LOS ANGELES — Andy Hogan had a mantra for the 21 years he spent watching the Rams play in St. Louis. It was part denial, part assurance.
“My professional team is the Los Angeles Rams,” Hogan said. “We’re undefeated since 1994.”
Nothing about the St. Louis Rams sat right with him. The city changed, sure. So did the jerseys. So did the spirit.
When Rams owner Georgia Frontiere packed up one of the NFL’s oldest franchises and moved it halfway across the country for the 1995 season, she created a void that left the city of Los Angeles longing, even if it didn’t seem that way.
The Raiders may have had a stranglehold on the city, but the Rams had history. Moving the team left holes in a lot of hearts.
“The Rams have a very old and long-lasting fan base in Los Angeles that goes back generations,” Hogan said. “But leaving for 21 years did not help when it came to building the fan base.”
Hogan was just 5 years old when the Rams left, but part of his maturation was realizing how much Rams football galvanized a particular group of fans in Los Angeles who grew up with memories and wanted more of them.
“It piqued my interest because I knew that the team had been in Southern California for many years,” Hogan said. “I’d say in Southern California there were three camps after they moved. There were the ones that wanted them to lose every single game, which is what I think you would find in Baltimore with the Colts and Cleveland with the Ravens. You have those camps. You have those that just stop really caring and then those that continue following the team.”
Hogan wanted to find out if there was anyone in Los Angeles still invested in the Rams, so he did what any millennial would do, he started a Facebook page. It was 2009 and the idea of the Rams returning to LA was still far-fetched.
“I created a Facebook page just to kind of see if there’s anyone out there that still remembered the team or cared,” Hogan said. “I was surprised to find that there were a large number of people that were still loyal to the team and a large number of people that would become loyal again if the team relocated.”
The response was striking.
“Within just a couple weeks we had a couple hundred likes and I thought that was like, ‘Oh, this is pretty good.’ ’’
It didn’t stop.
“A month after that, I had a thousand [likes],” Hogan said. “Then a month after that it was like 5,000 and I’m like, ‘OK, this is kind of a little more than I was expecting.’ Then I think after a year we were at 20-some-odd thousand people. All by word of mouth. So the response was somewhat overwhelming because I didn’t know what to expect. I figured that for the most part people had moved on. They’re either apathetic toward the NFL or they had found new teams or whatever. And there were a lot of people that were still fans of the team and still wanted the team back if that was at all possible.”
Now that the Rams are not only back in Los Angeles but heading to the Super Bowl, there’s a feeling of fulfillment for Hogan. But he also can’t help but wonder what could have been if they had never left.
Conventional wisdom says Los Angeles isn’t a football town. It’s an oasis of entertainment, nightlife, sunshine, celebrities, and star power. The challenge is keeping the city’s attention.
To that end, the Rams are in the driver’s seat. Not only did they win, they won quickly. Three years after moving back to LA, the Rams will face the Patriots in the Super Bowl on Sunday. They have an identity, a next-generation coach in Sean McVay, and a appeal that makes them attractive.
The notion that the Rams might not thrive in a city so flush with options never made sense to Hogan. The franchise was too rich in history. It was the first professional sports team in California. It was the first team to break the color barrier in the NFL. At their height, the Rams set multiple attendance records.
“They had all this history,” Hogan said. “They hadn’t won a Super Bowl, but they were right up there with the old guard. The Chicago Bears, the New York Giants. It was crazy to think that the franchise would be allowed to move.”
But above all else, LA loves winners.
“It’s funny,” said Josh Harris, a 28-year-old from Inglewood. “We have our teams. We have our Lakers, we have our Dodgers, and now we finally have this football team. So it feels good to be a sports city again. It feels complete.”
Harris grew up around the corner from where the Rams’ new stadium is being built. He had a feeling at the start of this season this might be the Rams’ year. When they swung a deal for cornerback Marcus Peters, Harris made up his mind to buy season tickets.
“I just think he brings a great energy to our team,” said Harris. “The way he responds, the way he talks, the swagger he brings to the team, you can see it kind of trickling down to the rest of the team.”
In a short time, the city landed both the Rams and the Chargers, but it was never a two-team decision.
“I remember thinking, ‘I’m not going to be a Charger fan,’ ” Harris said. “It just didn’t give me the same feeling.”
The Rams’ history mattered.
“I think the Rams, they were here before, so you have that fan base that was waiting for them to come back,” said Harris. “And then you have the new fans that were just there because of the newfound success and all the stuff that’s been going on. After seeing all the big wins, fans start to slowly get on board.”
Los Angeles is having its moment. LeBron James decided to take his talents to the Lakers. The Dodgers have been to the last two World Series (although lost both). The Rams are in the Super Bowl.
