On a clear June afternoon in 1995, R.D. Hubbard prepared to announce that the NFL would stay in the Los Angeles area.
The chairman of Hollywood Park waited for a 2 p.m. news conference in a meeting room next to a betting window at the racetrack. Everything seemed ready, down to water glasses prepared for local politicians and other dignitaries near a lectern in the turf club.
But the deal fell apart, another footnote in the region’s years of failed attempts to lure the NFL.
When league owners voted last week to allow the Rams to move from St. Louis to L.A. and build a multibillion-dollar stadium at Hollywood Park, they finally realized Hubbard’s two-decade-old vision. Long before Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s ambitious plan to transform the site into a 298-acre sports and entertainment hub, Hubbard championed it as the ideal home for the NFL.
The night before the news conference, Hubbard said he shook hands with irascible L.A. Raiders owner Al Davis on an agreement to build a $250-million stadium. By the fall of 1997, they expected the facility at the sprawling property in Inglewood to be ready to seat 65,000 people. Two and a half weeks earlier, NFL owners awarded two Super Bowls to the new stadium contingent on two teams playing there.
Time hasn’t dimmed Hubbard’s memories of the afternoon that could have ended the area’s NFL drought before it started.
“We had an agreement,” the multimillionaire entrepreneur and horse owner said during a recent interview. “It wasn’t just a handshake.”
The accord with Davis started to unravel when the owner arrived at the racetrack. Amy Trask, then a Raiders lawyer and later the team’s chief executive officer, accompanied Davis and expected a routine meeting for negotiations that weren’t complete, not a news conference to announce a deal.
“My impression,” Trask said, “was that Al felt blindsided by the fact that press were there.”
On the other side, Mike Finnigan, Hollywood Park’s former chief financial officer who worked with Hubbard for 15 years, believed the final details were settled, paperwork drafted and the announcement of an agreement in principle was all that remained.
After Inglewood’s city council filed in to say hello to Davis, the owner, wearing a white Raiders jacket, had one request: $10 million. At first, the room erupted in laughter. They thought Davis was poking fun at Irwindale, the city that gave him a nonrefundable $10-million deposit in 1987 for a move that never happened.
Davis wasn’t joking.
“We could’ve had that stadium and one or two teams playing there for the last 20 years,” Hubbard said. “I’m glad it’s happening. I just wish we could’ve made it happen 20 years ago.”
He still pitches the Hollywood Park site with an evangelist’s zeal: It’s five minutes from major freeways, not far from L.A. International Airport’s hotels, convenient to fans traveling from the north or south. The same enthusiasm helped lay the foundation for the stadium plan that ended up as a footnote in the region’s years of failed attempts to lure the NFL.
“He seemed to be a person who had a vision,” said Leigh Steinberg, the sports agent who worked with Hubbard on potential stadium projects after the Raiders deal collapsed.
Born and raised in tiny Smith Center, Kan., Hubbard’s small-town sensibility — friends call him Dee — helped develop his knack to befriend just about anyone. That included Davis, known for his unpredictability and litigious ways in the NFL’s button-down world.
“Why they got along so well may be part of why the deal wasn’t consummated,” Trask said. “Each man had and maintained the courage of his convictions. ... They were very, very strong-minded and strong-willed.”
Hubbard’s competitiveness — racing horses or creating North America’s second-largest glass company in the late 1970s — helped to create today’s business empire that includes horses, golf courses, real estate and a majority interest in the Ruidoso Downs racetrack in New Mexico.
“He’s very pragmatic on looking forward to the next thing,” Finnigan said.
Years later when Davis unsuccessfully sued the NFL in L.A. Superior Court over the failed deal, he testified that Hubbard called him June 9 with news that he had reached an agreement with the NFL about the stadium and planned to hold a news conference the next day.
“I told him he was out of his mind,” said Davis, who died in 2011.
But Paul Tagliabue, then NFL commissioner, disputed that under oath. He testified that Davis told him in a phone call June 9 that he was “going to do the deal” at Hollywood Park. The commissioner thought the agreement would be announced the next day. At the time, Davis called Tagliabue’s recollection “another lie in a raft of lies.”
The day of the news conference, Hubbard remained calm when Davis asked for $10 million. Hubbard didn’t appear nervous or fidgety. Inside, though, the turn of events shocked Hubbard and others present.
“Before I knew it, Al was negotiating with the city council,” said Paul Eckles, then Inglewood’s city manager, who quickly ended the meeting. “We thought we had a handshake agreement.”
At 3:26 p.m., Hubbard paused to watch a horse named Marfa Smeralda win by a nose in the fourth race, then spoke at the lectern.
“I would like to have seen it done today,” Hubbard told reporters, “but it’s just not going to happen.”
He explained that Davis needed “some clarifications.”
Trask doesn’t remember the $10 million being the decisive issue for Davis. Instead, she thought the real problem was that the NFL wanted a second team in the stadium. Davis wanted multiple years to establish the Raiders at the new facility before another team arrived. That wasn’t going to happen. He saw the other team as receiving more favorable lease terms and cutting into his fan base.
As Trask left the meeting, she felt deflated, even sad. For the first time, she sensed an awkwardness between Davis and Hubbard. They had watched Lakers games together from courtside at the Forum and toured Texas Stadium with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and navigated the months-long maze of negotiations about the Hollywood Park plan. After the meeting, Davis and Hubbard sat next to each other to watch a race.
At best, there had been a misunderstanding.
Two weeks later, Davis announced the Raiders were moving back to Oakland. The welcome package included a $64-million up-front payment.
“Later,” Hubbard said, “he admitted to me that it was the worst mistake he ever made and he should never have done it.”
Hubbard didn’t give up. In December 1995, he unveiled a scale model of the planned stadium. It could be ready by 1998. The Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers talked to Hollywood Park officials. Nothing materialized.
Hubbard didn’t join Davis when he sued the NFL, because Hubbard still held out hope that he could lure a team to Hollywood Park. No one came. Instead, the site became leverage for teams to wrangle new or improved stadiums in their cities.
In late 1999, a Hubbard-controlled company sold Hollywood Park for $140 million. A few years ago, Hubbard made an offer to buy the property with an eye toward another stadium project. Nothing happened.
“Now they’ve got the best of both worlds,” Hubbard said. “They can build anything they want to build. I think it’s going to be a hell of a complex when it’s all done.”
In the meantime, emails and text messages to Hubbard about the Rams’ deal continue to pile up. Memories of the news conference that never happened aren’t far away.