The L.A. Rams, take two: Can NFL regain its place in a crowded sports landscape?
- After 21 seasons, the NFL is back in Los Angeles. But can football grab the attention of wary Angelenos, who have since moved on to other sports and teams? Not if they keep playing like, well, the Rams.
This story originally appeared in the Sept. 12, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
A group of sports fans gathers most mornings at a coffee shop in Calabasas, Calif. They assemble under a green umbrella at a crowded table down the street from the Kardashian mansion, arguing about their local teams (and, these days, presidential politics) over coffee, espresso and tea. They call themselves the Starbucks Council.
It's a random Tuesday in August and the Council is in session. Regulars fill the seats. There's Barry Rudin, owner of Barry's Ticket Service, the largest broker in California; Ted Green, a news and sports producer at KTLA; Harry Katz, who runs an insurance company; Brian Cohen, a promotional marketer; and Richard Somerfeld, a home mortgage consultant.
Their exchanges feel like sports talk radio, with ongoing debates about the Dodgers and the Lakers amid digressions on the Clippers, Angels, Kings, Bruins and Trojans. Today starts like this:
"We've been doing this too long."
"My therapist told me to ignore you all."
"We should've divorced a long time ago."
"That's the only thing we can agree on."
Old friends. Strong opinions. Weak coffee. But lately, with a twist.
This spring the Rams' moving trucks pulled back into town from St. Louis, ending a 21-season absence for the NFL in Los Angeles—and adding another topic to the Council's morning crossfire. They aren't yet sold on the team, despite the marketing barrage, despite the two Rams-centric reality-TV shows, despite the Hamilton-level ticket demand. Today's diatribes and commiserations run the full gamut of emotions. They tell the story of a fan base and of a homecoming. Of a city that embraced football and a team that left. Of a community that moved on and a league that wanted to move back.
"Look, in St. Louis there's no pressure. In L.A., it's like, 'Let's go!'"
"I don't know. I didn't watch football for 20 years. I kind of want to now."
"If something doesn't happen soon, they're the Clippers."
"Oh, my God, no. Please don't bring up the Clippers."
"We're getting off track here."
Rams general manager Les Snead, 45, rolls through his team's temporary residence on the UC Irvine campus in a golf cart labeled ADMIN 2, sending text messages, taking phone calls, adjusting his blue Dodgers cap. He's aware that Angelenos, like the members of the Council, have greeted his team with skepticism. He knows their wariness is justified. The last time the Rams finished with a winning record was 2003.
Snead shares their pain, if not their doubts. Growing up in the 1980s in teeny Eufaula, Ala., on the banks of the Chattahoochee River, he fell in love with football. Specifically, he fell for running back Eric Dickerson and then the team that drafted him—so much so that he hung a poster of the Rams' cheerleaders in his bedroom. As his obsession deepened, he skipped school to watch the NFL draft—vocational training, in hindsight, that helped him end up here, responsible for the same team's turnaround back in Los Angeles.
Earlier this summer Snead ran into Kobe Bryant at a Coffee Bean near campus. They chatted briefly about a market dominated by the Lakers and the Dodgers and whoever else is winning. Snead told Bryant, You didn't just play, you entertained. Bryant responded, That's how sports work in SoCal. "Even Kobe had a little excitement in his eye for Rams football," says Snead, the GM since 2012.
Climbing the stairs to his office in Irvine's Physical Sciences building, Snead fumbles for his keys. He can't find them. Having moved five times in the past year (four times in SoCal, during the Rams' relocation), he can't find anything these days. Snead, who could pass for a California surfer, finally settled into a house near the beach on July 4, then enjoyed a Griswoldian staycation: He drove to the Hollywood sign, swam in the Pacific and survived the lines at Disneyland. And everywhere he went he saw Rams jerseys, Rams T-shirts, Rams hats. The fans he ran into made clear their expectations, detailing a hurt that lingers. This wasn't like Snead's time in Jacksonville, where in 1995 he was a scout for an expansion franchise. The Jaguars were new. The Rams are decidedly not. They left, they won a Super Bowl in 2000 ... then haven't won much since. Now they're back, like an ex-boyfriend, 40 pounds heavier but with some money, looking to rekindle an old romance.
