Naming rights is key to USC deal

Times Staff Writer

It appears USC won't be leaving its home field any time soon.

But the Trojans aren't likely to be playing football at the "Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum" for much longer either.

That's because the landmark agreement reached Wednesday by USC and the Coliseum Commission hinges almost entirely on the sale of naming rights. Stadium officials believe that a corporate sponsor could pay $5 million a year or more to rename the 84-year-old venue -- while keeping the "Memorial Coliseum" part -- and also help fund a structural overhaul. That type of naming-rights deal would dwarf the most lucrative current deal for a college stadium.

After months of bickering, including threats USC might play home games at the Rose Bowl next season, the sides paved the way for their first long-term lease agreement. By unanimous vote, the nine-member commission agreed to a non-binding letter of intent that gives USC a 25-year lease -- it can extend to 47 years -- and veto power over an NFL team returning to the Coliseum. The agreement will be handed over to lawyers who have two months to formalize it.

"This changes for the first time the focus of the Coliseum from the NFL to USC," said Todd Dickey, the school's general counsel and lead negotiator. "That's the significance of this agreement. They have finally said what the mayor has already said, and that's, 'USC is our major primary tenant and we are going to treat them as such.' That's monumental and a major breakthrough."

The commissioners, many of whom had scarcely more than a day to review the agreement, spent half an hour longer than expected to pore over the details. That delayed a celebratory news conference under the lighted Olympic flame that included appearances by USC Coach Pete Carroll and the Trojans' marching band.

"This is awesome for us," Carroll said of the agreement. "I could never have imagined that it wouldn't happen, but now that it finally did we're thrilled that it's behind us."

With USC's deadline to print tickets for the 2008 season fast approaching, time was of the essence. The school's home opener is Sept. 13 against Ohio State.

Just before the commission went to closed session for a vote, it heard a surprise, last-minute pitch from an investment group proposing a privately financed stadium it said could accommodate both an NFL team and USC.

Conceding they had been in private talks with the group for months, commissioners ultimately rejected the deal, questioning its financing and its excessive number of proposed events.

The deal that was approved is not set in stone. USC has the ability to opt out of the agreement after two years if the commission cannot make the promised improvements in a timely manner. The school also would have the right to make the improvements itself and be repaid with interest.

There is quiet speculation Coliseum officials have overestimated how much money they can generate by selling naming rights. The country's most lucrative collegiate deal belongs to the University of Minnesota, which in 2005 signed a $35-million, 25-year deal with TCF Financial Corp.

Coliseum officials hope to raise at least $50 million and perhaps much more to fund improvements such as new video boards, concessions, seats, elevators, escalators and locker rooms.

"The quality of getting naming rights for the Coliseum and USC is unsurpassed in college football, and may rise to the level of an NFL facility," said David Israel, commission president. "SC is going to play six or seven home games here every year, they're a contender for the national championship every year, they're in the second-largest market, Los Angeles doesn't have an NFL team."

Even if USC didn't have veto power, the chances of an NFL team coming to a stadium that already has a naming-rights deal in place are virtually nil.

Said Coliseum General Manager Pat Lynch: "We definitely don't have any bright lights of hope."

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sam.farmer@latimes.com

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