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Sunday May 16th, 2021 2:16PM

Innovative, ultramodern SoFi Stadium ready to welcome NFL

By The Associated Press
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INGLEWOOD, Calif. (AP) — When Stan Kroenke asked his fellow NFL owners for permission to return pro football to Los Angeles nearly a half-decade ago, he won them over by promising something nobody else could realistically deliver.

The Rams owner vowed to build a football palace.

The billionaire proposed a luxurious, massive new home for his NFL team, a landmark that would become the most important sports arena in North America's second-largest city for the next century. Kroenke dazzled his fellow multimillionaires with sketches of a strikingly unique stadium with a surrounding development that would become the NFL’s West Coast hub.

While the full scope of that $5 billion development is still years away from completion, the centerpiece of Kroenke's dream has come to vibrant life at the former site of the Hollywood Park racetrack.

SoFi Stadium appears to live up to all of Kroenke's promises as it prepares to open its doors Sunday night for its inaugural event: the Rams' season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

“Every time I’m in there, there’s some aspect, some design element that’s just overwhelming,” Rams general manager Les Snead said. “It seems like it’s a hologram. I don’t know what they’ve done, but it’s overwhelming. You feel like you’re in a video game or something.”

From its translucent roof to the largest video board ever built, from the acres of luxury seating and the endless accompanying amenities up to the 100,000th chair in the top row, SoFi Stadium has everything.

Except fans. For now, anyway.

The unfortunate coincidence of opening a stadium amidst a global pandemic means the Rams and Chargers will play in their palace without fans until further notice.

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little bit bittersweet” to open the stadium without fans, Rams chief operating officer Kevin Demoff said.

“But at the same time, you realize this building is going to be here for generations," he added. "For decades. It’s going to host the world’s greatest events, and while we may regret what Sunday is going to look like, you’re not going to remember the way it opened. You’re going to remember how this project transformed Inglewood and Los Angeles.”

Kroenke's employees make it clear SoFi Stadium is a legacy project for a man who has built hundreds of unremarkable buildings in his career. Before he became one of the most prolific owners of teams in sports history, the real estate developer married to a Walmart heir made a chunk of his fortune by building Walmarts and the shopping centers attached to them.

SoFi Stadium is improbably, thrillingly big — the NFL’s largest stadium in pure size at 3.1 million square feet while seating 70,000, with the ability to accommodate up to 100,000 if needed — but this is no big-box warehouse.

Demoff says Kroenke had a prime directive to everybody involved in the project.

“You can’t undershoot Los Angeles,” Demoff recalled. “That was always what he stressed to us in every design meeting. You can’t undershoot the new stadium in the entertainment capital of the world and in one of the world’s great international cities.”

The architects and builders say they’ve created the first “indoor-outdoor” stadium, but that classification doesn't exactly make sense until it's experienced.

What they mean is that SoFi Stadium has a roof — a massive, clear canopy arching artfully from the ground across the entire arena bowl and an adjoining plaza with a separate 6,000-seat performance venue— but the building also is open at each end and on its concourses.

California breezes slip under the canopy to cool the playing field, which didn’t feel particularly hot last week even with a summer sun directly overhead. The roof is made of material that dissipates the heat, and dozens of roof panels can be rolled back to allow in even more fresh air.

“We had this unique opportunity to create a building that really captured the beauty of why so many people live here and come visit here,” said Lance Evans, the main architect on the project from design firm HKS. “It’s the climate. It's the environment. It’s the landscape, but we didn't want to sacrifice a multitude of other events that this building could and should host."

The entire bowl is dominated by the Oculus video board, a unique two-sided oval of 80 million sparkling pixels beaming 4K replays, statistics and advertisements everywhere.

The arena bowl is just the start of SoFi Stadium's opulence, however. The stadium is built deep in the ground with the playing field 100 feet below ground level, and the areas behind the main seating bowls are so vast and spacious that they're called “canyons.”

They're all meticulously landscaped and appointed, and fresh air streams into large gathering areas designed to be used by suite holders all year round, not just on those 16 game days per season.

As you might expect in an industry heavily dependent on selling luxury, SoFi Stadium's upscale amenities are remarkable. Kroenke built 260 luxury suites and more than 13,000 premium seats — and that official count seems low when you're wandering through its seemingly endless succession of posh, shiny areas.

In keeping with the Southern California theme, a three-story “Beach House” club area is connected by an Instagram-bait staircase. Several large, connected suites called “Bungalows” sit just beyond the end zones, enticing rich fans with the chance to be a few feet from a receiver catching a touchdown pass.

And then there's the Executive Club, a 75,000-square-foot corridor circumnavigating the field underneath the stands. It has everything from marble-paneled elevator banks and gorgeous lounge areas to four separate bars focused on a single beverage: champagne, tequila, whiskey and wine.

“I could go on a million reasons what makes it special, but wherever you are, every single place, you feel like a VIP,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “There is definitely a special feeling that is different from any stadium I've been in.”

This empty NFL season is only the opening chapter of SoFi Stadium's life. The 56th Super Bowl will be here in February 2022, while college football's national championship game follows in 2023. The 2026 World Cup seems likely to hold matches at the stadium, which is also expected to host the opening and closing ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028.

Things will be even busier outside SoFi Stadium on the 298-acre campus, which already has greenery and a man-made lake. Office buildings are going up for NFL Media and other tenants, to be followed by a half-million square feet of retail space, a 300-room hotel and about 314 apartment units.

Kroenke and his team are creating not just a stadium, but a village. Sunday's opener is one milestone on the journey.

“I'm not going to lie, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Evans, who lives 10 minutes away. “Mr. Kroenke's vision for this was ambitious from the start: A global entertainment destination that embodied Southern California. But it's also going to be a wonderful place for me and my family to come here on a Tuesday night and sit by the lake and have a picnic. I hope it evolves into a wonderful destination for SoCal, and it'll start to resonate and create memories.”

___

More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

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