Pasadena’s Rose Bowl looks to stay relevant in Sofi Stadium’s shiny, new shadow – San Bernardino Sun

PASADENA — The Rose Bowl, one of college football’s great stadiums, once held the record for most Super Bowls hosted by one venue. But multi-billion-dollar, giant entertainment complexes like Sofi Stadium, and an array of other sports hubs, have local leaders scrambling to keep the 100-year-old complex relevant.

The contrasts between the old and the new sharpened this week as Inglewood — not Pasadena — prepared to host Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Market competition is tough in Southern California, a region ripe with entertainment venues like the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Dodger Stadium, Home Depot Center, and now SoFi, the first football arena built in L.A. since the Rose Bowl and Coliseum opened in 1922 and 1923.


The $5 billion, Inglewood-based stadium opened its doors in September 2020. Since then it has attracted such former Rose Bowl acts as BTS and Justin Bieber. It’s also scheduled to host the College Football Playoff national championship game in 2023, possible World Cup matches in 2026, along with Olympic ceremonies in 2028.

Historically, these events have been held at the Rose Bowl, but their transition to SoFi has put the aging Pasadena structure in the spotlight, along with the Los Angeles Coliseum, another landmark that officials believe has a bright future despite the increasingly dense L.A.-area marketplace of venues.

The Coliseum hosted the first Super Bowl in 1967 — before it was even called that — and another in 1973. The Rose Bowl followed suit two decades after.

But Inglewood’s posh new palace ensures neither will see another in the future, leaving the Rose Bowl at a crossroads while it stares down nearly $200 million in outstanding debt, the result of a renovation that stadium stewards hope will help the Rose Bowl maintain its place as “America’s Stadium” for another 100 years.

​Football has traditionally led the charge in building the Rose Bowl brand, but now stadium leaders hope the return of international soccer and intimate concerts on the Brookside Golf Course help it find success – just as the Super Bowl did decades ago. Officials see a future supported by festivals like This Ain’t No Picnic and other community events on the beautifully shaded Arroyo Seco grounds, home to the golf course and a hurdle away from Old Town Pasadena.

The first Rose Bowl Super Bowl was played on Jan. 9, 1977, eight days after USC beat Michigan in the 63rd Rose Bowl game. The big game would return to Pasadena’s flagship stadium four more times with the final Rose Bowl Super Bowl occurring Jan. 31, 1993.

Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo was a teenager selling stuffed footballs on the stadium concourse in 1983.

Having recently immigrated to the country, the future mayor of Pasadena found himself fascinated with the sport of football, especially the Rose Bowl. So much so, he still vividly remembers the first time he caught a glimpse of the field and where Dan Marino, one of many greats to walk the now-renovated Rose Bowl tunnels, took on the Washington football team, now called the Commanders.

“All I saw was the emotion of the crowd, the flashes going off and I was hooked from that moment,” Gordo said in an interview ahead of this week’s showdown at SoFi. “All I could think was wow, because how could you not appreciate that moment, that stadium, that history.”

The history Gordo refers to adorns the walls of a stadium museum where Daryl Dunn stood this week during a tour.

The President of the Rose Bowl Operating Committee, a nonprofit responsible for oversight of the century-old stadium that’s owned by the city, finds it hard to choose a favorite moment in his 22 years leading the RBOC.

Musical acts like Beyoncé and international soccer matchups, including a 1999 Women’s World Cup Final, are among the highlights. They have helped the Rose Bowl stay relevant 100 years after its construction. In those years, it has avoided the fate of its sister stadium, the Orange Bowl, Dunn said, reflecting on the story of the Miami venue that hosted the Super Bowl before being demolished in 2008 after losing the NFL’s Dolphins and namesake bowl game.

Fearing a similar fate, Gordo — RBOC President at the time –  and his peers opted to say no to the NFL finding a home in Pasadena.

“The same way America is more than just a physical, geographic location, the same can be said for the Rose Bowl,” Gordo said. “It’s a dream, and we couldn’t let that be ruined.”

Instead of welcoming the Rams or Chargers, Dunn and the RBOC were given a million dollars by the City Council to figure out “Plan B,” he said. The result was the $183 million renovation from 2005 to 2016.

SoFi was always at the top of Dunn’s mind during the makeover, so the recent investment in the stadium had to include the addition of premium seating, which drives revenues in stadiums.

“The pricing on the premium seats is through the roof,” Dunn said. “The intent is to use that to maximize revenue to reinvest into the product so you can have more opportunities in the future.”

But Dunn’s Plan B didn’t predict a worldwide pandemic that would cripple a booming California economy.

This is necessary now more than ever because the Rose Bowl is having trouble self-sustaining itself monetarily, according to financial records.

In April 2021, the operating budget for fiscal year 2021-2022 reflected a net operating loss of $3.9 million, leaving an available cash balance of nearly $4.3 million.

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem, according to a report from CAA ICON, a renowned financial consulting company contracted by the RBOC.

The report states the RBOC and city’s debt obligation “is the greatest weight” on Pasadena’s future financial projections.

To address the situation, the city made approximately $11.5 million in debt service payments in Fiscal Year 2021.