"I get it," Snead says. "Like anything, the honeymoon wears off quickly." He pauses, perhaps considering just how optimistic he wants to sound. "We're ready to contend now," he says. "We've gone through the stages, beating Peyton Manning (in 2014) and Andrew Luck ('13), beating Drew Brees ('13). We've built the foundation. These guys are hungry now. They're tired of being close."
What does it mean, the NFL returning to Los Angeles? For Snead, it means win now.
Otherwise these Rams are just another failed Hollywood sequel.
"The [L.A.] Rams actually had one of the best running backs in NFL history."
"But was he a national celebrity?"
"No way! He didn't light up the city the way Magic Johnson did."
"The Rams were big then!"
Dickerson is on the phone, his ride stuck in that infamous L.A. gridlock, his mind racing back to the glory years for the Rams, L.A.'s first and now latest pro sports franchise. They made the playoffs every season from 1973 through '80, including a loss in Super Bowl XIV. In '83 they drafted Dickerson, a future Hall of Famer, No. 2 out of Southern Methodist.
Snead told Bryant, You didn't just play, you entertained. Bryant responded, That's how sports work in SoCal.
Bright lights welcomed the kid from Sealy, Texas (pop. 4,500), and at the first Lakers game he attended there were three times that many people in the stands. He scored floor seats, and all the Showtime-era stars—Magic, Worthy, Kareem—rushed to shake his hand. "I always loved the mystique of playing for L.A.," he says. They all did. There was Jonathan Winters, the comedian, telling jokes in the locker room; the restaurants, like El Torito Grill, that seated players at the choicest tables; the nightclubs, like the Troubadour, that lowered their velvet ropes. The Fearsome Foursome, Lawrence McCutcheon, Jackie Slater, Vince Ferragamo—those Rams wove the franchise into the sports fabric of L.A. They made people care. Some of that remains.
Dickerson led the NFL in rushing in three of his first four seasons, setting the NFL record with 2,105 yards in 1984. This summer he invited the team's rookies over for a catered barbecue at his house in Calabasas. He gave them signed pictures and spent time with quarterback Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick out of Cal. Then he gathered the new Rams and told them, "One day, you'll be an old man, just like me. Capture this moment. Forget the distractions. When you win, you can party all you want. You came to the right place."
What does it mean, the NFL's return to L.A.? Simple, Dickerson says. The Rams should never have left.
"The team turned its back on the city and bailed."
"They had already moved out to Orange County."
"It didn't feel like L.A. anymore; it felt like the Angels with football helmets."
"Then they really moved."
"I gave up football after that."
Leigh Steinberg gazes out the window of his Newport Beach office at the paddleboarders offshore. Behind him there's a framed picture of two fans surrounded by rows of empty seats at L.A.'s Memorial Coliseum. Their sign reads, LEIGH, SAVE OUR RAMS.
Steinberg grew up in L.A. attending games with his father, way up in the dollar seats. He jokes that he needed a telescope to see the field. Later he became a sports agent, stayed in California and passed down his Rams fandom to his son Jon. Steinberg never thought the team would leave. "I didn't take it seriously," he says. "It seemed impossible. People don't leave L.A. They come here."
Alas, owner Georgia Frontiere's Rams made two crucial decisions that fell somewhere between shortsighted and doomsday-idiotic. First, in 1987, they traded Dickerson (in his prime) to the Colts. Dickerson says the team, through leaks to reporters, painted him as unhappy. Of John Shaw, the GM at the time, he says, "If [players] caught him in an alley, there would have been a fight to see who could get in the first punch." After the '94 season, with Shaw in charge of a depleted roster that had yet to break six wins in the decade, the Rams took the money and left for St. Louis and a downtown stadium that would be filled with luxury boxes. "It's comical in hindsight," Steinberg says. "Especially for a franchise that could be worth what the Cowboys are worth—$4 billion!"
