The NFL Wants L.A., But Is It a Requited Love?
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Just past 6 a.m. on the last Sunday in May, Enrique Urbano woke up in a panicked sweat. The floorboards of his apartment rumbled and the picture frames on his dresser shook. Like most native Californians, he assumed the worst: earthquake. It didn’t help that he had just seen the disaster flick San Andreas.
As he rushed outside, the 61-year-old airport employee quickly realized this wasn’t an act of nature, but rather, America’s most popular sport league announcing its intentions. Across the street, demolition crews set dynamite to the last remnants of Hollywood Racetrack, clearing the way for an NFL stadium to be built on the historic grounds.
“Finally,” Urbano said to himself. “It’s happening. It’s really going to happen.”
Urbano, who transports baggage on the tarmac at nearby LAX, has lived in this neighborhood for nearly 30 years. He has seen his neighborhood booming, when The Forum and racetrack drew thousands, and desolate as a ghost town, when the Lakers moved downtown and the track faded into irrelevance. “If the NFL comes,” he says, “this neighborhood will change once again.”
Though the NFL hasn’t had a franchise in Los Angeles for more than two decades, the momentum for one to return has never been stronger. Two of the league’s biggest influencers, Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Giants owner John Mara, have voiced optimism that at least one team will play in Los Angeles by 2016; all 32 owners will convene for a special meeting in Chicago on Aug. 11 to strategize.
Rams owner Stan Kroenke purchased land across the street from Urbano’s home, and his team could relocate from St. Louis as early as 2017. Meanwhile, the Chargers and Raiders keep dangling the possibility of sharing a new home in Carson, though it could be a ploy to leverage new stadiums in San Diego and Oakland.
The City of Angels is America’s second-largest media market and moving a team there would be a boon for the league’s television partners, to say nothing of the untapped marketing potential and the proximity to Hollywood glamour. There’s no question the NFL wants L.A., but The MMQB set out to answer another one: Does L.A. want the NFL?
We posed that question to more than 100 Angelenos from all walks of life. We talked to a struggling actor and an A-list entertainer, a bus driver and a barista, natives and transplants, lawyers and self-described hipsters. We also spoke to people like Urbano, residents of Inglewood and Carson who might have a large, loud tenant moving into their backyards. We found pockets of passionate sports fans who felt jilted by the NFL’s extended absence. But that paled to one overarching theme: apathy.
“I kind of want the NFL here, but I think I am the minority,” Urbano says. “In Los Angeles, in Inglewood, and maybe even on my own block. A team could be coming right here, and nobody seems to care.”
* * *
On the first night of the NBA Finals in June, Jimmy Kimmel Live aired a popular segment called “Lie Witness News.” A fake TV reporter stood outside the Staples Center and asked self-described basketball fans about the Clippers playing in the Finals (they, of course, had been eliminated in the second round). One woman earnestly defended guard Chris Paul for his role in the “T-shirt cannon mishap.” A UCLA law student described being “very blown away” by the Clippers’ Game 8 comeback against the Rockets to make it to the Finals. The year before, Kimmel conducted the same experiment with the Lakers. Combined, the interviews portray L.A. sports fans as shallow, detached and painfully fair-weathered. But the man pulling the strings is quick to offer a bit of context.
“We can do that in any city,” Kimmel says. “If you stand out there long enough, we’ll get the same results. L.A. gets a bad rap because it’s fun to talk about people in L.A. and the city like that. But it can be just about as passionate a sports city as anywhere. I mean, we support two NHL teams. We can support the NFL.”
As well as the two NHL teams, the L.A. market is home to two MLB teams, two NBA teams, one MLS team and two major Division I college programs. When L.A. teams are winning, the city galvanizes. Sports talk radio lines are flooded with callers. US Weekly runs multi-page spreads of celebrities rubbing elbows at the Staples Center. Tickets are impossibly unaffordable and the sports bars are packed. “In L.A., people like going to things they feel like they should be going to,” says Andrew Gettens, a 34-year-old television writer who is currently working on the show Complications. “It’s all about the scene, and we know how to put on a good scene.”
