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A home Super Bowl is good for the Rams. But is SoFi Stadium good for Inglewood?

The problem with modern stadium developments

The interior of SoFi Stadium is seen Feb. 8, ahead of Sunday's Super Bowl in Inglewood, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

On Sunday, tens of thousands of people will descend upon SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, Calif., to watch Super Bowl LVI. The occasion will be a homecoming of sorts for the National Football League’s showcase event. Los Angeles hosted the first Super Bowl game at Memorial Coliseum in 1967. But Sunday’s contest will be the first Super Bowl played in the L.A. area since 1993, when the game was held at the Rose Bowl.

Even more significantly, the game will be a virtual home game for the Los Angeles Rams — SoFi is their home stadium. The Rams played in L.A. from 1946 until 1994, before moving to St Louis. They returned to L.A. in 2016, and the team’s owner, Stan Kroenke, partnered with Inglewood officials to build the state-of-the-art $5.6 billion mega-stadium that is now hosting the big game with the home team in it. What more could Angelenos ask for?

Yet, sports fans may not realize the total impact of developments like these. Numerous critics and activists have repeatedly exposed how new sports facilities built for colossal events are Trojan horses. The Olympic Games, for instance, have come to symbolize a kind of gentrification juggernaut that uses sports facilities to displace vulnerable working-class communities across the world.

In the United States, stadiums once built solely to house sporting and cultural events have been converted into centerpieces of real estate land grabs by sports franchises and developers. SoFi Stadium is an example of this trend, and it exposes the potential problems tied to these developments.

The city of Inglewood dates to 1908, when it emerged as an exclusively White suburb only a few miles from the coast, buoyed by the nearby oil and, later, aviation companies that populated the South Bay of Los Angeles. In its first decades as a burgeoning city, Inglewood also arose as a sporting community. In 1938, Hollywood moguls and oil executives constructed the first major sports venue in the city, Hollywood Park racetrack, which catered to racing fans and the Hollywood celebrity set.

As late as 1960, Inglewood remained a mostly White city, home to only 29 African Americans. As was the case in many parts of Los Angeles County, real estate agents refused to rent or sell properties to African Americans. But the “invisible walls of steel” that kept African Americans out of Inglewood began to collapse in the 1960s. Following the 1965 Watts uprising, Black families seeking quality housing and better schools began moving in.

By 1970, 10,666 African Americans lived in Inglewood — 11 percent of the population. But racism continued to shape the lives of Black Inglewood residents. Court-ordered desegregation in 1970 turned the city’s schools into battlegrounds pitting White students against students of color. By the 1980s, many White residents and businesses had fled, exacerbating a growing problem of economic isolation, declining city services, unemployment and violent crime.

Inglewood became known as “The Wood” — a community plagued by the problems of poverty and neglect. (Although Inglewood is still seen as a Black enclave, it is now 51 percent Latino, as immigrants from Latin America and their families have also made Inglewood their home in recent decades.)

During this same period in which Black migration began reshaping Inglewood, sports franchises also started moving to the city. In the late 1960s, the NBA Lakers moved to Inglewood from their previous home in the L.A. Sports Arena. The team’s owner, Canadian millionaire Jack Kent Cooke, swooped into L.A., bought the Lakers, acquired a hockey franchise, the Kings, and then built his own arena next to Hollywood Park. Cooke’s sports palace, which he called the “Forum” for how it resembled a stylized version of the ancient Roman Colosseum, hosted the Lakers for 32 seasons. During that run, the team’s many successes led local leaders to dub Inglewood “the City of Champions.”

Then, in the mid-1990s, as “The Wood” struggled economically, Hollywood Park officials and political leaders tried to get deeper into the stadium game. At the time, the NFL’s Raiders and their renegade owner Al Davis were looking to abandon the spartan L.A. Coliseum for a new, modern stadium. These efforts failed, however, and the Raiders moved back to their original home in Oakland, where they remained for 25 seasons before the team left to pursue another lucrative stadium deal in Las Vegas in 2020.

After the Raiders and Rams both left Los Angeles in the 1990s, the country’s second-largest television market was without an NFL franchise. Meanwhile, Inglewood lost its identity as the City of Champions in 1999, when the Lakers and Kings moved to a brand-new downtown arena, the Staples Center. Inglewood was left with an aging racetrack, a crumbling, underutilized arena and its reputation for being a troubled, crime-ridden city.

But sports fans in Inglewood had something else. They cheered L.A.’s many college teams and enjoyed the region’s vibrant high school and pickup sporting culture. In fact, in under-resourced communities like Inglewood, local sports leagues were a vehicle of community survival.

During the 1970s and 80s, Joe Weakley, longtime assistant basketball coach at Crenshaw High School, ran the popular Run, Shoot and Dunk basketball league. The league drew top talent from across the county, including future NBA players Reggie Theus and Byron Scott, who thrived under Weakley’s guidance. Weakley’s league was a centerpiece of the city’s streetball scene, but similar sports programs emerged in various high schools and parks throughout the city, too, where fans could watch games free.

“Most of us don’t have any money in our pockets to go swimming or tobogganing or skiing,” he told the L.A. Sentinel in 1978. “The only outlet that we have is the parks. And the first thing you do at the parks is play basketball.” By providing recreational outlets and even career possibilities for poor and working-class youths, these grass-roots leagues had a more direct impact on Inglewood than the pro teams that made the City of Champions famous.

Touting the city’s sporting history is a favorite pastime of James T. Butts, Inglewood’s mayor since 2011. The former police officer turned politician came into office promising revitalization of the beleaguered city, and it appears he has delivered. First, he partnered with Madison Square Garden Co. to convert the old Forum into a concert hall. Then he lured the Rams and the San Diego Chargers to Inglewood.

The centerpiece of Butts’s vision was the SoFi Stadium complex, a mixed retail stadium development sprawled over 300 acres on the former Hollywood Park property. More recently, he enticed the city’s other NBA franchise, the Clippers, to agree to move to Inglewood and build their own arena, set to open in 2024.

Suddenly, the small city with no professional sports franchises will now be home to three. And investors and developers followed along, bringing projects that included, among others, a light-rail system set to open later this year. Butts’s vision of Inglewood as not just a city of champions but a “sport and entertainment capital” is becoming a reality. And the city has used the occasion of the Super Bowl to herald the arrival of an “Inglewood Renaissance.”

Butts is all in on stadium-led development even though economists have repeatedly shown that such a strategy does not generate sustainable economic growth. Indeed, there is a cruel irony in the fact that a Black mayor and its Black and Latino City Council are shepherding in the latest version of sports capitalism, with potentially devastating results for working-class Black and Latino people.

As has been the case in other cities with gentrification tied to sports, rents are skyrocketing in Inglewood, and displacements are underway, even as Mayor Butts has sought to institute caps on rent increases. Sports, once a key to the survival of the community’s residents, has been transformed into an engine of The Wood’s undoing.

This weekend, as the world focuses on Super Bowl LVI, and as Los Angeles football fans celebrate the Rams playing a Super Bowl in their home stadium, Inglewood’s soaring rents can also serve as a reminder of the negative consequences of stadium-building on poor and working-class communities. How can such projects work if they drive up property values so much that longtime residents are forced out of their homes?

One solution could be better community benefits agreements (CBAs). These agreements, once touted as paths toward equitable neighborhood-stadium partnerships, have been undermined by developers in recent years. But such CBAs could be expanded and strengthened to include real safeguards, such as genuine affordable housing for communities, a promise made — but not yet fulfilled — by Inglewood in 2019.

However, it remains to be seen what solutions can produce real community benefits that outweigh the costs of sports capitalism.

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