SUPER BOWL

SoFi Stadium, site of Super Bowl 56, is multibillion dollar dream for three, and nightmare for thousands

Josh Peter
USA TODAY

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Stan Kroenke, the Los Angeles Rams owner also known as Silent Stan, turned off his mute button.

His team had just secured a berth in the Super Bowl that will be played at the 70,240-seat SoFi Stadium, which Kroenke built for about $5 billion.

“I know that it means a lot to the area, and we’re proud of it,’’ Kroenke said during an interview with the NFL Network after the Rams beat the San Francisco 49ers 20-17 in the NFC championship game Jan. 30. “I’m really proud of coming here to Inglewood. And the mayor and I talk often. He’s really pleased with what we’ve been able to accomplish.” 

What Kroenke and Inglewood mayor James T. Butts Jr. have accomplished is building the biggest stadium in the NFL, and the most expensive stadium in the world. It has been lauded for features such as the translucent, canopy-style roof, an indoor-outdoor aesthetic and the one-of-a-kind video scoreboard. 

But as the Rams and Cincinnati Bengals prepare for Super Bowl 56 on Sunday, what figures to go less discussed is this: the questionable tactics that were used to circumvent opposition and outmaneuver competitors to make the stadium a reality, and the residents in Inglewood who say they have been adversely impacted by its construction.

An inside look at how SoFi Stadium came to fruition is based on information USA TODAY Sports gathered from interviews, recorded public events and a lawsuit St. Louis city and county officials filed against the Rams and the NFL for allegedly violating the NFL's relocation policy.

The Rams and NFL agreed in November to pay a $790 million settlement, eliminating the risk of the lawsuit adding even more information into the public domain.

Three days after Kroenke mentioned “economic benefits’’ while talking about the stadium during his interview with the NFL Network, Fabianne and Marcell Tripp tried to comfort their 10-week-old daughter inside courtroom 201 at the Inglewood Courthouse. 

“If you can’t keep your baby quiet, you’ll have to leave the courtroom,’’ the bailiff warned. 

Fabianne Tripp later told Judge David Reinert their daughter recently suffered a seizure, so now they were dealing with her medical issues on top of the reason they were in court: fighting eviction. 

The Tripps told USA TODAY Sports that SoFi Stadium has contributed to their plight and housing challenges for other minorities living in and near Inglewood. 

Marel, left, and Fabianne Tripp with their 10-week-old daughter outside the Inglewood Courthouse.

“I feel like ever since it’s been there, they’ve been pushing people out,’’ said Marcell Tripp, 31. 

But there was talk of an economic boom when the stadium was being sold to the public and to NFL owners by three powerful men – Butts, Kroenke and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Work on the stadium project began more than eight years ago, and Butts, Kroenke and Jones were most responsible for bringing it to fruition – and in the best position to benefit.

For Kroenke, the stadium helped triple the value of the Rams, based on Forbes’ annual valuations — to $4.8 billion in 2021 from $1.45 billion in 2015, the team’s last year in St. Louis — and is the centerpiece of a 298-acre sports and entertainment district still under development.

For Jones, it meant a lucrative contract with SoFi Stadium for a hospitality management company he co-founded.

For Butts, it meant added political power as he won a third term as mayor and appears set to win a fourth in November. It also has meant national attention and praise for the revitalization of Inglewood, where the Los Angeles Clippers are building a $1 billion NBA arena and spurring more growth.

As Butts, who is Black, says with pride of a city whose residents are about 90% Black or Hispanic and was on the brink of bankruptcy a decade ago, “The only thing that has changed in Inglewood is everything."  

Then there are the things that never change — such as how many deals get done in the NFL. 

'What do you need?'

When the Rams moved to St. Louis from Los Angeles in 1995, they signed a lease that guaranteed the stadium, the Edward Jones Dome, would be among the top 25% in the league based on several categories. And if it didn’t, the team could break the lease after the 2014 season.

In early 2013, it was clear Edward Jones Dome had fallen well below the top-25% threshold. And as talks between the Rams and St. Louis officials failed to produce a mutually acceptable deal, a new alliance began to take shape.

SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California will be the site of Super Bowl 45 on Sunday.

That August, Kroenke and Butts met for the first time. At the mayor’s ninth-floor office at city hall in Inglewood, they discussed the possibility of building a stadium at the site of the Hollywood Park Racetrack, set to close that December. The meeting lasted about 2½ hours, and Butts expressed his clear support for the project, Kroenke later recalled.

CLOSER LOOK: Meet SoFi Stadium, LA's billion-dollar temple.

“He just said very simply, ‘What do you need?’ ” Kroenke said at the stadium ribbon cutting Sept. 7, 2020. “And he’s supported us steadfastly ever since."

Kroenke also enlisted the support of the Cowboys' owner. 