What’s changed to make people come this time? What’s going to be different? If there’s nothing, history is doomed to repeat itself.
“Are we worse than other cities?” asks 42-year-old Jimmy Smith, a bartender in Venice Beach. “I don’t know. But I do know we’re super fickle. The bandwagon effect is real.”
“I don’t care if this sounds bad,” says Melly Juliana, a 24-year-old model. “I probably wouldn’t go to an NFL game in L.A. unless the team was good.”
The city’s NBA teams offer a good case study. For their first 13 years as cohabitants at the Staples Center, the Lakers dominated the Clippers on the court and in attendance. Then the roles reversed. Since 2012, the Clippers have emerged as championship contenders while their rivals have floundered. For four straight seasons, the Clippers have also outdrawn the Lakers.
Decades ago, attendance at L.A. Rams games whittled when the team struggled. After their 1990 NFC Championship Game appearance, the Rams went 23-57 over their next five seasons. Through the last four, they ranked in the league’s bottom six in attendance. Their final game in L.A., a 24-21 loss to Washington on Christmas Eve in ’94, drew only 25,705 to Anaheim Stadium—590 fewer than a high school game at the same venue eight days earlier. In 1980, the Rams’ first season in Anaheim, they averaged 62,550 fans.
This wasn’t the only reason the Rams left. The team no longer supported itself financially and owner Georgia Frontiere feared that local politicians wouldn’t help build a new stadium. But Frontiere, who died in 2008, was also dismayed by the dwindling interest. “If [the fans] really care about the team and winning,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1993, “then they should not be giving up.”
Says safety Anthony Newman, who played for the Rams from 1988-94: “Towards the end, you couldn’t help but think if we did better, more fans would come and maybe the team would have stayed.”
Tom Anderson, a 64-year-old IT specialist, tailgated at or attended every Rams game with his father from 1980 to 1991. But when the team struggled to win? “Those last few years we’d go sometimes, but often just watched at home,” Anderson says. “It wasn’t fun anymore.”
When the Rams left, Anderson’s attachment to the team cooled. He still loves the NFL, but enjoys watching from his couch, where he can follow fantasy stats on his laptop and eat nachos with his wife. “If they come back, I probably won’t go,” he says. “Not worth my money.”
“They’re going to build a stadium,” says Elliott Lewis, a 58-year-old real estate broker. “And knowing this climate, they’ll probably build another. But what’s changed to make people come this time? What’s going to be different? If there’s nothing, history is doomed to repeat itself.”
* * *
Although most of L.A. slumbered through it, the Hollywood Park demolition served as a pep rally for the Rams. Tom Bateman, director of the Bring Back the Rams fan club, alerted his crew. Nearly 50 fans drove through pre-dawn smog to arrive at 6 a.m. sharp. They brought coffee, wore Jerome Bettis jerseys and waved large cutouts of Stan Kroenke’s head. They mugged for camera crews from local media outlets and cheered loudly as the stands crumbled. The mayor of Inglewood was also there wearing a Rams hard hat.
It was the perfect illustration of Rams fandom in L.A.: a loud, passionate cluster trying to be heard amidst overwhelming indifference. When asked about an NFL team relocating to L.A., a common refrain from most Angelenos was: “Oh, is that happening?”
Over the past 20 years, there have been rumors galore about the Raiders, Chargers, Vikings, Bills, Bengals, Colts, Seahawks, Buccaneers and Cardinals moving to L.A. “Nobody made a peep when other teams were going to come,” says Ed Rodriguez, who drives a Red Line bus from the Civic Center to Studio City in Downtown L.A. “They only get all worked up over the Rams.”
[infobox id="47007-1" float="right"]Though the Raiders played at the L.A. Coliseum from 1982-94, and won a Super Bowl there in January 1984, they always felt like Oakland’s team. The Rams, the city’s first professional sports team when they arrived in ’46, were distinctly L.A. “It’s like you’re divorced,” Bateman says. “You hear about your kids doing well in Little League or school. You can cheer for them, but you can’t be with them, and that sucks. You want so badly to be in their lives again. You want them to come home.”
