Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 13, 2022

Just A Few Miles, But Ages Apart

It is little more than seven miles by car, a drive of just twenty minutes as long as the traffic cooperates, from ancient Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, in the southern reaches of the country’s second largest metropolis, to brand new SoFi Stadium, just across the city line in Inglewood.  Yet as close as they are geographically, the two sports facilities are light years apart in many other ways.

The Coliseum was conceived and constructed as a symbol of civic pride and our societal penchant for large scale public monuments.  It was commissioned in 1921 as a public works project honoring local veterans of the Great War, which, having proven not to be the war to end all wars, is now better known as World War I.  Erected in just sixteen months at a cost of slightly less than $1 million, or about $16 million in today’s dollars, the massive stadium seated 75,000 when it opened in May 1923.  That capacity soon mushroomed to more than 100,000 when the seating bowl was extended upward in preparation for the 1932 Olympic Games.  As a part of those same renovations, the towering torch at the Coliseum’s east end was erected, immediately becoming the stadium’s signature feature.

A century later municipal voters across the land have grown wary of funding sports facilities, and local electorates would likely condemn as a cynical ploy an effort by city leaders to drape a proposed stadium or arena project in the noble robes of a public memorial to fallen heroes.  Besides, no self-respecting architect would think about designing such a project with a budget of only $16 million, or even ten or fifty times that number.  Stadium costs now run into the billions, in part because the sports facility is usually conceived as just the central component of a large-scale development project that may encompass everything from other entertainment venues to commercial districts to housing.  So-Fi, on the site that for decades was home to the Hollywood Park Racetrack, is but the latest and, for now, gaudiest example of this trend.

The racetrack closed in 2013, seventy-five years after it opened as a playground for the movie industry’s elite.  A few months later the Los Angeles Times reported that Stan Kroenke, who played a key role in the 1995 move of the NFL’s Rams to St. Louis by purchasing a thirty percent interest in the team, had purchased sixty acres adjacent to the Hollywood Park property.  A Missouri native, Kroenke was hailed as a local hero when he helped restore St. Louis to the list of NFL cities, a place it had lost seven years earlier when the Cardinals decamped for Arizona.  But by 2010, after he had assumed full ownership of the Rams, the Kroenke name was losing its luster in the heartland because of his constant complaints about the condition and age of the Edward Jones Dome.  News of his land purchase in Inglewood immediately sparked speculation that he intended to move the Rams back to the west coast.

It would take two years, a partnership with the corporate owners of the old Hollywood Park land, and winning out over a rival proposal by the owners of the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers, but in early 2016 Kroenke won the NFL’s support for a stadium at the heart of a multi-billion dollar development to include 1.7 million square feet of retail and commercial space, 2,500 housing units, and related amenities.  Internal league documents from 2018 indicated the cost of the stadium alone was just shy of $5 billion, making it the most expensive sports facility ever constructed.  In sharp contrast to its nearby neighbor, SoFi is a symbol of private wealth and the penchant of the uber-rich to construct ever more elaborate monuments to their own egos.

The vast differences between the L.A. Coliseum and SoFi Stadium are appropriately mirrored by comparisons of Super Bowl LVI and the very first such game, which wasn’t even called the Super Bowl.  This year’s contest just concluded at the new stadium with its translucent roof from which is suspended a massive 4K high-definition jumbotron.  The first AFL-NFL Championship, as it was titled at the time, took place at the Coliseum.

SoFi usually seats just over 70,000, but can be expanded to more than 100,000 for major events like the Super Bowl.  As near as one could tell from one’s own flatscreen, there were few if any empty seats.  Perhaps a late decline in ticket prices on the resale market, from a base of more than $9,000 a month ago to a bit less than $6,000 yesterday, helped to fill out the crowd.  Half a century ago, the contest between Green Bay and Kansas City attracted more than 60,000 fans.  But as respectable as that number is, the TV coverage couldn’t miss acres of vacant seats in the cavernous Coliseum. 

As for television, that first game featured double coverage, and not just in the secondary when the Packers’ Bart Starr looked for a receiver downfield.  Since the still separate leagues had different television contracts, both NBC and CBS provided full coverage of the first Super Bowl.  That of course has long since given way to a set rotation among the networks privileged enough to have contracts with the NFL.  The game was must-see TV from the start, with more than 50 million viewers in 1967.  The numbers have only climbed since, as has the price of advertising, with Super Bowl commercials becoming their own cottage industry years ago.  So too with the halftime show, which is the only reason some people watch.

That latter point is the most significant difference between that initial game at the old Coliseum and today’s contest at the luxurious SoFi.  In that long-ago January week leading up to the first kickoff, there was plenty of coverage in the sports pages, but the clash between the titlists of two rival football leagues was hardly a cultural event.  Today the game itself borders on being secondary to the visual and aural entertainment before and during the contest, whether from professional entertainers or professional marketing teams.  Super Bowl Sunday is an unofficial midwinter holiday and excuse to party.

There is nothing wrong with that, though for anyone who might be interested, it was Rams 23, Bengals 20.  Good for head coach Sean McVay and his team.  Though the guess here is that when NFL commissioner Roger Goodell handed the Lombardi Trophy to Stan Kroenke, fans in St. Louis weren’t celebrating.

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