Thursday, January 21, 2016

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Rams for Moving Back to Los Angeles

After 21 seasons in the Gateway City, the St. Louis Rams are going back to Los Angeles.

It's about time, too. "St. Louis Rams" simply didn't look right.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the St. Louis Rams for Moving Back to Los Angeles

5. Identity. Los Angeles was not he Rams' 1st home. They played in Cleveland from 1936 to 1945. But the Forest City was completely uninterested in them.

Even when they won the 1945 NFL Championship Game, against the Washington Redskins, a team led by the greatest quarterback the game had ever seen to that point, Sammy Baugh, they got just 32,178 fans into Cleveland Municipal Stadium -- meaning there were about 53,000 empty seats.

For comparison's sake: The 1944 title game, between the Giants and the Green Bay Packers at the Polo Grounds in New York, drew 46,016; the 1946 title game, also at the Polo Grounds, between the Giants and the Bears, drew 58,346, a sellout.

True, the Rams were still suffering from the effects of World War II: A lot of players, and a lot of fans, were still in the armed forces in December 1945. But for a championship game against Slingin' Sammy, they should have gotten more than 33,000 fans.

In contrast, the Rams regularly put 80,000 fans into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, topping out at 102,385 for a 1957 game against their arch-rivals, the San Francisco 49ers. That was an NFL regular season record that stood until 2005. (Restoring the Rams-49ers rivalry, which didn't make sense when it was St. Louis vs. San Francisco, also helps.)
The Rams were L.A.'s 1st major league sports team, preceding the Dodgers by 12 years, the Lakers by 14, the Angels by 15, and the Kings by 21. They won the NFL Championship in 1951, and reached the Championship Game 4 times in their 1st 10 seasons out there.

From the 1940s into the 1970s, their players, such as Bob Waterfield (who married actress Jane Russell), Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch, Tom Fears, David "Deacon" Jones, Merlin Olsen and Roosevelt "Rosey" Grier, frequently appeared in movies and on TV shows filmed in L.A. This helped to build their identity as L.A.'s team, as Hollywood's team, before Walter O'Malley pandered to the studios and got Frank Sinatra (a Dodger fan in Brooklyn who went west before they did) and other Hollywood celebrities to come first to the Coliseum, and then to Chavez Ravine.

The Rams were still drawing well in L.A. in 1979, when Georgia Frontiere, having already talked her husband, team owner Carroll Rosenbloom, into doing it, moved them down the freeway to Anaheim following her husband's death. Apparently, she didn't like going into the ghetto: The Coliseum and the University of Southern California campus it abuts are on the edge of South Central.
It was Anaheim that doomed the Rams: The expanded stadium was no good for either baseball or football, and the crowds stopped coming. So in 1994, she decided to move the Rams to her hometown of St. Louis.

But aside from the brief "Greatest Show On Turf" era, 1999 to 2004, the Rams were never popular in St. Louis. When she died in 2008, and her children sold the team to Stan Kroenke in 2010, the team was successful neither on the field nor at the box office, and there was no reason for Kroenke to keep them in St. Louis.
As with the Raiders (who want to move back to Los Angeles 20 years after going back to their original hometown of Oakland), the Rams are going home.

4. The Stadium Situation. The Edward Jones Dome opened at the northern edge of downtown St. Louis in 1995, but was designed before Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992. Camden Yards rewrote the rules for stadium and arena construction. Suddenly, the Rams had a brand-new stadium that was obsolete. Why? Not enough luxury boxes.

The lease was also an issue. The good news was, unlike the City of San Diego with the Chargers, the City of St. Louis was willing to build the Rams a new stadium. The bad news was, it was going to be further north of downtown than the current location. And the Rams still wouldn't be owning their own stadium.

The City of Los Angeles, through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Commission, owns the Coliseum (and the adjacent Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena), but Kroenke has already made a deal to build a new stadium on the site of the now-demolished Hollywood Park racetrack, near the Forum in Inglewood. So the Rams will only have to play the 2016, '17 and '18 seasons in a stadium that they don't own, built when Warren Harding was President, next to a ghetto. They'll probably still bring in more fans and make more money than they would have if they'd stayed in St. Louis.
Artist's rendering of what is currently being called
City of Champions Stadium. Most likely, naming rights
will be sold before the Autumn 2019 opening.