Scores of Angelenos savor memories of rooting for the Fearsome Foursome and Jack Youngblood. But anyone born after 1988 barely remembers the L.A. Rams at all.
Ramon Santos, 25, grew up in Central L.A. huddling around a television with relatives at cookouts every Sunday for Rams games—but they’ve been in St. Louis since he was 4. “It would be unreal to be able to watch a game live with my father and grandfather,” says Santos, who works at an entertainment law firm. “And carry that tradition, a true tradition, down to my children.”
“I’ve been dying for the Rams to come back,” says Joe Richter, 46, a Starbucks barista. “I know tickets would be expensive, but to represent my city and my favorite sport? Hell yeah, I’d go.”
“Angelenos are some of the most loyal, passionate and dedicated sports fans in the country,” says Cash Warren, a Hollywood fixture who is perhaps most well known as the husband of actress Jessica Alba. “We deserve a football team that we can call our own.”
“My friends and I talk all the time about how ridiculous it is there isn’t a team,” says Steph Tran, 26, a Dreamworks employee. “We’re all sports fans, but I probably care about having a hometown team more than them. I was born in L.A. County, went to UCLA and work in L.A. Most of my friends are transplants. I’m kind of like the unicorn.”
The city has long been a destination for dreamers from all parts of the country. As The MMQB wandered the city we encountered fans of the 49ers, Bears, Bengals, Bills, Broncos, Browns, Cowboys, Eagles, Giants, Packers, Patriots, Raiders, Ravens, Saints and Seahawks. Bartenders at Barney’s Beanery in West Hollywood, Ye Rustic Inn in Los Feliz and The Garage in Culver City describe the atmosphere on football Sundays as a ragbag of rooting interests and a rainbow of jerseys.
Says actor Kenneth Choi (Wolf of Wall Street, Sons of Anarchy), a Chicago transplant and Bears fan: “Everybody I know who moves out here, I go, Would you ever move back to Boston? and they go, ‘Never.’ Philly? ‘Never.’ Chicago? ‘Never.’ But who do you root for? ‘Boston ... Philadelphia .. Chicago.’ ”
“First and foremost, I’m a Toronto Argonauts fan,” says Tom Millman, 50, a Mississauga, Ontario native who has lived in L.A. for 26 years. “I would go to an L.A. NFL game because it’s a football game and I like football, but that doesn’t mean I’d necessarily be a fan.”
Another underestimated factor: L.A. already has two football teams. USC and UCLA draw NFL-like crowds in terms of attendance. “We get to go, ‘Rah-Rah’ on Saturdays, then watch from afar on Sundays,” says 70-year-old UCLA alum Thomas Crane, a season-ticket holder. “We get the best of both worlds, why be greedy?”
“How many teams do you really need, you know?” asks Roger “Speedy” Gonzales, a legendary trainer at Freddie Roach's Wild Card Boxing Club. “We got the Dodgers, the Lakers, the Clippers, the Kings, the Angels, the Ducks, the Galaxy, USC, UCLA...it's too many.”
* * *
It’s a Saturday morning in Manhattan Beach, and the Pacific breeze has rolled up two blocks from the boardwalk and through the open windows at Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. Regulars post up at the counter for buttermilk stacks and coffee at the all-day-breakfast joint. When the topic of an NFL team moving to L.A. is brought up, the discussion flows like hot maple syrup: fast and all over the place.
“I’m originally from Cincinnati,” says Jim Holtz a 34-year-old Lieutenant Commander in the Coast Guard. “So if the Bengals visited, I’d definitely go.”
“Come on,” says Lee Ashenfelter, a 78-year-old retired Lieutenant. “We don’t need it. Everything is crowded enough.”
“I love the NFL,” says Rob Goldman, a 55-year-old attorney. “But I love watching it from my couch. No fussing with drunk people, no shelling out hundreds, no sitting in traffic.”
