USC fans are beginning to learn this week about the next concrete steps to a new Coliseum.
The Athletic Department has mailed out brochures, first to all Trojan Athletic Fund donors and then to 10,000 season ticket-holders explaining what's about to happen in the preparations for "re-seating" -- to use USC's word for it -- the entire Coliseum over the next two seasons so it's ready to go for the Aug. 31, 2019 opener against Fresno State, the Trojans' 97th season there.
We say the "next" step because a lot has gone on already -- if quietly. And for that, the Athletic Department and the Legends company they're partnering with have acquitted themselves quite well.
For as much as we disagree with the design process that got USC to a particularly unsatisfactory outcome that we believe will seriously damage the classic look not to mention the capacity of the world's most important sporting venue -- and against the assurances of the LA Conservancy historical folks who cared only to preserve the outer wall, apparently -- and as much as we hope there's still time for intervention, we salute what the USC task force has managed to put together in order to pay for all of this. Even when dealt a bad hand.
Start with this. USC has secured pledges and cash for $225 million of the $270 million budgeted for the Coliseum project. And right now, just two of the 48 private suites -- including 22 of the 24-person Founders suites at $!0 million and $7.5 million each -- are not spoken for. Terrific response by Trojan boosters here. And 95 percent of the commitments come from personal, not corporate, interests.
"And these people won't get to use them for two years," Associate AD Steve Lopes, USC's chief operating officer for athletics, says. And he makes a good point. All the money to pay for the new building -- the Tower -- for the 2,200 USC fans able to pay for the luxurious amenities therein will come from the folks who will be using it.
The 9,000 ticket-holders USC says are in those seats now -- down from the 9,500 the architects said would be displaced last fall for the new Tower -- wherever they end up, will not be paying for it. Not even if they should choose to pony up for the Coliseum Restoration Gifts (GRGs), as they're being called, of as little as $100 per seat a year over four years that USC hopes will raise the final $24 million/$25 million to finish the project. That would complete all the Coliseum amenities for everyone from the new, wider seats to the additional aisles and deeper rows with more leg/foot room.
Just one example: The lower bowl up to the first crossing aisle has 43 rows now. It will have just 38 in 2019. Sure, some of the displaced fans have the wherewithal to upgrade to the Tower in order to stay in the same location and are doing so.
But for those who will be moved to other seating depending on their level of giving, or not, there are options. There will be personal contacts by an expanded staff over the next 15 months for all of them, says Alexandra Bitterlin, associate director of the Trojan Athletic Fund. "We'll be reaching out to 5,000 people," she says, with "very much hand holding," as needed.
But "not seat licenses," Lopes and Ron Orr, senior Trojan Athletic Fund director, make clear for the rest of the Coliseum seating. None of the negative connotations of signing a contract, being billed for interest, that sort of thing. "These are pledges," Lopes says of what USC will be asking for as the ticket to sit in one-third of the Coliseum, not contracts. The rest of the stadium seating will require just a ticket, not a gift.
For the 2018 season, with construction -- more like destruction for the entire Tower footprint area that will be a construction zone for 2018 when the Coliseum is downsized to 84,000 -- things will be "tough," everyone at USC admits. No way around it. Maybe not all fans will have to wear hard hats to get into the Coliseum but the media just might, located in some yet-to-be-determined tent-like structure, it appears, where seats used to be.
The goal, Lopes said, has been to "to touch as little of the Coliseum we could," although 2018 will seriously test the amount of "touching" that will occur.
All of the projected improvements -- the new roomier seats, more and wider aisles, safety, concession and rest room stuff -- well they're not going to happen until after the 2018 season, they tell us. Those ugly Peristyle-blocking Audi Suites? They're staying for two more seasons. And those stable-like field suites in front of the end zone high school bleachers? They're also staying. And no plans to remove the bleachers. The budget wouldn't allow it.
