Clash Of Billionaires: How Inglewood Got SoFi Stadium And The Super Bowl
COVID threw a wrench into SoFi Stadium’s grand opening plans in 2020, but it’s since been pushed into the spotlight, hosting NFL games since last summer, a triumphant series of concerts by Korean pop band BTS in November and the NFC Championship Game.
But those were mere teasers for the Big Show coming on Feb. 13 — Super Bowl LVI. And because the Rams won the conference championship, it becomes only the second team to play the Super Bowl at its home field in NFL history. (The first was last year, in Tampa, at the home stadium of the Buccaneers.)
SoFi Stadium has set records as the most expensive stadium in the world. In 2016, construction cost was estimated at $1.8 billion. By the time it opened, the cost was at $5 billion. That kind of sticker shock can concuss even the most faithful fanbase.
The story of how an antiquated horse racing track came to beat out a landfill, a rock quarry and downtown convention center hall in a battle of billionaires to host L.A. County’s first Super Bowl in 29 years (since 1993 at the Rose Bowl) is a pretty crazy tale.
The Town That Pro Football Fled
The L.A. region has had many pro football teams since the 1920s, but by the end of the 1994 season, the Raiders had left the Coliseum for Oakland, and the Rams had vacated Anaheim for St. Louis.
For local NFL fans, there was a whole lotta nothing, and no amount of second-rate "Arena" or "Spring" or "Xtra Fun" football could fill the void. The joke was that L.A. didn't need pro football in the nation's second-largest TV market because it had USC and UCLA.
As L.A.'s NFL-free years dragged on, fan interest grew in returning a franchise to the region, bolstered by deep-pocketed developers. Just about any big, under-used parking lot or raggedy parcel of land was being mentioned as a possible stadium site.
Daily News sportswriter Bob Keisser in 2008 wrote scathingly of the list of potential sites: "a landfill in Carson; a parking lot in Inglewood next to a casino; a quarry in Irwindale; a dam basin in the San Fernando Valley; a dreary and largely vacant area of downtown Los Angeles known as South Park; a parcel of land near a refinery and hazardous waste site in El Segundo; parking lots adjacent to Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium; and land near old railroad tracks in the City of Industry."
He supported adding Long Beach waterfront property near the struggling Queen Mary tourist attraction to the mix, but that idea didn’t really take off. There was also speculation about building a new football stadium to replace Dodger Stadium and relocating baseball to the site of the old L.A. Sports Arena. That idea also didn’t go anywhere.
Among all the varied locations, however, four emerged as real possibilities: Carson, Inglewood, downtown L.A. and Industry. All were backed by billionaires or burgs with the bucks or mandate to build billion-dollar palaces for football. And all were battling for victory.
The local papers dubbed it "Stadium Wars."
City Of Industry — Grand Crossing
In 2008, billionaire developer Edward P. Roski Jr. (then a part owner of the Kings and the Lakers) floated a plan for a 75,000-seat stadium on a 600-acre site in the City of Industry south of where the 57 and 60 freeways intersect. He dubbed it "Grand Crossing," and declared it would have a vast entertainment zone complete with a wave pool you could surf in, and overhead sky buckets traversing the site.
Roski wanted to build it for about $800 million and to be done in time for the 2011 NFL season. He didn't have a team committed to play there, but said he'd build it without taxpayer dollars (although it would mean $180 million in public funds to put in new streets, drainage, power grid and so on).
The Industry proposal actually won the support of the State Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, support so potent it made the project nearly shovel-ready.
The governor signed a bill that would exempt the parcel and Roski's Majestic Realty Co. from environmental regulations that neighbors of the stadium had sued to enforce. (Of course, San Diego area state lawmakers opposed it, fearing it could lead to the loss of the Chargers.)
Ultimately, however, Roski had difficulty swinging the financing — and "Grand Crossing" never got built.
South Park: The Stadium, Not The Cartoon
Meanwhile, around 2011, a stadium proposal for the South Park area of Downtown L.A. was getting some traction. It came from AEG, which describes itself as "the world's largest operator of high-profile sporting events and sports franchises."
AEG is a subsidiary of the Anschutz Co, run by Denver billionaire and media mogul Philip Anschutz. The plan envisioned a $1.8 billion, 68,000-seat (and later upgraded to a 72,000-seat) stadium with a retractable roof adjacent to the popular L.A. Live and Staples venues.
As part of the deal, AEG promised the city it would build the stadium on the site of the L.A. Convention Center’s West Hall and construct a new $287 million wing for the Convention Center to replace the lost exhibition space.