And, in 2019, they'll have a stadium they own and operate. If something happens that they don't like, instead of whining that it isn't getting fixed, they'll have the money and the authority (but also the obligation) to fix it. If there's one thing NFL team owners like having more than money, it's control. Kroenke married into the Walton family of Walmart infamy, so money wasn't the biggest issue with the team being in St. Louis: Control was.

3. St. Louis Is Not a Football Town. In 2014, the Rams averaged 57,018 fans per home game. Only the Minnesota Vikings did worse, and that was because they were groundsharing with the University of Minnesota while a new stadium was built on the site of the Metrodome. UM's stadium only seats a shade over 52,000 people, so the Vikings could have sold many more seats.

In 2015, the Rams did even worse than the Vikings: 52,402. They only filled the Edward Jones Dome to 80 percent of capacity. The next-worst in the NFL was the Raiders, who only got the Oakland Coliseum 86 percent filled.

To make matters worse, St. Louis-area fans don't even seem to care that the team is leaving. In October, the NFL owners met at a St. Louis hotel. With the threat of moving to L.A. having hung in the air pretty much for Kroenke's entire 5-year ownership, meaning a move would not have surprised anyone, how many fans showed up to tell the owners not to approve the move? About 1,500. That's right: One thousand, five hundred. I've been to high school soccer games with bigger crowds. And that's the biggest protest I could find on Google.

(The NFL owners voted 30 to 2 to allow the move. Even Alex Spanos of the San Diego Chargers, who also wants to move to L.A., possibly to share the Inglewood stadium with the Rams, voted for it. The only ones to vote against it? Understandably, Mark Davis of the Raiders. Less understandably, Mike Brown of the Cincinnati Bengals: Apparently, he thinks that the Rams being in L.A. will mean less money for team owners.)

St. Louis is not a pro football town. When the NFL Cardinals were in St. Louis, they filled Sportsman's Park from 1960 to 1965, but it only seated 31,000 people. Busch Memorial Stadium seated about 54,000 for football, but the Cardinals played there from 1966 to 1987, and -- with brief exceptions in the mid-1970s and early 1980s when the Cards made the Playoffs -- they didn't fill it then, either. The Cards moved to Arizona, and even when they couldn't get 50,000 into Sun Devil Stadium (let alone the 64,000 that now regularly fills the University of Phoenix Stadium), owner Billy Bidwill never regretted the move.

St. Louis is not a college football town, either. The University of Missouri's Faurot Field is 126 miles from the Edward Jones Dome. And that's the closest Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division I-A) school to St. Louis. The next-closest such team is the University of Illinois (which, of course, is not in Missouri), and their Memorial Stadium is 173 miles away.

Nor is St. Louis known for producing great football players. Go ahead: Name a great football player who came from within a 50-mile radius of the Gateway Arch. The best is Kellen Winslow, the great tight end of the San Diego Chargers. The next-best is probably Jimmy Conzelman, a St. Louis native who played at the city's Washington University, and won an NFL Championship. You might not have heard of him, because that title was with the 1928 Providence Steam Roller (who went out of business 3 years later). He coached the Cardinals to the 1947 title and the 1948 title game, but that was in Chicago, not St. Louis. And he's been dead since 1970.

In other words, St. Louis' greatest football products are a guy who peaked in Ronald Reagan's 1st term, and is now 58 years old; and a guy who has been irrelevant in the game since Harry Truman was President, and dead since Richard Nixon's 1st term. Go ahead: Name another great football player from St. Louis and environs. I can't.

St. Louis is not a football town.

2. Los Angeles Is a Football Town. Before the Rams and the Raiders, the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) packed the Coliseum time after time, and not just against each other.

USC averaged 75,358 fans for its 7 games at the Coliseum in 2015. That's at a 92-year-old stadium with few modern amenities, and issues with parking and neighborhood safety. And in a season where they went 8-6, were on probation, and ended up firing their coach in mid-season. (They still managed to reach the Pac-12 Championship Game, although they lost it.)

