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Trojans may add a hurdle to the NFL's return

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Ever since the NFL left Southern California in 1995, USC has held the mantle of L.A.'s championship football team.

But with the city now moving to bring professional football back to L.A., USC could block efforts to have the new team play at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the three to four years that a proposed football stadium would be under construction downtown.

The Coliseum is home to USC football and the school's lease gives the Trojans veto power over the NFL returning to the stadium, which is across the street from the campus and once hosted the Rams, Raiders and Chargers franchises.

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, whose district includes the Coliseum, said that a USC administrator told him that the school intends to exercise the veto unless it receives a new "master lease" that would give the private university near-total control of the publicly owned stadium.

Parks, who also sits on the Coliseum's governing commission, said he would oppose such a lease, believing that it would allow USC to keep other events out of the stadium, such as soccer games, Fourth of July celebrations and even a third Olympic Games. "I do not believe that I could realistically turn over a public facility to a private institution," he said.

A USC spokesman said the administrator who spoke to Parks, Thomas Sayles, was traveling and not available for an interview. In emailed statements, Sayles, USC's senior vice president for university relations, said the school is "open to discussions on a mutually beneficial arrangement" regarding an NFL team.

But he added that "for some time we have believed that having a master lease is in the best long-term interests of the community and the university."

"…Under our current lease, we have the right to approve any other team playing football in the Coliseum during our season. We have not been presented with any proposal for another team to play in the Coliseum. If we were to receive a proposal, we would review it."

The clash comes at an awkward political moment. Just this week, the L.A. City Council, citing the economic benefits of luring a football franchise back to town, voted unanimously to approve a $1.5-billion plan for a downtown stadium and Convention Center wing. The city would issue $275 million in bonds to help facilitate the project by developer Anschutz Entertainment Group, which already operates Staples Center and the L.A. Live entertainment complex in the same area.

Coliseum Commission President David Israel said he would be surprised if USC tried to deny the city an estimated tens of millions of dollars in annual business activity that would flow from a NFL-Coliseum partnership. If the Coliseum is ruled out, a new NFL team would most likely take up temporary residence at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, a city that has remained on the sidelines in the most recent drive to bring a team to L.A.

"Is USC going to try to leverage something that could create a lot of jobs in the city of Los Angeles to their own ends?" Israel asked. "Is that a wise thing to do in the long term to their neighbors? I don't think it is."

Israel said he and other commissioners are willing to consider a broader lease with USC, but not under duress. "If they want a master lease, they should get a master lease the right way and not by threats and ultimatums," he said.

Another commissioner, Barry Sanders, said the panel would welcome an NFL team if it "met the contractual requirements of USC." But he added, "If they don't care to [allow a team], it's up to them."

Whether AEG can land a team for Los Angeles remains a big question mark. But lining up a construction-phase stadium could be an important part of the sales pitch to NFL owners, according to officials. The team's owners would have final say on selection of an interim stadium, the officials said.

AEG has met with Pasadena and the city is "very interested," said Rose Bowl General Manager Darryl Dunn.

Parks said AEG Chief Executive Tim Leiweke has indicated in talks with city officials that the company would prefer the Coliseum, if only because it is just down Figueroa Street from Staples Center and L.A. Live, which could cater to pre- and post-game crowds. Parks pushed for language in the city's stadium development agreement that says AEG "shall" use the Coliseum as the team's temporary home, but only if it makes financial sense.

AEG spokesman Michael Roth said Thursday the company is looking at all possibilities. "I would not say we have a preference," Roth said.

Leiweke said earlier this week the firm was committed to trying to use the Coliseum. But he emphasized the aging stadium needs improvements that could be costly and give an advantage to the Rose Bowl, which is undergoing a $152-million renovation.

"If there's a way to make it work at the Coliseum, we will," he told reporters. "But realistically, it may be there are minimum standard issues at the Coliseum we're unable to get past. And certainly with the Rose Bowl's renovation, that may be the more likely site. But we are committed to using our best efforts to try to make it work at the Coliseum."

The Coliseum and companion Sports Arena are jointly operated by the city and county of Los Angeles and the state.

Financially, the Coliseum has struggled off and on since it lost the Raiders to Oakland in 1995. The Rams had earlier decamped to Anaheim and then St. Louis. The Chargers played just one season at the Coliseum before moving to San Diego in 1961.

The commission signed its current lease with USC in 2008 after abandoning a long and fruitless campaign to entice the NFL to return to the Coliseum.

Lately, the commission has been caught up in a widening conflict-of-interest scandal centered on reports that two firms set up by a former manager collected at least $1.8 million from companies that did business with the Coliseum and Sports Arena. Now the subject of criminal investigations, the alleged diversion of funds occurred even as the commission fell into the red and failed to make improvements to the stadium required under the USC lease.

USC administrators have privately pointed to the financial scandal as evidence the nine-member Coliseum Commission has been a poor caretaker and that the university would do a better job.

Israel conceded that oversight mistakes make the commission a fair target for criticism. But he contended that the stiff NCAA sanctions imposed last year on USC -- resulting from a finding that the school lacked "institutional control" over its athletics program -- show that the university's management has had similar problems.

"There is plenty of blame to go around," Israel said.

paul.pringle@latimes.com

david.zahniser@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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