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NFL OKs Project Funds

Times Staff Writer

The NFL on Tuesday authorized spending up to $10 million for design and engineering studies at the Coliseum and outside Angel Stadium, a step Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said was “far and away” the most significant in more than a decade toward bringing a team back to the Los Angeles area.

That was as dramatic as the news got in two days of league meetings here. There had been speculation the league would make a decision on either or both sites, but with stadium costs for each pegged at $800 million and owners seeking cost certainties, there was no resolution.

Even so, Los Angeles officials expressed optimism. Councilman Bernard Parks hailed the NFL’s investment of up to $5 million in the Coliseum as the “first financial commitment for the city of Los Angeles to refine a proposed deal,” and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called it “a great thing, another step in the right direction toward securing a football team for Los Angeles.”

Anaheim Councilman Bob Hernandez said he, too, was “pleased,” but cautioned that while “the prospect of an NFL team calling Anaheim its home is certainly an exciting one, it is critical to compare any offer made by the NFL to other possible offers for the same location.”

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Anaheim has given the league until May 31 to strike a deal for a 53-acre parcel in the Angel Stadium parking lot. After that, the city expects to entertain other offers for the land.

The NFL has been out of the nation’s No. 2 television market since after the 1994 season, when the Rams left Anaheim for St. Louis and the Raiders left the Coliseum to return to Oakland.

In 1999, the league tentatively awarded the Los Angeles area a franchise, but the deal could not be completed and an expansion team landed in Houston.

Tagliabue said the league is further along now than seven years ago “in both understanding the challenge and planning to meet it.

“We would not be spending $10 million if we did not think there was a real prospect here that these projects, one or both of them, could become a reality.”

Tagliabue’s optimism was tempered by news that an 11-member owner committee dubbed “the L.A. working group” said in its report that it could not “rule out exploring additional sites in the future,” including, perhaps, the Rose Bowl. Throughout the years a variety of local sites have been considered, among them Chavez Ravine, Hollywood Park, downtown Los Angeles and Carson.

Tagliabue said the NFL would also consider the feasibility of having the Coliseum or Anaheim serve as the home to two teams, cost-sharing he said that “to the extent that could be done in Southern California would be a clear advantage.” The league has not decided whether to stay at 32 teams or expand.

Some owners, while expressing cautious optimism, returned repeatedly to the challenge of underwriting an $800-million facility. “It hasn’t penciled out yet for me,” Dallas’ Jerry Jones said.

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The league’s action sets the stage for meetings June 14-15 with government and business leaders in Los Angeles and Anaheim, the league demanding emphatic business support as a surrogate for public tax subsidies.

After that: A review by the league’s 32 owners, Tagliabue said, in “mid-summer.”

Anaheim would sell the NFL its parcel and the league would have the option of building what boosters call a “sports and entertainment complex.”

The Coliseum would be rebuilt around the historic peristyle end, the 92,000-seat stadium refashioned into a triple-decked facility housing 68,000 -- 80,000 for Super Bowls and USC. The league would enter into a 25-year lease extendable to 55 years.

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USC would be a subtenant, and the league’s action Tuesday came amid a developing controversy stemming from a letter written by USC President Steven B. Sample to the Coliseum Commission, dated Friday but apparently not delivered until Monday, that asks for “assurances” the university’s interests would be protected should the NFL return to Exposition Park.

A version of a draft lease that circulated this year said the league and university “will work together to develop a mutually satisfactory arrangement,” according to a source familiar with the document who spoke on condition of anonymity. That would have given USC equal say-so.

A newer version was presented at 2 p.m. on Thursday to USC officials, another source said. According to Sample’s letter, that version says the NFL and USC “will work together to attempt to develop a mutually satisfactory arrangement,” language that vests full authority in the league. However, the new language was far from final, several sources said.

Sample and Stanley P. Gold, chairman of the USC board of trustees, remained out of the country Tuesday and unavailable for comment. Todd Dickey, the university’s acting president, said, “We’re going to continue to work together when they’re ready to resume negotiations.”

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The timing and forcefulness of the language in the letter clearly came as a surprise to some Coliseum proponents.

Villaraigosa said he was “absolutely flabbergasted by the tone and tenor of this letter,” adding that he had previously asked Coliseum representatives to brief university officials and was assured “everything is fine.”

Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles) said, “USC has nothing to complain about. They have friends on the commission, friends in Sacramento, friends in City Hall and friends in the NFL. Why are they behaving as if they are wounded?”

David Israel, a Coliseum commission member, called the letter a “clumsy, transparent and failed attempt to interfere with our business at what they say they believed -- erroneously -- was the 11th hour.”

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One of the starting points of any NFL deal at the Coliseum is the use of USC parking. Without the university’s spaces, at least 10,000, there would almost certainly be no deal. At the same time, while deal points remain confidential, the university stands to benefit from an agreement between the Coliseum and the NFL in a way that could make the parking money seem paltry.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who dined last week in New York with Sample, Gold and Tagliabue, said he “didn’t have a problem” with the letter. “They’re just protecting their interests,” he said.

Tagliabue said he expects the league and university to come to a “win-win” partnership.


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