And this is where it gets tough to talk about the "what" USC is doing without exploring the "why." First of all, it's hard to ask the Athletic Department to answer for decisions that clearly weren't theirs and made far above their pay grade -- if not necessarily expertise. Other University departments, the Board of Trustees and the President is where this all went down, they say. Oh, and the LA Conservancy.
Why the LA Conservancy? As much good work as this group has done in preserving so much of LA's wonderfully unique historic architecture, who gave them a major vote, a bigger say than the Athletic Department apparently, in the direction USC would go with the Coliseum?
"We did," Lopes said of who brought the LA Conservancy into the Coliseum issue, speaking for USC as a whole. "They were a major stakeholder," the project's architects described the Conservancy in the fall when we asked. Why would USC do that is the logical followup. You can't blame Lopes for this response when we asked that at a background information session earlier in the week: "That's not why we're here today."
On the LA Conservancy website, the new Coliseum is listed as a "success" story after "the project underwent a rigorous environmental review process to ensure the structure's historic features remain intact," they say. "After working with USC, the Conservancy is pleased to support the approved project."
And you can't really answer what you can't answer, as the Athletic Department contends, although Lopes touched on some of this process when it came to the new interior design. "The outer wall was sacrosanct," he said in one of those puzzling answers that seems to make little aesthetic sense. The outer wall may be clearly the least desirable, least attractive and least significant single architectural aspect of the National Historic Landmark Coliseum -- well behind the Peristyle, the one-of-a-kind tunnel to end all tunnels and the sweeping classic Coliseum oval.
Why was the relatively ugly, nondescript outer wall "sacrosanct?" Because that's pretty much all the LA Conservancy people could see from their perch somewhere amid the museums, we'd guess. We have heard on more than one occasion that by moving the new Tower structure 65 feet closer to the field necessitating the removal of those 9,000 prime seats, you won't be able to see it "from outside, 200 feet away," which is probably as close as the LA Conservancy folks will get to a USC football game.
But if you're inside, unfortunately, that aircraft carrier of a structure that has great open spaces underneath where you will be able to see the old superstructure that used to support seats as the 2,200 Tower patrons wander around the wide concourses built for them, that will be a better view than what you'll be able to have from the empty sections of prime seats on either side of the forward-located Tower.
"We're not going to sell obstructed-view seats," Lopes says. But they will keep them for old times sake -- and maybe for the Notre Dame game. But explaining the history of how we got here isn't really their job, Lopes says. Their job is to make this happen, to make the best of it and do it the smartest, most transparent way as well as they can. And so they are. Which is where the mailings come in. This is the "what." Before we're finished here, we'll address the "why" or maybe the "why not."
But they will be keeping to the $270 million budget, although that does bring up the question: Where did that number come from considering Cal spent $321 million they didn't have to upgrade their stadium and for newer, smaller stadiums with much less historical significance, Washington and Arizona State committed about as much as USC has. Again, should USC have gone higher for the Coliseum? Not an answer you're going to get from the Athletic Department.
But USC sees this as a chance to expand its base of 1,400 TAF givers and its 5,500 athletic donors who underwrite $19 million/$20 million annually for the USC athletic budget. They've already added $14 million to the endowment in recent years, we're told, so the Coliseum do-over doesn't seem to be hurting overall giving.
"This will allow us to expand the Trojan Athletic Fund," Bitterlin says, noting that USC is one of only seven completely self-funded Division 1 athletic programs as they do the outreach for the re-seating. Will they increase the 10,000 season ticket-holders? That's the question.The pro sports theory is to downsize and create demand. So 77,500 seats is the way to go, they say. USC has had a problem selling tickets and filling the place anyway, so what's the big deal here?
Well, to play devil's advocate, when Pete Carroll came to USC after the 2000 season, he was coming to a Coliseum that was the fifth-largest structure in college football and one that played heavily into Pete's competitive game plan -- for recruiting and as a major home field advantage when full, which it mostly was under Pete after the first season-and-a-half.
