Sunday, August 25, 2013

The View From the Not-So Cheap Seats

Ah, college football season.
There’s a hint of fall in the air, just a touch of crispness that nudges the leaves into riotous bursts of red and gold. Scarves emerge from drawers, hot cider is served, Christmas lists are started.
Not in Southern California, however.
Fall here is usually heralded by Santa Ana winds that howl down through mountain passes raising the temperatures to blast furnace levels. Humidity falls, tempers flare and fire storms of Old Testament proportions break out.
Perhaps not as romantic or poetic as a college game in a quaint New England setting but we like it just fine, secure in the knowledge that white-outs and ice storms won’t soon follow. So we flock to our playing fields, sun screened and well hydrated, to watch the grand old game unfold.
Which brings us to the Arroyo Seco, where the Rose Bowl is getting ready for its close-up. The stadium appears spotless, the field looks like a fairway at Augusta National.
Just in time for an orgy of football. UCLA will play its home games here, starting next week. Then, the New Year’s Tournament of Roses game will celebrate its 100th anniversary on Jan. 1. The BCS championship game will follow less than a week later, on Jan. 6.
It’s a heady schedule that will be played in a stadium that will be showing off a $180 million face-lift, the ultimate nip-and-tuck job. The Granddaddy of Them All is not your granddaddy’s stadium any more.
Rising atop the west rim of the stadium is a new 185,000-square-foot, tri-level pavilion featuring luxury suites and premium seating areas interspersed with cocktail lounges and catered dining areas. We’re talking first class: plush carpets, wood paneling, chrome accents and other fine accouterments not usually found in a football stadium.
It is decorated with remarkable photographic murals depicting famous moments in Rose Bowl history and features enough flat screen TVs to staff Mission Control.
It looks and feels a lot like an exclusive private club with a football field attached.
So what does it take to join this club? A considerable chunk of change.
Want a suite? Plan on spending in the neighborhood of $50,000 to more than $100,000. Loge boxes go for $24,000 to $30,000. Club seats run from $2,000 to $4,000. For $300, you can join something called the Horizon Club, accessible from the stadium seats, which provides food and drink but no view of the field.
Any of this would put a dent in the wallet of Joe Average Football Fan, which leads to a logical question: Has the Rose Bowl built a playground for the wealthy while ignoring the rest of its fan base? Will the wealthy few literally and figuratively look down their noses from their premium seats on the huddled masses below?
There may be some of that but very little I suspect. After all, you can’t legislate arrogance. But the motives of the Rose Bowl and its clients are a lot more pure than pompous.
The Rose Bowl for years has operated at a loss, hindered by restrictions on the number of events it can host each year, and forced to rely on the revenue from the two Brookside Golf Courses for money.
That’s not enough for adequate maintenance of a 90-year-old facility or to provide funds needed for modernization in order to remain competitive.
So you put in premium seating, the sale of which adds to the stadium’s revenue stream. Ask any NFL owner. The first step he takes when building a new stadium is to plan for lots of luxury seating.
If the Rose Bowl sold all of its suites and premium seating, it would raise an estimated $7 million annually in revenues. And that money would be spent for maintenance and improvements that would benefit the entire fan base.
Some improvements aside from premium seating have already been made. New scoreboards and state-of-the-art video screens have been installed. Access and egress in some areas have been improved.
There is more to do. More restrooms and better concession stands are needed. Leg room in the stadium seats is poor at best. There really ought to be a museum on the premises to showcase the history of the place. It would be a year-round attraction and thus provide revenue.
The premium seating area is a bit of gamble, of course. UCLA football has only recently emerged from a decade of mediocrity and it would be tough to sell a $100,000 suite if it’s a $100 product. For this all to work, it has to be a winning team.
Financial problems remain. Cost of the improvements, originally budgeted at $152 million, were pushed to $180 million due to overruns. Fingers were pointed. Suits were filed.
But despite the setbacks, this was a project that needed to get done. Nothing less than the future of the stadium is at stake. Without the Rose Bowl, Pasadena would be just another nondescript suburb. And the loss of millions of dollars in revenues it generates for local businesses would be catastrophic.
Think that’s far-fetched? Of the original four stadiums that hosted major bowl games, only the Rose Bowl remains. The Orange and Sugar Bowls were bulldozed and the Cotton Bowl remains largely vacant. 
Nobody could imagine it happening but it did.

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