with USC. Erase any notion that USC would consider blocking an NFL team from playing at the Coliseum on a temporary basis simply because the university has the veto power to do so. And ignore any claims by AEG that it would rather have an NFL team play temporarily anywhere else but two short metro-linked miles down Figueroa Street from AEG's L.A. Live entertainment complex.
Before we continue on this hypothetical journey, you should know a few things. You should know that it's only a matter of time before USC obtains a master lease for the Coliseum and begins to renovate the 90-year-old stadium. You should know that USC makes about $250,000 in parking revenue alone during each USC football game, according to a university official, and would obviously love to temporarily double that total, among other revenue streams, with NFL games on Sunday. And you should know that AEG has actively promoted L.A. Live as a destination for fans to eat, drink and play before and after football games at the Coliseum from the day it opened in 2008.
Let's get one thing straight. AEG isn't spending millions of dollars planning and promoting Farmers Field simply to bring the NFL back to Los Angeles, and the City of Los Angeles isn't green-lighting this project as quickly as it can because it misses having an NFL team in town; $1.5 billion deals aren't brokered out of the goodness of people's hearts and their love of sports. There are selfish reasons in play here.
AEG wants to fill up the empty condominiums and rooms at the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott and pack the restaurants and bars at L.A. Live. Meanwhile, the debt-riddled city wants to create new jobs and increase local tax revenue. Independent studies have said this will happen if Farmers Field is built. But why would AEG put all those financial rewards on hold for four years and let its NFL team play in another city (Pasadena), giving that locale a temporary windfall when it hasn't spent a single second or a single penny working on this project?
Truth be told, if AEG ends up owning a minority interest in an NFL team that moves to Los Angeles, it would be the majority owners and the league (not AEG) who would ultimately decide where the team would play on an interim basis. But if AEG has a say, and it will, it will push for the stadium to be as close to L.A. Live as possible despite what AEG president and CEO Tim Leiweke recently said about the Coliseum.
"There is no way the Coliseum works for us in its current situation, whether a team is playing there for one year or four years," he told The Times. "There is no way economically we are the engine that drives a renovation. ... Nothing's going to happen at the Coliseum unless it happens through USC. That's just the reality of the situation."
That was nothing more than posturing by Leiweke, who promised the city AEG will make every effort to have an NFL team play temporary at the Coliseum if ground is broken on Farmers Field. Leiweke understands the Coliseum Commission is basically broke, cannot afford to make the renovations it promised USC four years ago (and certainly not the renovations the NFL would require for a team to play there temporarily), and needs USC to take over the master lease in order to make those refurbishments a reality as soon as possible.
USC and the Coliseum Commission will eventually come to an agreement on the master lease, but Leiweke's stance and the prospect of an NFL team playing at the Coliseum will have little impact on their negotiations.
"Our relationship with USC is our primary relationship. Some extraneous fantasy relationship this guy is posturing about has nothing to do with us," said Coliseum Commission president David Israel. "I'm not going to tell Tim how to run his business or what to say, even though he apparently wants to interfere with the Coliseum's relationship with USC, but he's got a lot of issues. He's got a lot of empty condominiums, L.A. Live is being underused, and he's facing the prospect of no NBA season and no Lakers and Clippers games, which can't be good for their property.
"I'll be watching the Loch Ness Monster swim the backstroke off Santa Monica Pier before I see an NFL team play at Farmers Field."
LOS ANGELES MEMORIAL COLISEUM
First things first: USC will have the master lease for the Coliseum by the time AEG wants to break ground on Farmers Field next year.
A special four-member committee to determine the future of the Coliseum has already been assembled and will meet with the rest of the Coliseum Commission on Sept. 7 to determine how to proceed with USC's request for the master lease of the Coliseum.
USC has wanted the master lease for years and is finally poised to get it now that Coliseum Commission officials have acknowledged they are 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 Coliseum Commission rejected the proposal. The commission believed a naming-rights deal for the Coliseum would net 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.
