This week, management for the newly renamed Los Angeles Rams is pondering the massive question of whom they should select with the first overall pick in the NFL draft. Meanwhile, L.A. football fans are contemplating a less urgent, but equally weighty, question: Are they willing to re-embrace a franchise that left them bereft of an NFL team for almost a quarter of a century?
When the Rams abandoned Southern California 22 years ago, super fan Lance Goldberg felt the slow creep of existential dread. “I felt sad, betrayed,” says the 51-year-old painting contractor who lives in Santa Monica. “I put my heart and soul into that team and I felt like the loyalty only went one way.”
In the 12 years leading up to the Rams departure in 1994, Goldberg attended every single home game at Anaheim Stadium — more than 120 games in total — and was the founding member of the Melonheads, the closest thing the team had to a fan club. Fortunately for the Rams — and for Goldberg’s spiritual well-being — he was able to forgive the ownership, maintaining his loyalty to the team that played 1,800 miles away in St. Louis. He even flew out there for a few games.
Now that the Rams are back, Goldberg is unequivocal about his excitement. “When they announced [they were coming back], I was so happy,” he says. What’s less clear is how much that sentiment is shared across L.A., a city that now bears little resemblance to the one the Rams left more than two decades ago. And for those residents who decide not to embrace the Rams, given the economics that undergird the world’s richest sports league, will the NFL and Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke even take notice?
In many ways, L.A. should be the perfect test case for observing whether an NFL franchise can successfully re-establish itself in a previous market. L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world and the second largest sports market in the country. It is one of the most transient cities, with more and more new residents moving here every year, many of whom gladly switch their allegiances to home teams like the Lakers, Dodgers and Kings.
But geography is becoming far less important to football fans and to sports more generally. As Will Leitch recently pointed out in New York magazine, “In a NFL Sunday Ticket–MLB Extra Innings–MLB.tv–NBA League Pass–NHL Center Ice world, you never have to miss a single game even if you live on the other side of the country.”
To be fair, certain enclaves like Green Bay and Pittsburgh maintain stalwart and dedicated fan bases that are ready to turn out for games regardless of whatever harsh, Midwestern elements are on offer. Those fans aren’t going anywhere. But what has allowed the NFL and its 32 teams to achieve double-digit revenue growth over the past few seasons has less to do with ticket sales and more to do with the huge television contracts it has signed with cable providers like DirecTV. For the modern fan willing to pony up, you can watch any game anywhere on any range of mobile devices. Fandom now knows no distance.
Take Shelby Jordan. When he was five years old, Jordan moved to L.A. after his father, a former offensive tackle for the New England Patriots, was traded to the L.A. Raiders where he played for three years, winning a Super Bowl in 1984. Jordan remains an Oakland Raiders fan (another team that abandoned L.A. in the early 1990s), but his football viewing habits have changed dramatically since he was a kid.
“Sundays are for church and for football,” says Jordan, who now works as an executive at AEG, a sports entertainment company that tried for years to bring a football team to downtown L.A. “The way this town is, football left 20 years ago. People got stung and they were heartbroken, at least initially. But then they got over it.”
Nowadays Jordan says he watches four or five games every Sunday at home, but he is agnostic about the Rams returning to L.A. and the opportunity to head back to the same stadium where his father once played. “We are spoiled here in L.A. We don’t have four seasons. There are a bunch of other things that we can do.”
That includes playing fantasy football. Though the phenomenon dates back to the early 1960s, it wasn’t until the advent and spread of the internet in the late 1990s that fantasy football became a business worth $70 billion a year by some estimates. The NFL has deftly embraced and capitalized on the popularity of fantasy football. But giving fans a stake in a variety of players around the league and reasons to cheer for touchdowns across multiple games can be at odds with a franchise trying to generate fan turnout in a market that’s been long dormant.
In February, the Rams announced that they will hold training camp at facilities in Oxnard, just north of L.A., and will play home games for the next three seasons at the Coliseum near downtown L.A. But their long-term home will be in Inglewood where they are planning to build a $2.5 billion stadium.
And when ground ultimately breaks on their new stadium the Rams will be testing the old Field of Dreams adage: “If you build it they will they come.”
Then, of course, the question becomes: are we all invited?
The new stadium will have 250 corporate suites, ranking them second among NFL stadiums. (AT&T Stadium where the Dallas Cowboys play has 300 corporate suites.) There will be 15,000 to 20,000 club seats and loge boxes, and when the stadium opens for the 2019 season, the team anticipates the majority (if not all) of its seats will require a personal seat license (PSL)—fees paid to secure the right to buy season tickets for a certain seat in a stadium. If PSL rates for other NFL teams are any indication, the fees for the Inglewood Stadium will run into the tens of thousands of dollars.
Once inside, there will be a dozen unique club spaces in the nine-level building. Premium seat holders will have access to the Lux Cabanas and a beach-themed club. Flashy, computerized dashboards will pepper the stadium. The food hall will include sushi bars and eateries by Michelin-starred chefs. The Rams are hoping film studios and modeling agencies will use the hospitality spaces for events and parties.
All of which is a far cry from the old Anaheim stadium, where $20 could get you a ticket and a strong beer buzz. The old Rams shared that field with the Anaheim Angels and were forced, at times, to make tackles on the exposed dirt.
Despite the expense, there have been promising signs of early support from locals. The Rams say they received 56,000 deposits from fans hoping to secure season tickets for 2016. Whether this kind of demand can hold once the PSL fees are released is an open question.
Goldberg, for one, predicts the exorbitant prices are going to come at a cost: “It’s going to hurt the crowd. It discriminates against the people that yell and scream since those people aren’t your corporate, business types. I don’t think those guys are your typical die-hard fans.”
In the months before the Rams left L.A. in 1994, Goldberg made one last effort and sought out former Rams General Manager John Shaw. He left a note on Shaw’s car pleading with him to reconsider. He didn’t. But as a peace offering, Shaw called him up and offered him tickets, a flight and a hotel to St. Louis so he could attend the Rams very first game at Busch Stadium.
He says he is ready to bring the Melonheads out of retirement, but there’s just one problem — unlike Shaw, he’s having a hard time getting hold of new Rams COO, Kevin Demoff. “I left Demoff two voicemails over the last three weeks but he hasn’t returned my call. I’m a little disappointed.”
Peter Kiefer is a Los Angeles-based writer. He previously wrote about Uber’s nerdy demographics for MEL.