Meet the man who solved the NFL's L.A. problem

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

ATLANTA — For over two decades the NFL stared at Los Angeles and saw an unsolvable riddle. The nation’s second-largest media market and America’s wealthy, growing and diverse entertainment capital sat without either a franchise or a suitable venue to play the game in.

Stadium proposals came and went. Over-their-head businessmen drafted doomed-to-fail plans. Local governments spun their wheels. Other clubs threatened to move, but with no good path to making L.A. work, they mostly used the possibility of relocation to strong-arm governments back home.

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From 1995 on, the Rams were in St. Louis, the Raiders were in Oakland and nothing was happening in Los Angeles.

At one point, a group of owners tried to convince Jerry Jones to sell the Cowboys and start a team in L.A., where a franchise could potentially be even more valuable. Jones declined but the message was clear – the league knew it would take someone formidable to do this.

Then along came Stan Kroenke.

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The 71-year-old Kroenke didn’t just bring the Rams back to L.A. from St. Louis in 2016. He didn’t just begin development on a privately funded, nearly $5 billion, 70,000-100,000 seat stadium. Now in the franchise’s third year in California, he’s even got the Rams to the Super Bowl, where they’ll play the New England Patriots on Sunday.

If it all pans out as it appears it will – the stadium is set to open in 2020 and the Rams are enjoying a spike in local interest due to their success this season – he’ll prove to be one of the most significant owners in league history and be a major candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“It was a big opportunity to build a stadium,” Kroenke told Yahoo Sports on Thursday. “The Rams certainly needed a new stadium and Los Angeles is a big enough market to attract private funding. It’s put a lot of people to work and is about to take a city [Inglewood] that was downtrodden and left behind, and breathe a lot of life and improvement into it.

“It’s a wonderful example of how private development can create a massive amount of positive impact on a community.”

Stan Kroenke, left, proved to be the owner who could bring Roger Goodell and the NFL back to Los Angeles. (Getty Images)
Stan Kroenke, left, proved to be the owner who could bring Roger Goodell and the NFL back to Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

Kroenke has always been about business. He was raised in the central Missouri town of Mora, with a population of about 20. His dad was an entrepreneur and growing up Kroenke would often handle the books. He attended the University of Missouri and became a real-estate developer. He later, during a ski trip, met and married Ann Walton, who’s father, “Bud”, and uncle, Sam, founded Wal-Mart in 1962.

Through the years Kroenke became a major real-estate developer – of Wal-Mart locations, but also shopping and mixed-use developments across the country and world. He also owns NBA, NHL and MLS franchises in Denver, plus Arsenal of the English Premier League in London, not to mention the Pepsi Center in Colorado and Emirates Stadium in England.

In 2010, he took over full ownership of the St. Louis Rams (he had been a minority owner). He knew sports franchises, facilities, real estate, construction and he had very deep pockets. In 2018, Forbes estimated his worth at $8.5 billion. Ann Walton is estimated to be worth $6.6 billion herself.

Kroenke also had a knack for getting deals done.

“My dad, my father-in-law and his brother were all very focused individuals,” Kroenke said. “They taught me so much. They were very focused people and when they decided on a plan and were willing to take the risks needed to accomplish that plan, they focused on doing it.”

And what would they have said about dropping $5 billion (believed to be the biggest private, current development project in the world) on a stadium to move a football team to Los Angeles?

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“My dad would probably tell me to be careful not to get too far out over your shoes,” Kroenke said.

Actually, that level of daring was probably the only way the NFL was ever returning to Los Angeles. A nickel-and-dime approach was doomed for failure.

In St. Louis, Kroenke was dealing with an untenable situation. He needed a new stadium. Politicians weren’t acting with the urgency needed, they were almost calling what they believed was a bluff to relocate to California. Private equity wasn’t as excited about a new building in St. Louis as it would be in L.A. The entire city, especially downtown, suffers from a lack of new development and corporate money. It’s not a place where things are being constructed.

Eventually L.A., where Kroenke had maintained a home in Malibu for 20 years, became the better, albeit far bolder, path. And once he focused on that, then it was going to happen.

Both the Raiders and the San Diego Chargers also wanted to move to Los Angeles, but neither ownership group – even when they paired together – could present the stadium plan that Kroenke could.

Kroenke promised to build his own place on land he already owned in Inglewood, near Los Angeles International Airport. The league voted 30-2 for his project. It’s slated to open in 2020 and will host both the Rams (who currently play in the L.A. Coliseum) and the Chargers, while also allowing for major events to finally return to L.A. – the Super Bowl, the Final Four, the Olympics. It’s one of the most significant construction projects ever in L.A. Sports-wise it compares to the opening of the Coliseum in 1923.

And just like that, the NFL’s L.A. problem was solved.

“I think the level of investment, plus the risk was [what stopped previous plans],” Kroenke said. “There were always a number of stadium deals and talks of teams moving to L.A. The ownership level had to be willing to take the risk and make the proper risk assessment.

“You had to have a team and you had to have the real-estate development,” Kroenke continued. “And you had to be able to do it together.”

The past three seasons have been transitional in nature, a new team in a new town playing in a temporary home. While there are plenty of old Rams fans who see this as a return of what was once theirs (the franchise played in the area from 1946-1994), L.A. in general hasn’t rushed to embrace the club. It’s been slow and steady growth.

Stan Kroenke, right, took a risk in hiring Sean McVay, who was only 30 at the time, as his head coach. (AP)
Stan Kroenke, right, took a risk in hiring Sean McVay, who was only 30 at the time, as his head coach. (AP)

Kroenke felt a corner was turned earlier this season when a game against Kansas City had to be rescheduled from Mexico City and on seven days notice, which included a period of devastating wildfires and a mass shooting, 77,000 fans showed up to support local charities.

The Rams then defeated the Chiefs in an electric, 54-51 game.

“It was an unbelievable game and an unbelievable event for the community,” Kroenke said. “It was pretty gratifying to know that the crowd cared so much about the community that night.”

Besides, nothing builds fan bases like winning. It’s why this Super Bowl trip is of particular significance for the franchise and the league. It’s not merely a reward for longtime fans, like when most franchises make it to the big game. This one can create a generation of new ones.

“Los Angeles is great,” Kroenke said. “They support their teams. I always felt that way.”

The key to the success came two years ago when Kroenke became extremely impressed by Washington offensive coordinator Sean McVay. Kroenke was so focused on finding the best guy for the job that he ignored doubts from across the league, made McVay, just 30 at the time, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history.

“I wasn’t going to allow age to be the determining factor,” Kroenke said.

Now they are one game from winning the Super Bowl. The team even held its send-off fan party at the new stadium site in Inglewood, the current excitement in front of the incredible future.

“It’s about 60 percent complete,” Kroenke said. “You can see it going up from the ground, not just the air [in LAX-bound planes]. Seeing the stadium rising up behind the send-off rally, it was a special moment. It was a lot of fun.”

Everyone had a chance to make L.A. work for football and facilities. For decades no one else could. Kroenke assessed the risk, focused on the task and changed everything. He believed in it.

“You’ve got to be optimistic to take on some of what we’ve taken on,” Kroenke said.

Now the Patriots await. No matter what, the NFL has been changed forever.

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