Rose Bowl readies for first game of UCLA football season

Construction workers renovating an area of the Rose Bowl.
Construction workers renovating an area of the Rose Bowl.
Andres Aguila/KPCC

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On Saturday, UCLA’s football team plays its home opener against Nebraska at the Rose Bowl.

The 90-year-old stadium is in the middle of a major renovation that’s supposed to be done by the 2014 Rose Bowl game. However, the upgrade is costing more than expected and stadium officials are looking for ways to close the gap.

Two weeks before the big UCLA-Nebraska game, construction crews worked long days to finish what they could on the Rose Bowl’s new pavilion. Rose Bowl general manager Darryl Dunn says this season the pavilion won’t look perfect, but it’ll work fine.

"Sort of like walking through an airport under construction, when you get to your gate, it’s all finished but sometimes you have plywood to walk through," Dunn said.

The pavilion is also known as the press box, and as Dunn treks up six flights of stairs to get through it, he points out that this is the fourth time they’ve built a new press box at the Rose Bowl.

This one will have luxury suites. Each suite holds 16 people — and they’re all decked out with the stuff that turns a stadium box into a luxury suite: TVs, refrigerators, air conditioning so sitting in the Rose Bowl isn’t like sitting in the Dust Bowl.

From one suite’s outdoor seating area, Dunn points to a scoreboard that’s new, but looks like a throwback to the days of leather helmets.

"We’re very proud that we’re 90 years old," he says. "We want touches there that people can recognize that this is not a 2012-built stadium, and it doesn’t cost $1 billion to build."

Funding the complicated palace

A billion dollars is about what it costs to build a new football palace. Renovating an old one costs a lot less, but Dunn says it’s a lot more complicated.

Again, the Rose Bowl's age is a factor.

When beginning parts of the renovation, construction crews found a lot of surprises ... like plywood floors where they expected to find concrete and steel beams for a video board that were cracked beyond repair and in need of replacement.

These kinds of surprises and a tight timeline added $25 million to the renovation’s price tag. It’s up to about $177 million.

Depending on how you calculate it, the project’s financing is $25 to $40 million short. Pasadena city councilman Victor Gordo says his city doesn't have a choice, but to preserve the historic landmark. Gordo chairs the Board of the Rose Bowl Operating Company.

"It’s given tremendously to the city of Pasadena. And many will say it’s put Pasadena on the map," says Gordo, who sold stuffed footballs at one of the Super Bowls played in the Rose Bowl as a teen.

Gordo says the city isn't bearing the cost of the makeover on its own. It’s a team effort with the Rose Bowl’s tenants: UCLA and the Tournament of Roses.

With the funding shortfall, there’s a good chance the Rose Bowl will have to put off about $14 million in renovations. How the rest of the funding gap will be made up is still up in the air.

"If the city is called upon to put more money into the stadium, it won’t come from the city’s general fund," Gordo says. "It will come from Rose Bowl dollars."

That's one option, but there are other possibilities for revenue at the Rose Bowl.

There’s the Rose Bowl Legacy Campaign, dedicated to ensuring the project is completed. It’s got $8 million in pledges, but the goal was $20 million.

There’s also a chance the Rose Bowl could earn a season or two of rent money from an NFL team, if and when one comes back to Los Angeles. Critics say the city shouldn’t count on that.

One of a kind

Rose Bowl boss Darryl Dunn knows his stadium is the only one left of its kind. Miami’s Orange Bowl is gone. So is Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium — where Johnny Unitas played.

Even Texas Stadium, once home of the Dallas Cowboys, was demolished before it turned 40.

The Rose Bowl is 90, but is starting to look younger now. Just walking inside the place is easier as crews have doubled the width of four tunnels.

Dunn says a lot of the upgrades are things you won’t see — like up-to-date wiring to put the stadium in league for the future.

"When I’m 90, I’d like to get younger and have opportunities for future generations," Dunn says. "But most stadiums when they turn 90, they go away. We’re getting a second life."