The writing has been on the decaying walls of the Coliseum for over a year now. The commission was supposed to provide USC with a business plan in June 2010 detailing how the improvements would be paid for, but extended the deadline twice and unsuccessfully tried to extend it a third time. If both sides simply went through the motions, the commission would send a letter -- explaining it cannot afford the improvements -- to USC on Sept. 30, and USC would then send the commission a default letter on Oct. 1 stating that it's in violation of the lease. USC could then pay for the improvements and recover the money by withholding rent to the commission. As a result, the commission would be unable to make rent payments to the state, and USC could bypass the commission and deal directly with the state and once again try to get the master lease.
None of that will be necessary, though. By the time Sept. 30 rolls around, the commission and USC will be well into negotiations on a master lease, which should be finished by the time USC plays its final regular-season home game against UCLA on Nov. 26 at the Coliseum. USC will then begin returning 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," said Thomas Sayles, USC's senior vice president for university relations. "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 announced plans this week to launch "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 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 chairs the committee and is the vice president of the Coliseum Commission. "Our opportunities for revenue raising is somewhat limited, and with [USC] being the number one tenant, there is that opportunity. Hopefully we'll get a direction out of the meeting to move forward and begin negotiations of a potential master lease."
Another committee member, Rick Caruso, who is a state appointee on the Coliseum Commission and on the USC board of trustees, said he would advise the commission to support USC's request for the master lease.
The only member of the committee -- and the only one on the nine-member Coliseum Commission -- who is apparently against USC's request for the master lease is council member Bernard Parks. That should come as no surprise. He was the only one in an 8-1 vote in 2008 who was against USC's current lease because he objected to USC having veto power over an NFL team returning to the stadium, a decision that finally ended the Coliseum's 13-year pursuit of an NFL team. A vote next month on USC's request for the master lease is expected to have a similar lopsided result, with Parks being the lone dissenting vote, according to one committee member.
The vote on Sept. 7 wouldn't automatically grant USC a master lease; it would simply allow the commission to move forward with formal negotiations to determine how such a lease would work, what refurbishments USC would make to the Coliseum, and what role the commission would play in such an agreement. The 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 likely be able to come to an agreement within 90 days after the Sept. 7 vote.
"We're talking in very general terms right now," Knabe said. "The master lease has been raised as a possibility. They've raised it and we've raised it, so hopefully we're on the same page. The recommendation is, if legally possible, to do that. Hopefully we can have a discussion and move forward with it."
Parks still believes USC should make the necessary repairs to the Coliseum "at their cost and then have the Coliseum Commission pay them back." He doesn't understand why USC wouldn't want to make the refurbishments simply because they don't have the master lease and control the building.
"Anything they put into the facility is going to be part of the structural benefit. It can't be taken away," Parks said. "That's like living in a neighborhood and saying I won't sweep up the alley because it belongs to the city."
Well, there's a big difference between sweeping up the alley and spending $100 million on a building you don't own or operate.
Perhaps a better analogy would be if you were living in an old rundown house with sentimental value and paying rent to a landlord who was basically broke. Your rent and presence in the building is basically the only thing keeping the place standing. You'd like to take over the building and fix it up yourself, but the only thing the landlord is willing to do is promise that no one else can move in without your permission, and he asks you to make a list of everything that needs to be fixed and promises to refurbish it.
Four years later he comes back and says he can afford to fix only a couple of things on your list, but you are more than welcome to pay for the rest yourself. He'll simply subtract it from your rent, continue running the place, and after it's paid off in 50 years, things will go back to the way they were.
Chances are your reaction would be the same as USC, which has been playing in a decaying facility since the Raiders left for Oakland in 1995.
"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."
THE ROSE BOWL
Those needs may ultimately drive the NFL away from Los Angeles temporarily if a team finally decides to return to the city after 17 years.
