On Los Angeles streets, a cool reception for charging Rams

The NFL believes the economics of the Rams move to L.A. stacks up, but attitudes on the street suggest many fans will need convincing.

Pat Sullivan/AP Photo
St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke talks to the media after team owners voted in Houston to allow the Rams to move to a new stadium just outside Los Angeles. Jan. 12, 2016.

“The Rams are Back,” bellows the Los Angeles Daily News’s once-in-a-generation six-inch headline, as the St. Louis National Football League franchise’s mascot bursts chest-first from between the words.

Both the St. Louis Rams and the NFL will be hoping Los Angeleno attitudes will mirror the media hype around the announcement that the team is returning to the City of Angels after a 21-year hiatus. But in the immediate wash-up from the decision, sentiment at street level reflects the culture of cautious affection L.A. bestows on all its sports teams.

“I’m very excited for Los Angeles to have a football team again,” says tax specialist Bianca Alapisco, who is out for a morning walk in the Sepulveda Basin recreation area with her baby. At 27, she is too young to remember those days, she says her father and brother remember the Rams' first stint in Los Angeles.

“They even followed the team to St. Louis, keeping track of everything it did there,” Ms. Alapisco says. But with a laugh adds that she’s also “heard all those people talking smack about the Rams, calling them traitors and all that.”

The NFL’s decision to relocate the team to the nation’s second-largest media market indicates its hope that Los Angelenos will embrace the returning Rams like Alapisco's father and brother. But in a city where allegiances have dispersed during the long absence of a local NFL team, it may be a patient task to rebuild a fan-base for the recently struggling Rams.

The Millennials who came of age without the Rams in L.A. have no connection to the team, experts say, but the older generation will be a hard sell.

Fans in Los Angeles have been spurned, says Edward Hirt, a specialist in sports fan psychology at Indiana University in Bloomington. “It will take some repairing of  the relationship,” he says noting that the effort to bring the team back  has not helped, exposing the naked financial calculus behind sports decisions. Fans have to be asking themselves, “how much can we put faith in this and warm up to the idea that they are back for good." 

On the other hand, team owners can say "you need to support them or they may move again," Mr. Hirt points out, “but that’s not a good strategy, either,” he adds with a laugh.

If you build it, will they come?

The lucrative deal will see sports tycoon Stan Kroenke's Rams eventually play at a new privately-funded stadium in Inglewood – in the meantime they’ll play at L.A.’s famous, gigantic L.A. Coliseum. Cost estimates for the Inglewood stadium range wildly between $1.8 and $3 billion, but when complete it will be the NFL’s largest stadium, according to the Los Angeles Times.  But the question remains: “If you build it, will they come?” – or at least, “when will they come?”

Despite the novel allure of a state-of-the-art stadium and a new team, some of L.A.’s diehard football fans are not moved by the impending return of the prodigal.

Danni Rogers, who calls himself a “huge football fan” and roots for the Green Bay Packers, mulls the prospect of attending a local game – he has been known to drive three hours to San Diego just to watch his beloved Packers play. But he won’t be giving his heart away to the new team too quickly. “If they are playing the Packers, that would make it easier for me,” says the 30-year-old choreographer.

The final approval for Mr. Kroenke's proposal that the Rams' move to L.A. came Tuesday night after all 32 NFL owners voted overwhelmingly in favor (30 to 2). They also voted on a competing joint-offer from the Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers to share a new stadium in Carson, Calif. The latter fell short of the required 24 votes; the result is that either the Chargers or the Raiders will be allowed to move to L.A., but not both – and they'll have to play in Kroenke's stadium.

Britton Shaw thinks the varying success of L.A.’s other signature sports franchises means the time is right for L.A. to welcome the Rams back, but he wants success.

“Kobe [Bryant] just retired,” Mr. Shaw notes, towering over his pals near the basketball court as he ticks off the facts on his large hands. “And the Clippers are OK and the Lakers are having a pretty dry season, so there’s no revenues coming from basketball any time soon …  It’s awesome to have football. Once we get that stadium going and all that, we need a Super Bowl here,” he says.

The economics of there and back again

It was largely the NFL’s strict television “blackout” policy that drove the Rams from L.A. to St. Louis at the end of 1994, after 49 years in the West Coast city. The blackout rule stipulated that if a stadium was not sold out 72 hours prior to a game, it would not be televised in the city where the game was played. This was based on the idea that broadcasting a game would hurt attendance. Half of all NFL games were blacked out in the 1970s, according to ESPN. The Rams often struggled to draw enough fans to either of their L.A. homes – the 90,000-capacity Coliseum (1946-1979) and later Anaheim Stadium (1980-1994).

But NFL suspended its blackouts in 2015 as most games were selling out, especially since the league’s definition of what qualified a sellout were somewhat relaxed. With L.A. second only to New York as an NFL media market, the changed policy adds weight to the economic sense behind the Rams’ return.

But authoritative voices in the L.A. sports world give no guarantees that Los Angelenos will be embracing the Rams on TV or at the stadium.

In his column following the decision, long-time sports journalist for the Los Angeles Times Bill Plaschke makes it clear that Los Angelenos are far from ready to decant a torrent of unconditional acceptance on their returning “first love” – just as they do with all the other L.A. sports teams, the locals demand success and respect in return for their adoration.

“First, we didn't ask you to come back.… Second, we’re not paying you to come back,” Mr. Plaschke writes. “Sports is not our obligation, it's our entertainment, and when the fun stops, we stop showing up. You lose, we're gone. You take us for granted, we're gone.”

“But there is much potential here,” he adds. “NFL owns the sports landscape in nearly every community it exists. At least, everywhere else. And maybe here one day. But it's not going to be easy.”

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