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On a sunny November day in 2016, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Rams owner Stan Kroenke, star defensive tackle Aaron Donald and other dignitaries grabbed shovels and ceremonially broke ground on a new Inglewood stadium. The venue was projected to be finished in three years at a cost of $2.6 billion.
Massive rains were blamed for delaying construction, and in 2017 the completion date was pushed pack to 2020.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Rams officials say construction on SoFi Stadium — now estimated to cost $5 billion — remains on schedule for the start of the upcoming NFL season.
But will the 70,240-seat stadium be filled with fans, empty or somewhere in between for the Rams’ regular-season opener Sept. 13 against the Dallas Cowboys?
The NFL released its schedule this week, but the pandemic makes everything tentative, including Rams home games against the Cowboys, Chicago Bears, New York Giants, New England Patriots, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals.
Singer Taylor Swift was scheduled to open the stadium with concerts July 25 and 26, but last month they were postponed to 2021. The first event currently scheduled for the stadium is a Kenny Chesney concert on Aug. 1.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week expressed doubts that sports stadiums could be filled until there is a vaccine.
With the Major League Baseball, NBA, NHL and MLS seasons suspended, various scenarios have been floated about how the leagues might restart, including playing games in stadiums with no fans.
Rams coach Sean McVay on Friday declined to speculate about the possibility of that situation in the new stadium. When asked if he could imagine what it would be like, however, he referenced the 2009 season he spent as an assistant coach for the Florida Tuskers in the defunct UFL.
“It felt like we didn’t play in front of many fans in some of those situations,” he joked. “So it feels very similar to practice. ... If that’s what it is, we’ll just be thankful to play in any form or fashion.”
The Rams declined a request to make a team executive available to address possible scenarios and contingencies the team has discussed. This week, Goodell sent a memo to chief executives and club presidents directing them to not comment publicly.
“Uninformed commentary that speculates on how individual clubs or the league will address a range of hypothetical contingencies serves no constructive purpose and instead confuses fans and business partners, complicates the operation of other clubs and distracts from the careful planning that is needed now,” the memo said.
The Rams have been selling season tickets since March 2018.
In the wake of the pandemic, the team in March extended its season ticket payment deadline to June 1. It also continued to make a plan available that provided the option to spread payments through October.
The NFL in March reportedly distributed a memo to all teams with talking points regarding refunds to season-ticket holders if games were canceled. In a letter to season-ticket holders, the Rams addressed canceled games and other issues.
“If a game is canceled and cannot be rescheduled, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending [for example, if a public authority restricts gatherings to no more than a small number of people], and you are a Rams Season Ticket Member, you will receive a pro-rated refund of your season ticket purchase price for any impacted games, or the option to credit that amount toward future playoff or regular season full season tickets for the 2021 season,” the letter said. “For example, if two games were not played during the 2020 season, you would receive a refund or credit for the face value of your tickets for the two games lost.”
In addition, the Rams said in a release Thursday that “If games are canceled or played without spectators, tickets purchased directly from the Rams or through Ticketmaster for home games will be refunded within 30 days of cancellation or decision to play without spectators.”
Earlier in the week, the Associated Press reported that the NFL prepared a uniform baseline for full refunds on tickets purchased directly from the clubs. Goodell wrote in a memo that “all clubs will have in place a policy under which, if a game is canceled, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending, anyone purchasing a ticket directly from the club [i.e., season tickets, group sales and/or partial season plans] will have the option of either receiving a full refund or applying the amount paid toward a future ticket purchase directly from the club.”
With NFL facilities closed, Rams players have been participating in a virtual offseason program that will run through June 26.
Their outlook varies on the possibility of playing games without crowds.
“Not ideal,” quarterback Jared Goff said last month. “Not what you want to do. And I understand there are a lot of bigger implications in place right now, as far as health of the world, but I know that's not the vision that we had moving to L.A. And I know that's not that vision Mr. Kroenke had ultimately, but if that is what it is, we have to roll with it.”
Safety John Johnson wondered whether crowd noise would be piped into empty stadiums. Receiver Cooper Kupp said a game without fans would take players back to their childhoods.
“It’s kind of a nostalgic thought that you could play a game like that at this level,” Kupp said, “but, obviously … the energy that fans bring to a football stadium — there’s nothing like that.
“So, [I] kind of have mixed feeling[s] about it. It’s going to be very interesting if it comes to that.”