Just the sound of St. Louis Rams, Dickerson says, "never seemed right to me."
Steinberg felt the same way. He predicted the Raiders, who had relocated from Oakland in 1982, would leave L.A. next, and they did—in the same off-season. With no home teams to broadcast, local TV affiliates carried the NFL's best games each week. Fans were spared suffering through losing seasons. Every year the Rams' base in L.A. dwindled a little more. Every year the move hurt a little less. Later, when other franchises threatened to move there to gain leverage for stadium financing, Angelenos hardened. Every failed proposal added skeptics.
"[Eventually] people said, 'Good riddance,'" Steinberg says. "They moved on."
After the Rams departed, Shaw kept an office on West Pico Boulevard in Beverly Hills to conduct team-related business in the city it no longer called home. But as of this August, the site is all but abandoned. No one answers the door. Dust gathers on the furniture inside.
What does it mean? Steinberg asks of the Rams' return. "It means that a wrong has been righted."
"They're all over the place: training camp in Irvine, training [in-season] at Cal Lutheran, [headquarters] in Agoura Hills."
"They're in L.A. That's what matters."
"We're getting off track again."
Bruce Warwick stands next to the VIP tent on a typical cloudless day in Irvine. Fans wear construction hats topped with horns, sip beers tucked into golden cozies and glide between practice fields on skateboards. Working in football operations, as an assistant to coach Jeff Fisher, Warwick packed his office in St. Louis the same week in January that NFL owners voted 30–2 to approve the team's return. He stopped for a few seconds as he exited the team's old headquarters for good. Time to go, he told himself.
So he went. Every week this spring Warwick left his family in St. Louis and flew to Orange County. He'd spend one day working on logistics in Oxnard, where the Rams prepped for the draft; one day in Irvine; one day at Cal Lutheran; and one day at the Coliseum, where the Rams will play until their new stadium opens in 2019. He also set up the business office in Agoura Hills.
He did all this with a three-person staff and an army of contract workers. They packed the contents of their St. Louis headquarters and transported everything (from computers to shoulder pads to the tiles from the weight room floor) to California in 32 semis and unloaded it all in two warehouses. "At least seven figures," Warwick says of the cost for the move.
The travel necessitated myriad adjustments—"relo pains," as Snead calls them. The Rams replaced employees who didn't make the move. They found new cable and energy providers. They definitely sat in traffic. CEO Kevin Demoff drove an average of 2,000 miles a month, conducting meetings from his car.
What does it mean? "It means that a wrong has been righted," Steinberg says.
Real estate agents, meanwhile, salivated at the prospect of 120 team employees and some 60 players tripping over one another to find housing. "There's been a big influx in the market," says Terry Holland, branch manager for Berkshire Hathaway's office in Thousand Oaks. "I had three players look at the same property. They're competing for more than jobs." Two Rams staffers even asked Demoff to mediate their dispute over a house. He declined.
For Warwick and others, the team's return means one thing: more work.
"I don't think the NFL lends itself to tremendous fan passion in a big, big city."
"L.A. is dispassionate about pro football."
"This isn't Green Bay or Cleveland."
"The Lakers blow goats. The colleges are down. The Clippers tried, got halfway up and fell."
"If you win, they will come."
Goff exits the Rams' cafeteria in Irvine and sits at an orange picnic table. Several teammates walk by wearing T-shirts that read NO EXCUSES, emphasizing the team's desire to win now, with or without a rookie starting at QB. A year ago Goff was preparing for his junior season in Berkeley, where he was recognized on campus and sought after by pro scouts but was unknown to a national audience. That changed when the Rams dealt six picks to the Titans for the top choice—a Hollywood splash for a team moving from the 21st-largest media market to its second.
At 21, Goff, like a generation of local fans, has never known an NFL team in L.A. He remembers Kurt Warner throwing passes to Isaac Bruce, and Marshall Faulk galloping down the field ... in St. Louis. Whether he wrestles this team's starting job from veteran Case Keenum and makes L.A. fans care this year or next year, there's a feeling that there is not a lot of time.
