USC eyes master lease at Coliseum

LOS ANGELES -- USC won't be playing in a bowl game this year, but the university will likely score an even bigger win by the end of the football season by getting control of the football team's 88-year-old home.

USC and the Coliseum Commission, the nine-member governing body of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, are expected to begin formal negotiations on a master lease for the Coliseum after the commission's Sept. 7 meeting. 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.

A special four-member committee to determine the future of the Coliseum has already been assembled and convened and will meet with the rest of the Coliseum Commission at their Sept. 7 meeting to determine how they will proceed with USC's request for the master lease.

The only member of the committee and the only one on the commission who is adamantly against USC's request for the master lease is councilman Bernard Parks. This 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 effectively ended the Coliseum's 13-year pursuit of an NFL team.

The Sept. 7 vote on USC's request for the master lease is expected to have a similar result, with Parks being the lone dissenting vote, according to one commission member.

Parks said he still believes USC should make the necessary repairs to the Coliseum "at their cost and then have the Coliseum Commission pay them back."

The vote wouldn't automatically grant USC a master lease; it would simply allow the commission to move forward with formal negotiations with the university. 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.

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," 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 special four-member committee and 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. 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 advice the commission to support USC's request for the master lease.

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," said Coliseum Commission president David Israel. "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.