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COLISEUM BACKERS UP TO OLD TRICKS.

Byline: BILLY WITZ NFL

For weeks now, a steady stream of press releases, photo-ops and proclamations have painted a picture of Coliseum backers as kinder, gentler folk, the type who not only won't nip at the NFL's hand, but will even also roll over and do tricks.

You want more signs in Exposition Park? Good doggie. You want more design changes to the stadium? Atta boy. You want a proposal passed through five councils or commissions in two weeks, something heretofore unheard of in City Hall? Here's a treat!

The politicos were so ready for some football that Councilman Tom LaBonge showed up at a pep rally wearing eye black.

To those who might have wondered how this transformation took place -- from ``%#(at)! you'' to ``can do'' -- you don't have to wonder long.

When USC president Steven Sample wrote a letter to the commission last week expressing concern it was being sold out during the Coliseum's negotiations with the NFL, the new dog showed it hadn't forgotten its old tricks. Out came the fangs and the howls of protest, with the polite ones questioning Sample's intentions, and the others wondering if he'd lost his pacifier.

It was the type of Pavlovian response, all rhetorical guns blazing, that's come to be expected from Coliseum officials over the years. The target might be another site, from Chavez Ravine to downtown to Pasadena to Anaheim. It might be those who aren't thrilled about the NFL becoming a neighbor: the Exposition Park museums or USC. It might be the old familiar bogeyman, the NFL.

Sometimes, perhaps even in this case, the Coliseum backers might be right.

The problem is that it is beside the point. What their response does is illustrate the biggest obstacle in getting a deal done at the Coliseum: a lack of trust. USC doesn't trust the Coliseum Commission. The museums and preservationists don't trust the NFL. The NFL doesn't trust the Coliseum Commission. The Coliseum Commission doesn't trust USC, believing it has tried to steer the NFL toward Dodger Stadium. The NFL's low- revenue owners don't trust the high-revenue owners, who are pushing for a return to Los Angeles.

Let's make a deal?

``Let's be real,'' said Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who has spent much of the past 12years trying to put a profootball team in the Coliseum. ``There's huge misgivings and mistrust vis-a-vis the NFL.''

That mistrust has a deep history. Most people's frame of reference with the NFL in Los Angeles is Al Davis, whose motto may as well have been Just Litigate, Baby, or Georgia Frontiere, who may as well have written therun-your-team-into-the-ground-so-no-one-will-care-when-you-move-it script for the movie ``Major League.''

For those with shorter memories, Commissioner Paul Tagliabue stood on the steps of City Hall in November and declared the Coliseum the focus of the league's attention, all while his staff was between meetings with the Dodgers over a proposal to build a stadium in Chavez Ravine.

If the NFL turned over a franchise to someone with the local cachet of, say, Jerry Buss, it might engender some good faith. But the league won't work on ownership until after the stadium deal.

So, when Exposition Park tenants see politicians jumping in unison toward the NFL, it gives them pause.

In less than two weeks, the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Cultural Heritage Commission, the Planning Commission, a City Council ad-hoc committee and the City Council agreed to back an $800 million project that would turn over the Coliseum to the NFL for 55years without a single dissenting vote. The City Council's vote, which cleared the way for the Coliseum Commission to cut a deal, was without debate.

All of which is a sign of what tremendous support this has.

Or ...

``Look how Sample was treated, and he's the president of a university,'' said one Exposition Park stakeholder who chose not to speak at the public hearings. ``Now you can see why nobody wants to speak up.''

This, of course, is the Coliseum's modus operandi. Use the big Billy club of public condemnation to beat down anyone else with a competing idea. It's happened to Peter O'Malley, AEG, Carson, the Rose Bowl, Frank McCourt and now Sample. But all the bashing begs a question: If putting an NFL team in the Coliseum is such a great deal for all parties, why hasn't it happened in the past decade?

The answer: It's not.

The Coliseum represents The Great Compromise.

The NFL would rather be downtown or in Chavez Ravine in a new stadium built to its own specifi- cations, without the constraints inherent in converting a National Historical Landmark into a modern facility. How is it going to sell owners such as Mike Brown, whose Bengals play in a new stadium that was 100 percent publicly financed, that no general- fund money is going into this? The answer, perhaps, is by turning over virtually everything else the NFL wants: wide latitude on the number of big-event dates, signage, stadium design and development rights to the Sports Arena.

USC wonders how it will benefit if stadium capacity is reduced from 92,000 to 80,000. It will have to play elsewhere for two years and there is inevitable grumbling from alumni whose seats will be moved farther toward the end zone. Considering the sweetheart deal USC has -- it paid $250,000 per game to play in the Coliseum last year -- it is taking a lot of convincing. Still to be settled is how much USC would pay the NFL to use the Coliseum, how much control it would have over the 188 proposed suites, how much the NFL would pay for use of the school's 12,000 available parking spots and what restrictions would be placed on USC's sponsorship and advertising in the event they compete with the NFL's.

``People are scared of change,'' a Coliseum official said. Or changes to the Coliseum's lease agreement, for which the words ``attempt to'' were added to language requiring the league and USC reach an agreement. When USC saw the change, Sample fired off his letter the next day. It will take a lot to cobble together an agreement between so many parties with disparate interests, especially when each party thinks they're the only ones negotiating in good faith.

Meanwhile, in Anaheim, they quietly mind their own business, which isn't really too complicated. The city is offering to sell land to the NFL, which would be free to do as it pleases with it with few restrictions. No muse- ums, no preservationists, no universities. Any issues the NFL has with the council or the Angels can be solved with a check, which in the end might be considerably less than the price of good faith.
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:May 30, 2006
Words:1119
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