Measuring the magnitude was easy for Kenny McCloud, an accountant by day, a DJ by night, and a Rams fan in between.
“The Dodgers were in the World Series. The Lakers are supposed to be in the NBA Finals. They’re acting up right now. The hockey team was in the playoffs. The new soccer team was in the playoffs, too,” said McCloud. “Now we’ve got the Rams in the Super Bowl? What are you talking about? This is the biggest time in sports history in LA.”
McCloud grew up across the street from the Los Angeles Coliseum. He has vivid memories of Lakers parades. The Rams left when he was 8. Football wasn’t a part of his childhood until he started playing on Saturdays. He didn’t want to cheer for a team that wasn’t from LA. When he heard the Rams were coming back, he bought team gear immediately. But McCloud remembers his mother — who was part of the former fan base — being skeptical.
“At the time, they were weak,” he said. “They were terrible. So she was like, ‘They’re coming back? For what?’ ”
As McCloud got older, he ventured out to different cities and realized how spoiled Los Angeles can be at times.
“It’s not the fact that we don’t support our teams unless they’re winning, it’s just that we’re upset because we’re used to winning,” he said. “So it’s like, if ya’ll messing up, you’re in trouble right now. As soon as they start doing what they’re supposed to do, everybody starts tuning back in and they’re fans.”
McCloud doesn’t deny that there’s been a bit of a bandwagon. On some level, the transplants give the city a bad rep.
“Now you’ve got the transplants talking about the home team like it’s their team that they grew up believing in,” he said. “But they weren’t born and raised here.”
If there’s an issue, it’s that the moments keep coming and the attention darts around. As a market, LA is crowded.
“Angelenos are always looking for a distraction,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at USC. “They’re always looking for something to do. And I think for many, this is just the next new thing to be a part of. It’s just the next new piece of merchandise to buy. You need to feel like you’re able to carry on an intelligent conversation about what are the chances of beating the Patriots, and ‘Oh my God, can you believe that Saints game?’ So I guess the way I look at it, for many in Southern California, it’s a shiny sports object for now.”
It was only three months ago that the Dodgers lost to the Red Sox in the World Series.
“When the Dodgers lost to the Red Sox, that was the talk of the town,” Carter said. “You sort of sensed that in Southern California, while there were certainly football fans, sports fans — the casual ones — just jumped from one opportunity to the next in an effort to have a great time, get together with friends and commiserate and watch sports. So that has certainly been on full display.”
The timing of the Rams’ run to the Super Bowl couldn’t be more perfect. LeBron hasn’t played since Christmas and his return is up in the air. The basketball teams at USC and UCLA are having down seasons. It’s January and the Rams are the most engaging element in the LA sports scene.
“This is a great opportunity for the Rams to suck up that oxygen, and they’re doing that,” Carter said.
For Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti, it’s a moment the city can seize. The Super Bowl will come to Los Angeles in 2022 and the Rams’ success only validates the city’s viability to the NFL.
“It’s been incredible,” Garcetti said. “My fantasy was by the time the Super Bowl got to LA, the stadium would be built, we’d be in it and the Steelers would be in it too, so we could avenge a loss I watched in 1979 as a 7-year-old kid when we had victory snatched away from us by Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.”
The Rams’ trajectory far exceeded Garcetti’s expectations. A lifetime Angeleno, he lived and died by Rams football until they left.
“It was tough,” Garcetti said. “I’ll be honest, I stopped being a pro football fan for a long time. I’d watch games, but my heart wasn’t in it. It was just 20 years of just playing chicken.”
Talks with the league of subsidizing stadiums became draining. There were plans for the Coliseum. Then there were plans for downtown.
“It just felt like you’re divorced and your ex is like, ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll get back to you,’ and then they’re like, ‘Just kidding,’ ’’ said Garcetti. But in this movie, the reunion is a success.
“It has been wonderful to not only have our hometown team come back, but I think the challenge is now for all of who grew up with football in this town, we still have something left in our hearts,” said Garcetti.
Passing that down matters.
“I think this young generation is up for grabs now,” Garcetti said. “It’s just going to be the experience of them in the first couple years, kids growing up now can see this team go to the Super Bowl and maybe even win it. I think that’ll stick with them for the next 25 years of their life.”
The numbers are there, and Garcetti will point to them. The region is flooded with 10 million people. It’s the third-largest urban economy in the world.
The plan worked very quickly. The question is whether success can come too soon.
“I thought a lot about that,” Garcetti said. “Because this is a town that loves winners. And when you have a lot of sports and a lot of teams, sometimes the winners or the ones who are doing the best get the most attention. But I think this is what football needed.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.