Kroenke said he and Jones discussed stadium issues in September 2013 when their teams played in Arlington, Texas, at the Cowboys’ home, AT&T Stadium, also known as Jerry’s World. It opened in 2009 and was the first billion-dollar stadium in the NFL.

The talks continued, Kroenke said, when the teams played in September 2014 in St. Louis at the Edward Jones Dome, which was built for an estimated $280 million and opened in 1995. By then, Kroenke had acquired a 60-acre lot in Inglewood on a 298-acre site already approved for a mixed-use development.

Butts brokered a partnership between Kroenke and Stockbridge Capital Group, which owned the remaining 238 acres at the site. And in January 2015, a ballot initiative was filed in Inglewood to allow for the construction of a stadium, which almost assuredly would bring an NFL team back to Los Angeles.

But there was competition.

A joint venture between the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers was gearing up for a public announcement of plans to build a stadium in Carson, 18 miles south of Los Angeles. And with NFL owners set to meet in late March 2015, Kroenke wanted to stay ahead by presenting architectural designs for his stadium – and the explicit right to build it in Inglewood.

The mayor's ability to deliver was about to be tested.

Butts: Bypassing a public vote

On Jan. 5, 2015, during a news conference outside city hall in Inglewood, Butts announced the initiative for a stadium and a sports-and-entertainment district to be built on the site had been filed.

It probably could be placed on the ballot as early as June if the required signatures were obtained by petition, the mayor said.

Inglewood mayor James T. Butts shown in 2015 in front of the Hollywood Park race track, which was demolished to make way for SoFi Stadium.

"No tax dollars have been requested or will they be used if the project is approved,'' Butts said.

A week later, the Associated Press reported that although the plan required no upfront tax dollars, a review of documents showed the developers expected to recoup up to $100 million in the first five years of operation.

The documents, submitted to Inglewood officials, showed paybacks from tax dollars generated by the project would cover costs ranging from installing street lights and fire hydrants to running shuttle buses and providing police security on game days, the Associated Press reported.

During the news conference, Butts said the group backing the stadium "only have a short window to collect'' signatures for the petition.

The group had 180 days, but the next NFL owners meetings were less than three months away. Signatures were needed from about 8,000 registered voters, 15% of the registered voters in Inglewood.

With Kroenke spending $1.7 million to bankroll the ballot initiative, according to the Los Angeles Times, more than 22,000 signatures were collected in less than three weeks.

At the Jan. 5 news conference, a reporter asked Butts, "You cannot move forward unless the voters approve this?''

Replied Butts: "Well, that's the path that's being taken right now.''

On Feb. 24, the five-person city council led by Butts voted unanimously to approve the initiative, bypassing a public vote.

"Why was it important to do this tonight instead of sending it to a ballot?'' a reporter asked Butts after the council meeting.

Replied the mayor, "Because everything we've done has shown an extreme decisiveness, efficiency and effectiveness by our government.''

More than five years later, at the ribbon cutting, Butts told the story of how the Inglewood City Council voted the initiative into law, which sped the process and avoided the risk of voters rejecting it.

“So we owe a great debt of gratitude to them,’’ said Kroenke, who thanks to the city council's action was able to present at the owners meetings that March elaborate designs of the proposed stadium and the formal opportunity to build it in Inglewood.

On Butts and the city council adopting the stadium measure directly after Butts said the matter would go to a public vote, longtime Inglewood resident Diane Sambrano said, "One of many lies. The mayor has a habit of saying things that sound good to appease many, and then we find out that's not going to be our reality.''

Butts, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, also dismissed talk of the stadium project triggering gentrification and potential negative effects for low-income residents in Inglewood.

Kroenke: Mixed signals

Kroenke is a real estate developer who’s worth an estimated $10 billion and is married to Walmart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke. In 2009, he hired Kevin Demoff as the Rams' chief operating officer. Demoff was far more comfortable in the public spotlight than his boss.

Especially in times of controversy.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke celebrates after the Los Angeles beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game to advance to the Super Bowl.

In 2014, after he secretly started negotiating with Butts, Kroenke purchased the 60-acre parcel of land in Inglewood on which SoFi Stadium would be built. When the land purchase came to public light, Demoff said, “Stan is looking at lots of pieces of land around the world right now and none of them are for football stadiums.’’ 

During a season-ticket holder event in St. Louis, according to the lawsuit, Demoff stated that the land was “not a piece of land that’s any good for a football stadium. The size and the shape aren’t good for a football stadium." 

But during a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Times after the Rams had secured the right to relocate to Los Angeles, Demoff said Kroenke called him when he inspected the Inglewood location in 2013 and the Rams owner described it as “an unbelievable site” for a football stadium. Demoff also said that call from Kroenke was one of the “moments in your life you never forget.” 

Jones: 'A grand manipulator'

The Cowboys’ owner is considered the NFL’s most powerful – and his clout was about to be tested. 