UCLA has played at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena since 1982, but, going a good but not great 8-5 overall this season, they averaged 66,807 in their 6 home games. The Rose Bowl is in a much safer area, but it's even older (by a few months), and their facilities are every bit as outdated. When USC and UCLA played each other at the Coliseum this season, the "derby" drew 83,602.

And both programs have gotten fat off local talent. I could only name 2 great NFL players from St. Louis: Conzelman and Winslow. And Conzelman (perhaps unfairly) isn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I found a site that listed the Top 10 football players to come from Los Angeles and its environs. Check out these names, whom I have listed here in chronological order: Glenn Davis, Ron Mix, Mike Haynes, Anthony Munoz, James Lofton, Ronnie Lott, Warren Moon, John Elway, Bruce Matthews, and Tony Gonzalez.

That's 8 guys who are already in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1 who almost certainly will be (Gonzalez), and a College Football Hall-of-Famer and Heisman Trophy winner (Davis), who played 2 seasons in the NFL, probably would have played more if not for his Army commitment, and got the Rams into the NFL Championship Game both years (the Rams lost to the Cleveland Browns in 1950 and beat them in 1951).

Oh, yes, Los Angeles is a football town.

1. Money. Look at market size. The Los Angeles metropolitan area has about 18.4 million people. If the Rams have it all to themselves (as they do, for the moment), then, considering that New York, whose Tri-State Area has about 23.5 million, is split (not evenly, but for the sake of argument, let's presume that it is) between Giant fans and Jet fans, the Rams will have the largest market in the NFL.

If the Raiders or Chargers come in, then they'll have half as many in their share: 9.2 million. That would make the Rams and the Raiders or Chargers the 4th and 5th biggest teams, behind the 2 NYTSA teams and the Chicago Bears (just under 10 million).

Contrast that with St. Louis: They have just 2.9 million. Before this move, they were ranked 20th among the NFL's 32 markets. Throw in the Canadian Football League, which includes Toronto and Montreal, both larger, and St. Louis would have ranked 22nd out of 41 professional football markets in North America.

Portland, Oregon and Orlando, Florida don't have NFL teams, and their metro areas have more people than St. Louis. Sacramento isn't far behind in terms of metro area population, and they've had trouble holding onto just 1 team, the NBA's Kings (although they now have a new arena under construction, ensuring they'll stay put for a while).

St. Louis also has Major League Baseball's Cardinals, who are by far the most popular team in town; and the NHL's Blues, who are more popular in St. Louis and its vicinity than the Rams, despite not reaching the Stanley Cup Finals since the Kent State Massacre (May 1970), or even the Conference Finals since before 9/11 (May 2001).

The baseball Cardinals are a beloved, iconic franchise, backed by enough money to overcome any "small market" issues. The Blues are doing very well at the box office. Both of those teams have venues that they own, control, and sell out on a regular basis. They're not going anywhere.

But St. Louis lost the NBA's Hawks to Atlanta in 1968, right after getting the Blues, proving they couldn't hold 4 major league teams. They lost the football Cardinals in 1987, and have now lost the Rams, proving yet again that they can't even hold 3 major league teams. And while Major League Soccer is looking to expand, and is in such small markets as Portland, Orlando and Salt Lake City, they are not seriously looking at St. Louis, despite its deep roots in American soccer history (several members of the iconic 1950 World Cup team came from there).

Somebody recently said, "How bad can St. Louis be, if it can produce Yogi Berra?" Good question. I'm not saying that it's a bad city. But it's not a big market, and it's just not a football town. Los Angeles is both, and it's the Rams' historic home.

*

The case for the prosecution is that the Rams shouldn't be moved, because it's a betrayal of their loyal St. Louis fans.

The case for the defense is that the Rams' fans in St. Louis aren't especially loyal, that their truly loyal fans are back in Los Angeles, and that they'll have a better deal in their own stadium in Inglewood in the Autumn of 2019, even if they have to play 3 seasons in the Coliseum first.

My verdict: Not Guilty. Let the Rams go home.

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