Sunday's game between the two Los Angeles NFL teams, the Raiders and the Rams, was not unlike a funeral. A lot of people showed up who otherwise would not have given the deceased the time of day; the crowd of 65,208 at Anaheim Stadium was about 25,000 more than usual for a Ram game. Even in these days of NFL parity, all those folks probably weren't there because of the tension generated by a matchup of two 4-5 teams. You had to guess that most of them were in Anaheim to pay their last respects to the Rams.
On the other hand, maybe it was a Raider send-off. Like the Rams, the Raiders play in an outdated stadium—the L.A. Coliseum—that their boss, Al Davis, would love to bolt. Just as the Rams are being romanced by St. Louis and Baltimore, so are the Raiders once more being courted by their old sweetheart, Oakland, a city that has a nostalgic appeal for Davis because that is where his Raiders used to win, something they haven't done nearly as frequently of late in L.A.
Strange, isn't it, that Sunday's unremarkable game could presage the disappearance of pro football from the second-largest metropolitan area in the country. It's not a certainty that both the Rams and the Raiders will leave the Southland, of course, but who could have imagined only a short time ago that any professional sports team would leave this recreational gold mine. The NFL, America's Game, can't maintain enough interest to support even one team in the nation's playground?
The league sure hopes that it can. "We want to keep the NFL strong in Los Angeles," says league spokesman Greg Aiello. "And that means having a team presence, a first-class stadium and the ability to play Super Bowls there in the next century."
Accordingly, commissioner Paul Tagliabue has taken a role in trying to develop stadium plans with both teams. But a solution, if one can be found, will probably come too late to keep the Rams in Southern California. In fact, last week it seemed certain that they were gone. Sunday's game was simply the NFL equivalent of a visitation, a chance for old friends to pass by and remark, "How lifelike!"
That the Rams lost 20-17 was of no significance. As far as their community is concerned, they expired in 1990 when they were able to insert an escape clause in their Anaheim Stadium lease. The big guessing game in Southern California now centers not on if the Rams are going, or even when, but where. They have explored the possibility of a move to Hartford but have dealt more seriously with St. Louis and Baltimore, two cities widowed within the last decade by the NFL.
As surprising as this might seem to non-Californians—do you know anyone who has moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis?—citizens of the Golden State are even more stunned. After all, they are accustomed to sports teams moving in from somewhere else. Some fire, a little earthquake and civil unrest here and there, and throw in an anticipated shortfall of some $6 million this year, and suddenly the Rams are ready to bail, the first of their sun-blessed kind to head cast on the interstate.
According to the Rams, it's simply business. Insiders believe that owner Georgia Frontiere, who inherited the team from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, 15 years ago, would prefer to remain in California. Shielded from the press and displayed in public chiefly in moments of philanthropy, she is considered dreamy and ineffectual. It doesn't help her image that this year's Ram media guide opens with an anthology of her prose poems (a eulogy to Henry Mancini—"He wove musical tapestries"—is found on page 3) or that the "advisory board" she has put together boasts such noted football minds as Bob Hope, Maureen Reagan and a Lord David Westbury. This would be considered acceptably eccentric for an owner of a winning team, but it is seen as seriously off-the-wall when the team is on a five-season skid.
Yet the Rams' impending departure certainly is business for team president John Shaw, who for four years has been hoping to move his club to a state-of-the-art stadium—and thereby to profitability—or, failing that, to St. Louis or Baltimore. Shaw has told the Los Angeles Times that the Rams are already $24 million into the $40 million debt limit that the NFL allows each of its franchises. "It's clear that we would at some point in the next few years reach the league debt limit," he said.
The chief obstacle for the Rams is Anaheim Stadium, which they share with baseball's California Angels. With a poor seating configuration for football, it is ill-suited for use as a dual-purpose park, and the location and condition of its 113 sky-boxes are deemed substandard by the Rams.
The Raiders, who arrived in L.A. in 1982, have lived with an even worse facility. The 71-year-old Coliseum took a $60 million battering in the 1993 earthquake, and while the Coliseum Commission did a magnificent repair job, it so far has been unable or unwilling to provide the club seats and skyboxes that would contribute greatly to the Raiders' income. The team blames the antiquated stadium and its location in a rundown section of Los Angeles for the fact that the Raiders have had an average of more than 21,000 empty seats per home game this season. Davis has told the NFL that the Coliseum is "untenable." Left unsaid, but nonetheless quite clear, is that the Raiders can bolt anytime they want if Davis is offered a deal that he finds sufficiently enticing.