On Jan. 12, 2016, at the NFL owners meetings in Houston, the six-owner committee on Los Angeles opportunities voted 5-1 to recommend the stadium project in Carson, not Inglewood. Kroenke's project looked to be in peril.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones played a key role in the Rams moving to Inglewood, California.

Hours later, NFL owners voted 30-2 to ratify the Rams' relocation application, and the Cowboys' owner was widely credited with persuading the owners to approve the project in Inglewood.

Jones told reporters he had acted in the league’s best interest – and his own best interests were served.

Two months later, the Sports Business Journal reported the Rams had selected Legends, the company Jones' co-founded, as the Kroenke's representative. (Legends also became the representative for Chargers owner Dean Spanos in 2017 after the Charges moved to Los Angeles from San Diego and became a tenant at SoFi Stadium.)

In its role as project manager, Legends secured the rights to develop and manage the construction of the stadium; sell all personal seats licenses, suites and premium hospitality experiences for the Rams and Chargers; and sell all sponsorship and naming rights to the stadium, according to the Legends website. 

Legends also negotiated the stadium naming rights deal with SoFi, the online personal finance company that paid about $625 million for a 20-year deal, according to the Sports Business Journal

The groundbreaking took place Nov. 17, 2016.

In 2017, Legends was valued at $700 million as part of a deal in which New Mountain Capital bought a one-third stake in the company, according to the Dallas Morning News

In January, Legends was valued at $1.35 billion as part of a deal in which money manager Street Smith bought 51% of the company, according to Sportico

A request for comment from Jones was declined by Joe Trahan, Director of Media Relations & Corporate Communications for the Cowboys, who cited Jones' hectic schedule during Super Bowl week.

“Jerry Jones is a grand manipulator,’’ said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist who was involved in the relocation of the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals to Arizona in 1988. “They’re all manipulators from one degree to another. But Jones, I think, often acts like he should be able to control the world."

Zimbalist said it was no surprise to learn the mayor was “playing games.’’ 

“I mean, Inglewood is a small community that is relatively low income, rundown and here he’s got a chance to have this entire community reconfigured, transformed, building a Shangri-La of a stadium,’’ Zimbalist said. “Not only does he get associated in history as the mayor who brought the team and the stadium, but now he’s got a lot of tax money to play with that he didn’t have before and he becomes a lot more important and powerful."  

Hardship in the shadow of SoFi

Hundreds of millions of people will see SoFi Stadium during NBC’s broadcast of the Super Bowl, but none of them will see the conditions inside the Tripp’s apartment.

At the courthouse last week, after a judge set another hearing date in their eviction case, they shared photos of roach infestation and rust-colored water they said has complicated raising their daughter.

“I can’t even wash her bottles in that stuff,’’ Fabianne Tripp said. “I’ve got to soak them in bleach.’’ 

They said they’re looking for a new apartment but with a combined income of about $80,000 — from her job as an esthetician and his job as a car salesman — have been unable to find anything affordable in and around Inglewood.

The value of homes in Inglewood jumped by more than 60% between January 2014, when speculation about the stadium began in earnest, and January 2018. That coincided with a spike in rents that forced some lower-income residents to leave the city.

Although the Inglewood city council began adopting rental control measures in 2019, the Tripps are among residents who said property owners are neglecting living conditions in hopes of forcing out tenants and finding someone willing to pay higher rent.

Tiffany Wallace, a lifelong Inglewood resident pushing for more affordable housing, has served as an organizer for the Lennox Inglewood Tenants Union (LITU). Last week, the LITU tweeted: “The slumlord across from Sofi Stadium refuses to do our repairs – we’re going to make sure they get done.’’

An accompanying video shows residents pointing out roaches, mold and other unsanitary conditions in the units.

“Enforcement with repairs is just not happening,’’ Wallace said. “It’s very challenging and difficult. You have older tenants having to live in challenging situations by force, by intention. Because then you can have them so uncomfortable that they can self-evict and get people in newer units who are paying more money.’’

Lynette Lewis, who lives in Inglewood, said the stadium also has created traffic problems and that she is bracing for the impact of a $1.2 billion arena being built by the Clippers and scheduled to open in 2024.

"It's going to be hell to live here,'' Lewis said. "That's the bottom line.'' 

Addressing some of those concerns, Steve Ballmer, the owner of the Clippers, said he has committed to giving Inglewood $100 million, $80 million of which will go toward affordable housing. That arena is scheduled to open in 2024.

But affordable is relative. Especially for people who can afford a $5 billion stadium.

“We’ve worked on this project for a number of years, and it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition,’’ Kroenke said during his interview with the NFL Network while addressing the Super Bowl being played here. “Being the big game, the big game in our house.’’

With enough money, power and connections, some men just build their own.

Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11