“I don’t really have a feeling about it one way or the other,” says Carol Lauler, a 68-year-old retired human resources manager. “I just know there are bigger issues politicians should be spending their time on.”
“It doesn’t matter to me either,” says Katie Cole, a 57-year-old high school English teacher in South Central L.A. “It’s been so long I stopped caring.”
For the NFL to prosper in the current L.A. climate, a team would need to build more than just a stadium. The NFL in L.A. would need to be an experience.
“Sports just don’t matter to me,” says Taylor Smith, a 20-year-old actor. “Plus, this is a city built off the entertainment industry. That’s our cultural compass, not sports.”
“Isn’t there already a football team in L.A.?” asks Danielle Johnson, a 22-year-old clothing designer.
Everyone glares at her.
“No seriously,” she says. “Isn’t there?”
“I love football, don’t get me wrong,” says Marissa Martinez, a 26-year-old waitress. “I was a cheerleader growing up. But I’m fine having watch parties at my house on Sundays. That’s just what I’m used to, and it works, you know?”
Except for Holtz, they all say they have no interest in attending a game.
Down on the boardwalk, Jon Davis, 40, is stretching before hitting the water for an afternoon of surfing. “Look at it out here,” he says. “Why spend a fortune going to an NFL game when you can hang on the beach, go hiking, or spend quality time with your family?”
The average price for a family of four to attend a 49ers game at Levi’s Stadium last season was $640, according to the NFL Fan Cost Index from Team Marketing Report, the Chicago-based company that tracks such things. Kroenke’s proposed stadium, a $1.86 billion palace, would probably have the same effect on fans’ wallets. The team would likely look to expensive luxury suites for businesses as its largest revenue. “It’s good for people like me because we can take clients,” says Joey Schwartz, a 35-year-old talent agent.
League and real estate experts say that for the NFL to prosper in the current L.A. climate, a team would need to build more than just a stadium. The NFL in L.A. would need to be an experience. Think Jerry World, only amplified: an interactive museum where kids could try on Eric Dickerson’s goggles; a practice field where high school athletes could share the facilities with pro athletes; live outdoor performance venues; top-tier restaurants and shops; maybe even a roller coaster.
Imagine tourists ticking off must-see destinations: the Santa Monica Pier, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive, Disneyland and… Rams Land, which could attract tourists and locals Monday-Saturday. “I can’t picture bringing my three boys to a game,” says Mary McCarthy, 41, a stay-at-home mom. “But I’m sure if it was something like that, we would go.”
“I’ve never been to a football game, and I don’t particularly like football,” says Kara Hart, a 25-year-old nurse at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. “But I’d totally go to a game if the stadium was new and awesome. At least once.”
* * *
Many non-Anglelenos’ introduction to Inglewood, where the Rams owner is planning to build, may come from Tupac’s “California Love” in which the late rapper intones: “Inglewood, Inglewood, always up to no good.”
About six miles east of LAX, edged by the intersection of Freeways 405 and 105, Inglewood upholds its reputation as a city in turmoil. In 2010, longtime mayor Roosevelt Dorn pled guilty to public corruption. Two years later, the state took over control of the financially troubled public schools. Last year, Roderick D. Wright, who represented Inglewood in the California Senate, was found guilty on eight felony counts of perjury and voter fraud. More than 100,000 live in the city’s nine-square mile radius, where the median household income is less than $50,000. The population is over 90% minority. Crime, unemployment and poverty rates tick higher than state and country averages.
How Inglewood could finally seal the NFL deal—after countless proposals by powerful downtown groups and glitzier locales—feels like an underdog story. Its leading man is 61-year-old James Butts, who rose from patrol officer to SWAT commander to deputy chief to the mayor of Inglewood. Not long after The Forum underwent a $100 million renovation, Butts is confident about bringing the NFL to his turf. “It could move Inglewood from a city on the rise to a top-tier metropolis,” he says.
“Even if people around here like football,” says Tonya Jones, a 39-year-old hotel maid in Inglewood, “it’s not like we’re the ones going to the games.”