Only Michigan, Penn State, Tennessee and Ohio State held more fans at home. Only Michigan, Penn State and Tennessee had stadiums that held more than 100,000. Now eight do with Ohio State, Texas A&M, Alabama, LSU and Texas joining the 100,000-plus club as USC downsizes the Coliseum and so many of college football's biggest programs that USC is competing with choose to upsize. By 2019, the Coliseum will be No. 24 in capacity.
"Bigger isn't necessarily better," Lopes argues expressing the consensus, it seems in the USC Athletic Department, that private school USC, in urban, West Coast LA, is not in the same league with those above named programs in terms of fans and fan interest. And that downsized 77,500 will be a perfect number, Lopes contends in a town where we note the recent return of two NFL teams now fighting for LA's football dollars.
Sure, USC may average 90,000 this coming season with a team favored to win the Pac-12 and make it to the College Football Playoffs led by Heisman favorite Sam Darnold as it hosts Stanford, Texas, Utah and UCLA, but is that a one-off?
That would be something of a conservative play, here, considering how not that long ago under Carroll, USC played in front of 15 straight 90,000-plus Coliseum crowds over four seasons -- from the end of 2004 through the beginning of 2007. Under Carroll, USC had 23 crowds above 90,000 in his nine seasons here, 30 crowds above 85,000 and 37 crowds above 80,000. And in Pete's final seven seasons, USC averaged 86,420 for all home games. All 37 of the crowds for Pete's teams just noted would be too large for the new Coliseum.
In going over the history of the Coliseum at the Renovation Center just outside the Stadium, Chris Terwoord of Legends described how before its 1923 construction when Los Angeles, population 577,000, made the decision to build a stadium with a capacity of 76,000. "Pretty aggressive," Terwoord said of that LA play. Indeed.
Aggressive. Optimistic. And correct. That commitment paid off -- big time. Two Olympics, two big-time college football programs and 12 national college football championships, Major League baseball, the NFL in all different iterations. And everything else under the sun. No town made a better bet on its future.
Now USC is making a smaller bet. A safer one. And going forward with all the money in hand, it hopes, for the project before a game is played in the new building that will finally catch up for a half-century of neglect under a Coliseum Commission that represented all that is wrong in crony and uncountable governance. And it will be fully Wi-Fi capable at last.
And yes, there are critics. And those here who would have hoped for a different decision by USC. And still do until it's too late, hoping for a smarter, more aggressive, more inclusive decision. Which is what the Ohio Stadium photo above illustrates. The Buckeyes have gone in a different direction with the Horseshoe, built in 1922, a year before the Coliseum, to hold 66,000 fans -- 10,000 fewer than the Coliseum originally.
Like the Coliseum, Ohio Stadium needed a lot of maintenance, repair and upkeep not all that long ago. It hadn't kept up with the times and had two NFL teams to compete with for Buckeye fans' attention in the state. But if you'll notice, when they decided to add a new press box and private suites, they did not remove any seats, just added and built above them. No major tear-out needed. Nor any "re-seating." They put the new structure on pylons above the current seats which could then become protected club seats saving them from more construction to build those seats, as USC will be required to do.
They also finished an end zone that looked much like the Coliseum when they started and integrated it into a finished product now seating more than 105,000 and they did so while maintaining their place on the National Registry of Historic Landmarks. And finally, as USC Athletic Department people say that they're hoping to come up with for the Trojans, became an even greater "home field advantage." Whether replacing 9,000 fans in prime sideline seats with 2,200 in glass-enclosed suites, as USC is attempting to do, is the way to go seems a reach.
But if USC can get the new, additional Trojan Athletic Fund givers, many thousands of them, to come up with the $100 to $6,000 mostly "tax-deductible" gifts to pay for the final $25 million in the much-needed seating improvements for the Coliseum, as Orr says is their goal, this part of the project will have gone well.
"Our fans are really helping us on this," Lopes says for the now USC-controlled Coliseum. "This is something we couldn't do when this was under the [Coliseum] Commission."
Orr adds: "Everything that happens with the seating here pays for all of our other sports."