Fighting over the Coliseum

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There's a high stakes game of chicken being played out right now between powerful, well connected forces in Los Angeles. And I don't mean the Hollywood writers and the studios.

For 84 years the University of Southern California has played football at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

USC wants to keep playing in the Coliseum –- the stadium is, after all, just across Exposition Boulevard from the statue of Tommy Trojan.

Students and alumni gather on campus on fall afternoons and walk to games. They often fill the old Coliseum, as they will tomorrow for the annual showdown with cross-town rival UCLA.

Despite all that tradition and convenience, USC announced this week that it's close to signing a lease to play next year at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. On UCLA's home field.

If that were to happen, it would upset a lot of people. And rightly so.

Some USC fans dislike driving into central L.A. and loathe the decaying Coliseum. But many Trojans would hate the move to Pasadena. Students would have to start taking buses to games.

UCLA fans wouldn't be happy about sharing the turf.

And it would be a serious blow to the district around the Coliseum. Especially to the poor neighborhoods south and east of Exposition Park that benefit at least somewhat from the suburban crowds that come in to games.

In fact, the only winner of such a drastic re-write of L.A. sports geography is the Rose Bowl itself. It would make some money.

For everyone else, including the Rose Bowl's neighbors,  it's a lose-lose deal.

So why is USC leaving the Coliseum even a question? It's not like anyone else is lining up to play there.

The grand old stadium has hosted two Summer Olympics, a World Series, rock concerts and many thrilling football and soccer games.

But it's best days are in the past.

The Coliseum lacks luxury suites and roomy concourses for the sale of $10 hot dogs and $15 martinis. And I, for one, wouldn't want to be stuck in that concrete bowl during an earthquake.

If USC wants to play there, and to put $100 million into refurbishing the place, those in charge should say where do we sign?

The trouble is, the people in charge are some of the most stunningly ineffective public servants in town.

The Coliseum Commission is a mix of state, city and county representatives that has lost more sports teams than the Rust Belt.

UCLA, remember, played at the Coliseum before fleeing to the Rose Bowl. An even older facility, it should be noted.

When Los Angeles was a National Football League city, the Rams played in the Coliseum. So did the Raiders. Both left for better deals.

The Coliseum Commission also runs the Los Angeles Sports Arena, so you have to count the Lakers, Clippers and Kings on the tab of pro sports teams that quit the commission's domain.

Latest to leave are the USC basketball teams, which recently moved into a glittering new home almost across the street from the Sports Arena.

So what's the problem? The members of the Coliseum Commission aren't stupid, but they are stubborn and stuck in the past.

For years the Coliseum Commission has used its political clout to demand that any new pro football team play in the Coliseum. This despite NFL owners vowing to never again play there.

You know who's won that fight. Los Angeles is the biggest city in the country without pro football.

It's natural for a quasi-govenmental entity like the Coliseum Commission to cling to past glories and try to justify its existence. If USC takes control of the Coliseum, there won't be much need for a commission.

But times change, and the NFL isn't coming back to Exposition Park. USC would seem to be the last best hope for preserving the Coliseum as one of L.A.'s great sports venues.

For KCRW, I'm Kevin Roderick and this has been LA Observed.