California is traditionally reluctant to spend public funds on stadiums, and Kroenke’s project is privately funded. It could bring 40,000 jobs and $1 billion to the city, according to the text on an Inglewood ballot initiative. “But where are those jobs going?” asks Vanessa Williams, a 61-year-old Inglewood resident asks. “Not to us.”
“It sounds great when politicians talk about it,” says mechanic Juan Hernandez, 51, a neighbor of Urbano’s. “But for us residents it is not good. It is traffic jams every Sunday. It is our neighborhood becoming too expensive for us to live in.”
Over the last decade, Inglewood has been changing. A Costco opened shop, then an L.A. Fitness and a Jamba Juice. Now there are three Starbucks within a three-square mile radius.
“Most of us don’t care about the NFL or the Bed, Bath & Beyonds,” says Tonya Jones, a 39-year-old hotel maid. “Even if people around here like football, it’s not like we’re the ones going to the games.”
The streets surrounding Kroenke’s proposed stadium portray a city still undergoing the metamorphosis of gentrification. Dinged by potholes and marked by signs of construction, they are lined with dollar stores, unmarked Chinese restaurants and $49-a-night-motels with security cameras mounted in the parking lots and “WANTED” photos of bill-skipping customers posted on the front doors.
“Most of our guests, I actually couldn’t define them,” says Preston Mom, a 19-year-old working the desk at the Airport Park View Hotel, directly across from the Kroenke’s property. “Lots of people stay for 30 days, some just pass through in the night. I’m sure the clientele will change if the NFL comes. This whole place will change.”
Thirteen miles south of Downtown L.A., the other proposed site in Carson is a toxic landfill. Carson has been linked to NFL projects at least three times since 1994, as well as plans for shopping malls, hotels and townhouses. But its history as a repository for heavy metals and pesticides, plus related lawsuits, have tangled investors. Though it is expensive and doable, residents express skepticism. “We’ve heard they’re going to bring this, we’ve heard they’re going to bring that,” says 70-year-old Eric Williams, a retired pilot. “I think our community is fine without any of it.”
In June, a city council meeting in Carson turned into a shouting match when the possibility of an NFL team coming to town was brought to the floor. “Our politicians may be more toxic than the landfill,” says John Harris, 82. “The NFL would just make it worse.”
* * *
The transportation system in Los Angeles, perhaps more than anywhere else, is defined by its traffic. When asked about a new NFL team, most Angelenos cited the mere hassle of getting to either Inglewood or Carson, even as a $2 billion construction effort is underway to build a north-south Crenshaw Line that will run from Downtown L.A. to Inglewood.
“I don’t care about football, I don’t care whatsoever,” says Connor Ames, 25, a production assistant on Keeping Up with the Kardashians. “But if it makes traffic worse than it already is, I definitely don’t want it.”
“I’d like to go, and I love football,” says Steffany Strain, 28, a manager at the clothing store Marine Layer. “But traffic would be a bummer. It’s probably just easier to watch from home or a bar.”
“It’s not just fans—think about the players,” says Giants offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz, an L.A. native. “I live in Jersey and it takes me 20 minutes to get to our facility and 30 minutes or an hour at most to go to Manhattan. If you’re playing in Inglewood or Carson, you’re looking at an hour-drive minimum, no matter where you live. The traffic, the taxes and the cost of living are way more than anywhere else. I wouldn’t want to play there, and I simply don’t think the city needs a team. It’s been fine without one.”
In the modern era, the NFL has returned to every city it previously vacated: Baltimore, Cleveland, Houston, Oakland and St. Louis. Every city that is, except Los Angeles. But if history has taught us anything, it’s this: either in L.A. or a current NFL market, the ground will soon be broken for a new stadium.
With reporting by Neal Bledsoe, who is an actor, writer and Old Spice Man. He's been in many things. Currently he can be seen on The Mysteries of Laura on NBC and the upcoming The Man in the High Castle on Amazon this fall. He lives in Los Angeles, but grew up in Seattle, where he inherited the Seahawks, Mariners and SuperSonics—all of which makes him well acquainted with misery.