It was jumping — its vibrant old self, basking in the shadow of the San Gabriels.
As Pasadena Mayor Victor Gordo said Saturday, the place was “alive and vibrant and hosting two of the country’s greatest college football programs.”
“A great day for Pasadena,” he added.
The home team, the Bruins, lost 48-45 in a thrilling game to the Trojans, who kept their College Playoff ambitions alive. But the more than 70,000 fans who packed into the 100-year-old arena for the classic cross-town battle Saturday night sparked a moment of relevancy for a jewel of a stadium struggling to get by at a time when the shadow of the multi-billion-dollar, high-tech behemoth of SoFi is ever expanding down the road in Inglewood.
Yes. The teams needed a win. But so did The Rose Bowl itself. For Gordo, it got it after a difficult three years for the stadium and the city’s ownership of it.
For starters, this is the first time the Bruins have played the Trojans in the Rose Bowl since 2020. This season’s game had an expected crowd of more than 70,000, a stark contrast to the crowd-less game played at the stadium during the pandemic-shortened season.
No one saw that a worldwide pandemic would cripple a booming California economy. Among the economic carnage was a hard-hit Rose Bowl, just a few years after completing a costly renovation. What had been a self-sustaining enterprise owned by the city would soon become the subject of heated debate in Pasadena City Council meetings over its debt and dwindling balance sheet.
Hey Rose Bowl ppl 👋🏽🌹 pic.twitter.com/H7IYSz8aX1
— James H. Williams covers UCLA football (@JHWreporter) November 20, 2022
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 only exacerbated the problem — created debt obligations that according to one consulting firm’s report became “the greatest weight” on financial projections for the stadium. Ultimately, the city would have to dip into its general fund to keep things afloat.
The city made approximately $11.5 million in debt service payments in Fiscal Year 2021, with additional payouts projected. And as the debt service payments increased, so would the stadium’s revenue gaps, which early estimates ranged from $5.4 million to $7.7 million per year for the next several years, according to records.
All the while, not all were convinced the cost was worth the investment in a city-owned stadium, especially taking into account increasing security costs and the continuing capital-improvement needs of an aging stadium.
Pasadena’s City Council pondered whether the Rose Bowl should be sold or leased to a private operator since the 100-year-old stadium was facing more than $200 million in outstanding debt.
Local officials know big events such as Saturday’s rivalry matchup in the Rose Bowl can draw a crowd as a result. But UCLA doesn’t always find itself at the top of the polls, so officials hope concerts and more soccer exhibitions will fill the holes in the stadium’s attendance and balance sheet.
Stadium stewards, university leaders and members of Pasadena City Council believe UCLA’s pending move to the Big Ten may also shock some life into a debt-burdened Rose Bowl stadium, once thousands of passionate fans from states like Ohio, Nebraska and Michigan find their way to the sunny shores of Southern California for gameday Saturdays.
This year wasn’t always pretty.
The giant Rose Bowl crowd on Saturday contrasted with the empty bleachers earlier this season when a record low 27,143 fans attended the game against Bowling Green in September.
The number was well below the previous mark of 32,513 set in 1992, but a showing of 29,344 fans in attendance for the South Alabama matchup a few weeks later set the record for the second-smallest crowd for a UCLA game in Rose Bowl history.
The problem isn’t confined to this season alone either, as 32,982 fans attended last year’s home opener against Hawai’i.
“This is an embarrassment but we couldn’t fill the Rose Bowl in 1988 when we were the #1 team in the country,” UCLA great Troy Aikman tweeted in September. “Anyone else at UCLA think it’s time for an on-campus 30,000 seat stadium?”
Experts attribute the low turnouts to heat, students not being back on campus at the start of the college football season and non-conference opponents that don’t excite the masses.
For Saturday’s game, the north end of the stadium above the student section was tarped off, and crews added a second set of tarps on the south end, which decreased the maximum capacity from around 69,747 to 53,390. Without either set of tarps, the maximum capacity would be more than 90,000, similar to the attendance the Soccer Champions Tour drew during an exhibition in late July.
But tarp or no tarp, Gordo said Saturday that part of why the game was a win for the stadium is that it foreshadows better days to come.
“We can expect to see more of these big games with the move to the Big Ten Conference,” he said. “We will have teams like Michigan and Ohio State visiting with their fan bases in tow and a deep following that loves good football and the Rose Bowl Stadium. I think it will be great for the stadium, the city and the regional economy. … I’m excited. I think we should all be excited.”
The University of California Board of Regents is set to finalize a decision on that move to the Big Ten next month.
If the season was compared to a football game, it’s clear UCLA made a fourth quarter comeback after struggling early.
Was the rally enough to declare the season a financial victory for the 100-year-old arena?
Gordo, at the game on Saturday, said it looked “optimistic.” “The combination of UCLA’s major and minor events are launching the stadium into a successful economic position. We are turning it around. We are turning it around.”
UCLA Athletic Director Martin Jarmond echoed Gordo, with a shout-out to fans.
“Bruins stepped up everywhere,” he said Saturday. “The atmosphere is electric and I’m so appreciative of everyone that got to their seats before kickoff. The energy has been great, and you can tell our players feed off that.”