The Los Angeles Rams.
What does that name mean to you?
What does that name mean to your neighbors, your mechanic or your dentist?
As the Rams embark upon their third season back in LA, they continue to try to reassert their name and brand while regaining their status as one of the one of the NFL’s crown jewel franchises.
Before the Dodgers, Lakers, San Francisco 49ers or San Francisco Giants arrived, the Rams were the first team to forge a new frontier in the West for major league sports franchises when they relocated from Cleveland to Los Angeles in 1946. They broke the color barrier upon arrival by signing UCLA standout Kenny Washington, a year before Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. The Rams were the first team to don a logo on their helmets and quickly became Hollywood darlings playing before massive crowds at the Coliseum on a regular basis.
Though the franchise only won two championships prior to their victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, they were playoff regulars and controlled their division for plenty of stretches on the strength of numerous Hall of Famers.
How could a franchise with such a rich history, lose so much cachet in recent years? Imagine the Green Bay Packers or Chicago Bears just fading into oblivion. Unthinkable...but it happened to the Rams.
Now, social media and ratings, both national and local, indicate that the Los Angeles Rams’ brand just doesn’t have the gravity that it once enjoyed, at least yet.
The Rams currently have one of the smaller followings in the league, largely a product of several recent relocations, as well as a long stretch of awful football following the post-Greatest Show teams of the mid-2000s in a smaller media market in St. Louis. Their recent history has lacked continuity from location to uniform colors. Because ownership has moved the team so often, the Rams haven’t been able to continuously build a large fan base like most other teams in the league; rather they’ve had several tear downs and repeatedly had to start over from scratch.
The Rams moved from the Coliseum to the suburbs and Anaheim Stadium in 1980. While the move was made to gain luxury suites and avoid television blackouts in the already outdated but vacuous Coliseum, the move completely cut off their Valley and westside fan base. Meanwhile, the then-Los Angeles Raiders moved into the Coliseum and promptly won the Super Bowl after only one season. After roughly a decade of sharing headlines with the Raiders, owner Georgia Frontiere accepted a sweetheart deal to move the team to her hometown of St. Louis. The league tried to block the move but backed down when Frontiere and Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon threatened to file an antitrust lawsuit. That same year, the Raiders moved back to Oakland as well which left a vacuum in Los Angeles that would remain for more than 20 years.
During that time, fantasy leagues became commonplace. Fans got used to the game-of-the-week, picking stars and teams to follow. The Red Zone Channel flourished opening up homes in every part of the US to every highlight of every team. Old powerhouses like the Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers had extended runs of success as previously downtrodden franchises like the New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks and New Orleans Saints established national fan bases.
All the while, the 13 million people of LA were open game to all of it.
The Dallas Cowboys set up camp in nearby Oxnard. The Raiders were only a $49 plane trip away and still appeared on the radio as they had their preseason games broadcasted locally. The San Diego Chargers remained geographically close to fans in southern Orange County and San Bernardino County.
And the Rams...Well…
The Rams captivated the nation shortly after arriving in St Louis with the improbable rise of the Greatest Show On Turf which segued through the Marc Bulger/Mike Martz era into a long spell of irrelevance. Rams games were rarely on television in Southern California as they were nationwide. General media coverage was minimal. While some diehards remained, they constituted a tiny fraction of the much larger bases enjoyed by more national brands.
But now they’re back.
Having billions of dollars invested in their new home in Inglewood, California, it appears that the Rams may finally have a long-term home. That’s good, and the Rams appear to be doing nearly everything right at the moment. But it may still take a while until the Rams are able to assume a death grip on the LA market again, if ever.
As Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times has repeatedly stated, Los Angeles isn’t a turn key market.
But the upside is huge.
Fans at games
Many fans jubilantly flocked back upon arrival — a solid foundation’s worth to be certain.
