A History of California in Six Super Bowl Stadiums

The State and Its Football Fields Have Gotten Glitzier, Gaudier, More Exclusive, and More Disconnected

A recent Rams game at SoFi Stadium. Courtesy of Rajath Shourie.

On February 13, the most watched event in America visits its birthplace, California.

Inglewood’s oversized, overpriced SoFi Stadium—the most expensive stadium ever built in the United States—is hosting Super Bowl LVI. SoFi is the sixth California stadium to hold the game since the first Super Bowl was held in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 1967.

To think back on those stadiums—five still open and operating, one recently deceased—is to see how much is changing in a state known for mass entertainment and global spectacles.

As California, like the Super Bowl, has become bigger, glitzier, and gaudier, it’s also become more exclusive, and more disconnected.

I’ve witnessed some of this in real time, tagging along with my father to the three California Super Bowls he covered as a West Coast correspondent for the Washington Post. I also grew up in the shadow of one of those six stadiums—Pasadena’s Rose Bowl.

The Rose Bowl is one of three California Super Bowl stadiums created a century ago, in the burst of institution building that followed the last great global pandemic. Stanford Stadium, on the university campus, came first in 1921, was constructed in a few months for $211,000—less time and money than it might take to add a bedroom to a Palo Alto house today. The Rose Bowl followed in 1922, and L.A.’s Coliseum, a memorial to World War I veterans, opened in 1923. All three still stand.

They also still represent the egalitarian ideals, if not the uglier realities, of their time. All three stadiums were big, simple bowls that had among the largest capacities of any venues in the world, each squeezing 85,000-plus members of California’s rapidly growing population into cheap seats. These ambitious arenas were meant to serve the state’s surging higher education sector and sports-oriented college culture, hosting large graduations and football games. But they also became essential settings for major civic events. Herbert Hoover accepted the Republican party’s presidential nomination at Stanford Stadium in 1928, and John F. Kennedy would do the same for the Democrats at the L.A. Coliseum in 1960.

Unlike today’s tall and majestic pro stadiums, these modest, low-slung, one-level buildings connect to their environments. Stanford Stadium is on a sprawling, farm-like campus. The L.A. Coliseum is in Exposition Park, a former agricultural fairground that is also home to museums. And the Rose Bowl is famous for its garden-like setting, framed by Pasadena hills and the San Gabriel Mountains—visible from the stands—and a public recreation area for golf, biking, jogging, and soccer.

To think back on those stadiums—five still open and operating, one recently deceased—is to see how much is changing in a state known for mass entertainment and global spectacles.

All three remain vital venues, with the Coliseum preparing to host its third Olympics in 2028. They have had 21st century makeovers (Stanford Stadium’s was a demolition and a full reconstruction) that reduced seating capacity and provide more separate space for media and the wealthiest fans. Still, they are all too historic, too charming, and too accommodating of average fans for today’s pro sports franchises, which prefer stadiums full of corporate suits and premium suites that generate maximum revenue. Which is why the Coliseum hosted its second and final Super Bowl in 1973, Stanford held just one Super Bowl in 1985, and the Rose Bowl, home to five such games, hasn’t had once since 1993.

For one generation, the National Football League turned to San Diego, and its 1967 stadium, known as San Diego Stadium, Jack Murphy Stadium, and by other corporate names. It was taller and more flexible (baseball’s Padres played there) than the old bowls, but, despite a lovely setting in Mission Valley, could feel bland, like America’s post-war consensus.

It hosted Super Bowls in 1988, 1998, and 2003—then came under criticism from the National Football League and the local team, the San Diego Chargers, for being outdated. The Chargers threatened to leave if it wasn’t replaced with a newer, fancier facility. When San Diegans refused, wisely, to subsidize stadium construction, the Chargers moved to L.A. to share the new SoFi Stadium with the Rams.

In 2020, San Diego sold San Diego State University the place, which was demolished last year and will be replaced with a multibillion, multi-purpose development that includes housing, hotels, offices, retail, parks, and a smaller stadium.

In our era and the years to come, California Super Bowls belong to two new architecture-award-winning, high-tech, screen-filled stadiums. Neither is in our biggest cities, because L.A., San Francisco, San Diego, and Oakland don’t need to waste billions on pro sports franchises to draw economic activity.

Both stadiums are in smaller cities—Santa Clara and Inglewood—that are desperate to attract attention and development in their large metro regions. Both cities have approved huge and expensive sports venues that lack intimacy and often disappoint, not unlike California itself.

Both are troubled facilities. In Santa Clara, Levi’s Stadium was built in 2014 and hosted the Super Bowl in 2016, but it has been dogged by complaints about traffic, parking, and a design that leaves fans baking in the Silicon Valley sun. The 49ers have engaged in bitter legal and political fights with the city over terms of their deal, and some local leaders have expressed regret for seeking to host the facility in the first place.

In Inglewood, SoFi Stadium, like so many California mega-projects, was dogged by construction delays, questions about local subsidies, and cost overruns that doubled the price from $2.5 billion to $5 billion. The facility opened in fall 2020 and was supposed to have hosted the 2021 Super Bowl, but was deemed not ready. When I attended a game last year, I confronted hours-long traffic and $80 parking.

SoFi is so over-the-top that it can feel like parody. It has an expensive, technologically advanced roof that’s also unnecessary in a Southern California with so little rain. Its giant entrance and gathering spaces feel overly large, as if the authoritarian regime that built them were trying to awe you into submission.

And, despite openings on its sides, the stadium doesn’t really connect you to its local surroundings. SoFi is the opposite of those century-old open bowls. The stadium is its own world, walled off from the rest of us—from your seat, you can only see pieces of the entertainment district being built around it. Reinforcing this impression of separation is the fact that SoFi does not have a stop on L.A.’s rapidly expanding Metro rail system.

That’s why you won’t find me anywhere near Inglewood on Super Bowl Sunday. I’ll enjoy watching the game on TV with vaccinated friends. But what I’m really looking forward to is riding my bike around the Rose Bowl that morning.


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