If a team decides to move to L.A. in 2012 or 2013, there is no question that the Rose Bowl in Pasadena is in a better position to offer a more NFL-quality venue than the Coliseum. The Rose Bowl is currently undergoing a $152 million, three-phase renovation that will be completed by August 2013 and will not interrupt the football season during the process. Among the amenities included in the renovation: a substantially reconstructed press box, luxury suites, loge boxes, club seats and lounge areas, which is music to an NFL owner's ears. The Rose Bowl's 1,160 club seats and 54 luxury suites would be slightly more than the Coliseum, which has neither.
In 2007, the Rose Bowl also completed a $16 million renovation of the locker rooms and media facilities, bringing them up to NFL standards.
Outside of a new $6 million scoreboard that is currently being installed in the Coliseum, the combined $168 million that has been invested in the Rose Bowl since 2007 is about $160 million more than has been invested in the Coliseum during that time.
If an NFL team relocates to Los Angeles and chooses to play at the Rose Bowl instead of the Coliseum, it will have nothing to do with USC and the Coliseum Commission and everything to do with the Rose Bowl's simply being a better venue.
UCLA has the same veto power at the Rose Bowl that USC has at the Coliseum over another tenant such as an NFL team. A UCLA official, however, said the school likely wouldn't stand in the way of an NFL team playing at the Rose Bowl temporarily, adding that the school would be open to "discussions on a mutually beneficial arrangement."
Rose Bowl general manager Darryl Dunn said the stadium and the city of Pasadena would be "interested" in an NFL team playing in the stadium on a temporary basis.
"We are certainly open to discussing it with AEG and Majestic Realty," Dunn said. "We understand the actions of the L.A City Council and we know both groups well, and we look forward to talking to them."
One concern that has been brought up with an NFL team playing at the Rose Bowl is a possible conflict with the Rose Bowl game, since the NFL regular season now stretches into January, with this season's final games taking place on New Year's Day. Rose Bowl CEO Scott McKibben said he doesn't believe there would be any conflict since the Rose Bowl game is never played on Sunday, and the stadium and field could be changed quickly if necessary. It has been done before in other venues. This coming season, the Arizona Cardinals finish the regular season at University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, Jan. 1, against the Seattle Seahawks, and 24 hours later the stadium will host the Fiesta Bowl. The stadium pulled a similar 24-hour transformation in 2010.
"Our view on it is the Rose Bowl would be a wonderful venue on a temporary basis for an NFL team," McKibben said. "We would certainly be supportive of an arrangement like that if it were to materialize.
"We looked at that when we put together our master licensing agreement. There would be no conflict on the game day. We might play our game on Saturday and they would play their game on Sunday, or they might play their game on Sunday and we would play our game on Monday. The turf issue can be resolved. The only problem is if there was some pretty inclement weather and the field got chewed up, but it can be done."
Changing the Rose Bowl from a college football venue to an NFL venue overnight, however, might prove to be far easier than changing the minds of local residents in Pasadena who have long been against an NFL team calling the stadium home, even on a temporary basis.
The board of the Linda Vista/Annandale Association, a prominent neighborhood organization for the area around the stadium, voted unanimously last week to oppose an NFL team using the Rose Bowl as a temporary home after Pasadena officials merely expressed interest in the possibility two weeks ago. Its swift and unified reaction shouldn't come as a surprise. More than two-thirds of voters in Pasadena rejected a plan in 2006 to offer the NFL a long-term lease to play at the Rose Bowl.
If the political leaders in Pasadena carry out the overwhelming will of the residents living around the Rose Bowl, it might not matter how much the stadium wants to be the temporary home of an NFL team or how much an NFL team wants to play there. The team might end up having to play at the Coliseum, which would be just fine with Parks and many patient Los Angeles football fans.
"If you're going to carry the banner of Los Angeles, you should play in Los Angeles," Parks said. "The revenue generation and the jobs that would come forward make it essential that they be in Los Angeles. I don't know why you would want Pasadena to be the beneficiary of a four-year windfall when you have needs in the city for employment and a variety of other things. It is absolutely essential that when the NFL returns to Los Angeles that the team play in Los Angeles."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLA.com.