Goff purchased a house north of L.A., and his neighbors, caught up in Rams fever, dropped off gift baskets filled with muffins and apricots. He compared notes with Titans QB Marcus Mariota (they share an agent) and now says he's 10 times more comfortable than when he started.
He's seen the billboards—WE'RE HOME—all over town. He starred in HBO's Hard Knocks (where in one scene he learned that the sun rises in the east) and watched six teammates sign on for a separate E! reality show called Hollywood and Football. He played in front of 10,000 fans on the first day of camp and nearly 90,000 for the first preseason game. "You can feel everything building," Goff says.
The market, with nine pro teams and two major college sports programs, demands as much. It helps that Bryant retired and that the Lakers finished 17--65 last season and that USC isn't the powerhouse it was 10 years ago. "In the post-Kobe era, we have a chance for someone like Jared to be a star," says Demoff.
Still, those years of futility followed the Rams from St. Louis. At the ESPYs, host John Cena told the audience, "The Rams are here! Don't get excited. I mean they're here in Los Angeles. They are not at the ESPYs. The ESPYs are for winners!"
For now, demand seems high. The full allotment of season tickets sold out in six hours. Rudin, the Council's ticket broker, says he profited on the Rams' preseason games, whereas normally he would lose up to 50% of face value. The majority of sales, he says, came from buyers in and around Los Angeles proper.
For Goff, then, the NFL's return to L.A. equates to a rare opportunity: a chance to join the league's most marketable stars.
"The Rams will never be the No. 1 story on the five o'clock radio, unless they're on the verge of winning the Super Bowl."
"What do you know about radio?"
"If we were all Rams fans, you'd root for the 49ers."
"Rams fans? Does such a thing exist?"
Adam Mirghanbari, an equipment staffer known as Merg, works the JUGS machine after practice, feeding players spirals at close range. At 52, he wears bands on both knees, the cartilage worn down by years of street football. He's on this field, thousands of miles from his business and his family, because he loves one thing more than most people love anything, and that thing is the Rams.
Merg's father took him to his first Rams game in 1966, when he was three. His family moved from L.A. to Chicago three years later, but Merg didn't like the Windy City, and he especially didn't like the Bears. In defiance, he hung a poster of Rams QB Roman Gabriel over his bed. Every time his old team lost, he went out back and bawled behind the garage.
When the Rams moved to St. Louis, Merg drove across the state to their first practice and slept in his car, waking to greet the players. He went to every game—preseason, regular season, postseason—for the next 21 years. "I was a groupie," he says. The trips cost up to $20,000 annually, money Merg earned by operating an Italian restaurant in Chicago.
Merg showed up so often that one day the Rams asked him to volunteer in the video department. He was even on the field when St. Louis won Super Bowl XXXIV. His heroes became his friends.
In 2011 he followed his team southwest on I-55 and opened a pizza shop down the street from the Rams' headquarters. He worked the chains at practice. He traveled on the team plane. The Pro Football Hall of Fame named him the franchise's No. 1 fan. He always figured the Rams would return to L.A., where they belonged, and when they did, so did Merg.
"People keep asking me what it means," Merg says. "The Rams were the first America's team. People get nostalgic about the frozen tundra, the Cowboys and their star. Nuh-uh. This is Los Angeles. The Coliseum."
The site for the Rams' new City of Champions Stadium is in Inglewood, adjacent to the aging Forum. For now, it's a fenced-off parking lot. But fans like Merg can envision what L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti calls the "next golden age" of SoCal sports. Merg can picture the $3 billion complex that will host Super Bowl LV, in 2021—the luxury cabanas, the beach club, the 50-foot-tall, 120-yard-long video board. Merg hears the doubt surrounding the move, the uncertainty voiced by the likes of the Starbucks Council, the anger that remains. "I'll be there either way," he says. "I don't care if the Rams lose every game. I'm still going, dude. If I die tomorrow, I'm all good. I'm all about the horns."