Oakland, which last tried to lure back the Raiders in 1990, will shortly try again. The last time, the city proposed to pay the team some $30 million to relocate, but Davis was skeptical that the city could deliver that kind of money. Talks between Raider and Oakland officials, which involved roughly the same financial inducement, were being held recently even as the Rams were considering their much more publicized options.
As soon as the Rams let it be known early this year that they were willing to move, a number of suitors appeared. Baltimore, from which the Colts snuck away in the middle of the night in 1984, stepped forward, guaranteeing the Rams a genuine football town. But Baltimore cannot offer a new stadium—at least not right away. The Maryland General Assembly set aside a financial package of some $160 million for a new arena adjacent to the Orioles' home at Camden Yards should the city land an NFL team. Gov. William Donald Schaefer has pushed hard for a stadium, but he will leave office in January, and it is possible that the new legislature will decide to allocate those funds elsewhere.
In any case, the league's old guard would prefer that the Rams not set up shop in Baltimore, a short commute up I-95 from the base of Jack Kent Cooke's Washington Redskins.
St. Louis seems the better fit, even given that city's lukewarm support for the Cardinals, who left for Phoenix in 1988. Earlier this month Shaw told the Times that St. Louis is the city "most capable of immediately giving us what we're looking for." That means the construction of a 70,000-seat domed stadium and plans to raise $60 million through a seat-licensing program that would cover the costs of relocating the Rams, the construction of a practice facility and the retirement of a $30 million debt that the Rams have outstanding in Anaheim.
The wild card in this high-stakes bidding is Anaheim. The city and the team have not gotten along since the Rams moved there in 1980, but some citizens are attempting, under the banner of a group called Save the Rams, to repair relations. Player agent Leigh Steinberg, who lives in Newport Beach, cochairs the organization and warns against anybody's turning the lights out in Anaheim just yet. "I remember in San Francisco," he says, "when Mayor [Frank] Jordan asked me to help keep the Giants there. The team had already had a sales agreement with Tampa. Now that was hopeless."
The Giants' move did not come to pass, and Steinberg believes it is possible that the Rams' won't either. Although it has yet to meet with Frontiere, Save the Rams has come up with a package of public and private appropriations to address the team's needs: a $70 million refurbishment of the stadium, a new practice facility, relocation of the Angels in a new ballpark next door, and the guaranteed sale of 45,000 season tickets.
Moreover, Steinberg's group would even be willing to pour some capital into the Rams in return for equity. As a matter of fact, Steinberg says, there are people in Southern California who would like a crack at 100% ownership. Certainly there is a feeling that new management could do a better job with the Rams. Attendance has sagged over the last three years (only the Tampa Bay Bucs sold fewer season tickets this year), and the move 14 years ago to a nondescript town 40 miles removed from Hollywood seems gradually to have separated the Rams not only physically but also emotionally from their glory years. "When I was in Buffalo," says linebacker Shane Conlan, "the people knew everybody's name—not just the starters', everybody's. I don't think I've been recognized twice in two years here. Maybe this is just not a football town. Maybe there's too much to do."
Still, there are franchises that thrive in Southern California, so long as they obey the principal dynamic of life there. "The Rams have acknowledged their policies of cost-cutting," says Steinberg. "They have not heavily promoted in an area where hotness is everything."
The Rams are not hot. Once the Raiders moved to Southern California, they quickly supplanted the Rams in terms of being identified with L.A. and charisma. The week before the game against the Raiders, some Rams were complaining that all they saw around L.A. were Raider billboards, skulls and a lot of Davis's COMMITMENT TO EXCELLENCE signs. "It's like we're the city's stepchild," says wide receiver Jesse Hester. "Everywhere you go, it's Raiders this or Raiders that." It's a matter of style. The Rams have none.
So they go up for municipal grabs in an era when fan support can be guaranteed with a bond measure. Any move the Rams make will solve many of their problems: They will have plenty of dough, a new house and as much talent as the salary cap will allow.