Another $10 million in payments are expected to be made in fiscal year 2022 toward the same debt with additional annual payments ranging between $5.4 million and $7.7 million likely being paid in 2023 through 2026.

But as the debt service payments increase, so will the stadium’s revenue gaps, which range from $5.4 million to $7.7 million per year for the next several years, according to records.

Some residents in the city wonder if the cost is worth the investment, especially with stadium operations continuing to increase.

Since 2015, security and public safety costs have increased 40% or approximately $1.1 million per year, according to financial records.

These challenges are exacerbated by the significant capital needs of the stadium, because like other historic structures, Dunn said the Rose Bowl requires maintenance and critical improvements.

“Fortunately people really care about the Rose Bowl, and they’re willing to take care of its grounds,” Dunn said, pointing to the plaques of college football legends and local residents who’ve pledged approximately $40 million in gross private gifts through the Rose Bowl Legacy Foundation.

Gordo agreed the emotional connection to the Rose Bowl’s history is something that he thinks will only benefit the stadium in the long-term.

“It’s the heart and soul of college football, the heart and soul of our city. It means much more to Pasadena and to the people throughout the world than just being a beautiful architectural gem,” Gordo said.

Foundation members previously complained the media attention surrounding the RBOC’s financial situation has been harmful to their already challenging fundraising strategy.

Still, city leaders have repeatedly united to discuss additional revenue opportunities that would prevent the Rose Bowl from fading into obscurity.

Looking out at the field and surrounding 90,000 seats from the Terry Donahue Pavilion — a result of ther renovations and home to 54 luxury suites, 48 loge boxes, 1,200 club seats, state-of-the-art press boxes and a new broadcast center — Dunn said the renovation is proof-positive the RBOC foresaw change was needed before the pandemic forced the city’s hand. So he’s confident the group is in position to tackle the task to adapt to the future.

It’s helped that UCLA and the Tournament of Roses both signed to long-term contracts.

“We recognized that when an NFL stadium usually comes into a market, then everybody is after the same events,” Dunn said. So getting that security was critical for the future of the stadium because it’s like a shopping center. You need to have your anchors.”

“Unfortunately, from when we did the bonds, attendance has declined. And low attendance hurts,” Dunn said. Because the more people in attendance then the more money is made through parking, food and merchandise.

“That’s a big variable outside of our control,” Dunn said. Another is musical acts spurning Pasadena for SoFi. “But, as I said, we anticipated that because SoFi is the new stadium and we expect to wane and return in our favor.”

Never one to sit on his laurels though, Dunn recognized the stadium needed more events since it was clear that demand for festivals outdoors on the Rose Bowl site has been stronger than anticipated.

The RBOC’s use of the golf course for alternative revenue generating activities, such as parking, festivals and food events, has traditionally been the envy of many other golf course operators in the region.

Golf’s popularity is on the upswing too given the need to social distance and gather outside with friends and family during the pandemic, but officials are weary to rely too heavily on the sport as a financial crux.

In response, the City Council agreed to approve an amended contract between the RBOC and music entertainment presenter AEG which would authorize the increase of musical festivals allowed in the Rose Bowl stadium and the Brookside Golf Course per year.

The amended deal’s $15M over five years guaranteed is significantly higher than the $4M that was guaranteed over the two years in the previous agreement, according to city staff. The music festival agreement also reduces the projected annual operating financial deficit that was forecast previously – without requiring an investment by the RBOC.

Now, both Dunn and Gordo believe the course’s greens are vital to the fiscal health of the RBOC.

“People want to go back to some sense of normalcy and they’re more apt to outdoor events,” Gordo said. “And I can’t think of a more beautiful and historic venue to curate events for residents.”

Echoing the sentiments, Dunn said the concerts will allow the RBOC to pivot its business model in the coming year.

“Originally, the thought was Coachella-esque concerts for people of a certain age but they found out with the golf course and the grounds, you’re better off going smaller but more frequent,” Dunn said, highlighting the uniqueness of the Arroyo Seco’s shaded trees and proximity to Old Town Pasadena.

By one estimate, the additional events could generate $11 million in revenue per year. The events are also expected to provide hotels and the hospitality industry with a significant increase in business on festival dates, city staff said.

“So if there’s ever a question whether the Rose Bowl has a future in college football, in international soccer, in the world of music, the answer to that is yes,” Gordo said. “The Rose Bowl is poised to be ready for 100 years. We just have to protect it.”

Dunn agrees, but is quick to reiterate “the challenges facing the rose bowl are very real.”

The Rose Bowl’s looming debt service payments and newer stadiums like SoFi soaking up the spotlight are all threats to its existence, but Dunn and Gordo are adamant the structure will continue to inspire the world for another 100 years because it has a past like no other.

“Truly, I do think one of the things that makes this place so special is that people care so much and their dedication,” Dunn said, echoing the words of legendary broadcaster Keith Jackson. “He said you walk in here sometimes when it’s quiet and it’s different. It just grabs you.”

“And we have to be guardians of that uniqueness,” Dunn added. “It’s not going to happen by itself so people need to look past today and into tomorrow. This is exactly what we’re trying to do.”

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