Let's just stop for a second and reflect on how pervasive AEG is in the local sporting and entertainment scene. AEG operates the city-owned Convention Center, it built the Staples Center (now called the Crypto.com Arena) and LA Live entertainment complex, it owns the L.A. Kings and the L.A. Galaxy soccer team, and had a stake in the Lakers until 2021. It also has the world's second-largest concert promotion business (responsible for a little-known desert concert known as Coachella), and owns sports teams, manages stadiums and other assets around the world.
The Downtown stadium deal had a lot of star power. An early supporter was Casey Wasserman, who is better known these days as the chairman of LA28, which is staging the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games. Basketball great Magic Johnson backed the idea. So did then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his successor, Eric Garcetti.
Farmers Insurance Co. bought naming rights to the DTLA field for $600 million in what would have been the largest such naming deal to date. The Farmer's Field proposal had enough momentum to overshadow Roski's City of Industry site.
But just about the same time the L.A. City Council was preparing to vote approval for a stadium in 2012, Anschutz put his AEG subsidiary up for sale, throwing the whole deal in doubt.
But the AEG sale never went through, and two years later, with no NFL owners pact sending a team there, the deal was even deeper in limbo. (Note: a team owner cannot willy-nilly move a team without the NFL owners approval. The owner would need approval of 24 of the 32 NFL team owners and agree to pay the other owners a relocation fee intended to share the wealth of securing a lucrative market like Los Angeles.)
The NFL owners didn't like the stadium plan and were unwilling to meet the demands of the Anschutz organization.
By spring of 2015, the plan was dead in the water.
After Years Of Speculation, Inglewood Finally In Play
In January 2014, billionaire Stan Kroenke, whose Kroenke Company was the owner of the St. Louis Rams, purchased a plot of 60 acres between the defunct Hollywood Park racetrack and the Forum in Inglewood.
The land had been owned by Walmart, but the company couldn't get approval for a Walmart superstore, so it sold to Kroenke. The L.A. Times noted that Kroenke made his money building Walmart stores. He once sat on the Walmart board of directors and was a son-in-law of the Walmart founder.
News of Kroenke's buy ignited fears in St. Louis that the Rams would soon leave. It also heightened speculation that Kroenke was just using the threat of leaving for Inglewood as leverage to get St. Louis to commit to a new stadium there. Missouri's governor even formed a task force to find a way to keep the team in St. Louis.
But in L.A., it generated hope the Rams would return to their former hometown.
The prospect that Kroenke could move his Rams back to L.A. also made San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos nervous. He told the Los Angeles Times that an L.A. area stadium could reduce attendance from his own fan base in Orange and Los Angeles counties.
Soon after, Kroenke and his 60 acres joined as partners with Stockbridge Capital Group, owners of the remaining 238 acres of the Hollywood Park site, further fueling local hopes that the Rams would soon return to L.A.
Carson’s Landfill “Viable” As NFL Site
Then there was Carson. By now the Raiders and Chargers, each unhappy with their own aging stadiums in Oakland and San Diego, were taking things into their own hands. In early 2015, they unveiled their joint plan to build and share a new stadium on yet another site — a golf course and former landfill east of the 405 Freeway.
The Carson proposal for a $1.8 billion privately financed stadium was quickly approved by the City Council, bypassing stringent environmental reviews.
Carson's leaders were enticed at the prospect of it bringing some 13,000 jobs and $500 million in revenue to the local economy. Bob Iger, then CEO of Disney, was hired to push to get one or both NFL teams to Carson.
By April 2015, the stage was set for a showdown, as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said both leading stadium proposals, in Carson and in Inglewood, were viable plans for bringing a team back to L.A.
Watch Out Carson, Here Comes Inglewood
Everything Carson did to attract the NFL, Inglewood did it bigger, better and with more money. By 2015, Kroenke's plan — dubbed the City of Champions Revitalization Project, referring to the city’s then-defunct nickname — was the only one that combined a team owner with ownership of land and the money and political backing to get the thing done.
Kroenke promised no taxpayer dollars would be used to build the stadium or the surrounding retail, residential and entertainment projects.
Money was a key issue for the city, becausethe departure of the L.A. Lakers from the Forumhad hurt the 9-square-mile city's businesses that had come to depend on a regular influx of sports fans. There was some rebound after the 2014 renovation of the Forum into a concert venue, but an NFL team would inject many millions of dollars into the local economy.
Without waiting for final permission from the NFL for his Rams to move, Kroenke actually started work on the Inglewood site in 2015.
He knew that his plans for the stadium were exactly what the NFL wanted to hear: designed to host two NFL teams.
On Jan. 12, 2016, the NFL owners voted permission for the Rams to move. Kroenke's stadium proposal to convert the defunct Hollywood Park racetrack property to a two-team stadium ended up the winner.
The formal groundbreaking for what would become the world’s most expensive stadium came nine months later, and by 2017, both the Rams and the Chargers had relocated to L.A.