Yet as evidenced by the huge contingents of visiting fans that the Coliseum hosts week after week, some fans have obviously stuck with their adopted teams and now blend in with the transplants.
We’ve all seen the headlines. “Eagles fans takeover.” “Raiders still own LA.”
However, visiting fans should not be the gauge of how the Rams are doing as a franchise. Los Angeles is a cosmopolitan city, and it’s population is a compilation of people from all over the globe and certainly all over the United States. There will always be visiting fans.
The same thing happens in every other destination city. Dallas continuously gets mobbed with out-of-towners despite the Cowboys’ popularity. Miami, Washington, and New York often have flocks of visiting fans as well. The Raiders will find out about that when they get to Las Vegas.
The fact is that allegiances are there, and some will last. Some fans will gradually transition back to the Rams as they take their kids to games and become familiar with the players and story lines. Others will not.
The Rams will have to stay relevant and compelling in order to capture the allegiances of the next generation, but if they do that next generation will be the one that swings the tide back in the Rams favor. Slowly like the tide coming in, the empty seats around the old time fans will start to fill up.
That process can take a while, but it can be done. The Arizona Cardinals are a great example, where generations grew up watching the team and now they have stadium filled with red in Glendale.
The Rams can do the same, but on a much larger scale.
The Rams capped attendance in the neighborhood of 70,000 in order to allow for a more comfortable game day experience, so we’ll never see crowds of 80-90,000 like in their first season back in Los Angeles. This means there will always be plenty of open seats for photographers to take pictures of to aid half-baked narratives about the Rams lack of support.
However, the Rams should average somewhere in the mid-high 60,000 range this season, fielding what looks to be a very strong team. More than seats being filled though, look for the buzz.
Are the Rams a topic on sports radio? Are people talking about the game when they get to work Monday? Do people have strong opinions about coaching decisions and roster moves? If so, then your hitting territory that is currently only truly occupied by the Lakers and Dodgers in the LA area.
A good benchmark will be when Rams games regularly pull higher local ratings than the Raiders or Cowboys. Last year, they had huge ratings for their NFC clash with the Eagles, and their highest LA ratings since returning, when they hosted the NFC Wildcard game.
Can they make that the benchmark?
Like a jab sets up the cross in boxing, the Rams seem to have the star-studded roster to carry them into their new stadium in Inglewood. The stadium alone will be a monster in the Los Angeles sports landscape, but if the Rams are able to establish Todd Gurley, Jared Goff, Aaron Donald, and Sean McVay as household heroes in the seasons leading up to the new stadium’s opening, results could be everything and more that Rams Owner Stan Kroenke hoped for when he invested so much in the project and relocation of the team.
As the Rams look to assume the local driver’s seat, the team also has a uniform rebrand slated for 2020 when they open their new stadium. As silly as it has sounds, uniforms really do matter to many fans in a world where they being asked to shell out big bucks to essentially root for laundry. The team has not only has lacked continuity in location, they’ve even lacked continuity in team colors, something Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Washington, New York Giants and most other fans haven’t had to deal with. The fact is that things like uniforms and team colors are part of most fans’ emotional connection to a team. They are the bells that makes Pavlov’s dogs drool.
Provided that Nike doesn’t stray too far from the traditional royal blue, sunshine yellow, and curly horned helmets, slick new (but traditional) uniforms will help strengthen the Rams roots.
2020 will be an excellent benchmark to see where the team stands. They may finally crack the code and become a heavyweight again.
If not, they’ll just keep chipping away: community outreach, retaining talent, providing a great gameday experience, and most of all, winning.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, or in a single glorious offseason.
What about those of us here today?
In the meantime, if you’re a Rams fan, don’t worry about it too much.
The Dodgers and Lakers have massive fan bases, but has that ever actually enhanced your experience following those teams? Someday you might even miss the days when you recognized and knew all the other diehards by name.
Who cares what jersey someone else wears, that’s their problem.
We’re the LA Rams. We have games to win...