Will missed ‘opportunity’ haunt the Rams in L.A.?
When the Rams received permission to relocate to Los Angeles a year ago this week, Edwin Arroyave eagerly got ready with tens of thousands of others to snap up season tickets. He purchased 10, plus an RV for tailgating, and even hired a personal chef for the pregame fun.
Now after the Rams’ dispiriting 4-12 season, the security company founder is worried about the fizzling passion he sees through empty seats and soft TV ratings.
“There was a game where I invited a bunch of my friends to tailgate, but none of them had tickets,” he said. “About 15 minutes before the game they all got tickets for $10.”
The late-season soft market ran counter to the team’s strong start. The L.A. market overwhelmingly embraced the Rams when they relocated from St. Louis, ending America’s top sports league’s two-decade-long absence from the country’s entertainment capital. Within months the team sold out season tickets for the first three years in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and preseason games against the Dallas Cowboys and Kansas City Chiefs drew 90,000 each, while the home opener against the Seattle Seahawks also drew that many. Sponsorship sales and other key business metrics were equally robust.
“First four games, as you can imagine, the fans were on fire,” Arroyave said. But after a 3-1 start, the team won only one more game, and the excitement quickly dissipated.
“As we went on that losing streak, you mostly saw the new [Rams] fans fall off,” Arroyave said. “I also saw a lot of fans from other teams trying to convert to [Rams] fans, as they just wanted to represent L.A. now that we had a team. Those fans easily went back to their old teams.”
Though the late-season collapse of enthusiasm is almost certainly not permanent, it raises a caution flag as the San Diego Chargers decide whether to join the Rams at a planned stadium in Inglewood, Calif., scheduled to open in 2019. The Chargers must decide by Jan. 15, unless the league extends their option.
L.A. always had a reputation as front-running sports town, and the Rams’ growing number of no-shows in the season’s final weeks may be a testament to that. The team still reported an average of 80,000 a game at the Coliseum, which far exceeded the 52,400 it averaged in its final year in St. Louis, but there was softness in the market.
Television ratings also suffered, with some late-season Rams games drawing fewer viewers than other games shown in the market. While the number of viewers were higher in L.A. than St. Louis given market sizes, not one Rams game this season drew a higher local rating in L.A. than the season average over the preceding five years in St. Louis (see chart).
In fact, Fox Sports, which broadcast most of the Rams home games, reported a lower 2016 average rating in L.A., 8.0, than the 8.3 it earned in 2015 and 2014, when there was no local team. CBS Sports, which had one Rams game, reported a 7.6 rating in the L.A. market, also lower than each of the previous years.
The team’s rookie quarterback and No. 1 pick, Jared Goff, inadvertently referenced the fickle L.A. crowd in his thank you at season’s end, featured on the team’s website along with those of other players.
“Hey Rams Nation we appreciate your support all year, especially true fans that have stuck with us the whole year,” he said.
Amy Trask, a former Oakland Raiders CEO and current L.A. resident, agrees the team fizzled dramatically by the end of the year.
“They blew an opportunity, they had an opportunity,” she said. In fact, she added, the failure to take hold of the market may create a chance for the Chargers to enter and take a bigger share of fans than expected from the Rams, who had the advantage of arriving first.
The Rams are not hiding from what happened. Kevin Demoff, the team’s chief operating officer, said last month when asked about fans leaving by the fourth quarter of the Atlanta Falcons game, which preceded the firing of head coach Jeff Fisher, “We all feel frustrations — we’re all fans. We all carry that and you want to see the crowd excited. When you juxtapose the fourth quarter of yesterday with what you saw against Dallas and Seattle — that was really a hard juxtaposition.”
Trask, who still believes the Rams were the right choice over the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders to relocate to L.A., said winning would instantly cure the problems. The move to the new $2 billion-plus stadium will also go a long way toward solving amenity issues, since the Coliseum is full of bleacher seats, has no premium seating and only basic concessions.
“This is very much a city where people want to be in the place believed to be the place to be seen,” she said. “When the Raiders played in L.A., we had greatest ticket demand after we announced a sellout.”
Another positive, albeit anecdotal sign, is that fans didn’t ditch their Rams merchandise, said Frank Luntz, a well-known political commentator who also surveys and polls for sports teams and leagues. “L.A. fans are fickle and less passionate, but I see Rams gear everywhere,” said Luntz, who has a home in L.A. and attended three games. “You will see more passionate and engaged fans next year.”
That said, Luntz recognized that the Rams have their work cut out for them in the hub of glitz and glamour.
“It will be tough for the Rams to truly break through until they have established a winning franchise,” he said. “In fact, just winning probably isn’t enough; they need to win the Super Bowl.”
Andrew Kline, managing director and founder of a sports investment bank Park Lane and season-ticket holder who played for the St. Louis Rams, however, said it is enough the Rams are back.
“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and everybody loves a winner, and I will tell you while obviously we wanted more on the field, this town knows what an amazing win it was to get an NFL team here,” he said. “The goodwill earned by [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke overshadows the play on the field.”
Leigh Steinberg, a veteran sports agent who also grew up in and resides in L.A., said the city is the only sports market he knows where premium sales are easier than general sales, underscoring Trask’s point that glitz and glamour matter in L.A. and that the new stadium will help. He brushed off the Rams’ late-season struggles to keep fans’ interest as residue of a terrible offense that scored only 89 points in eight home games and an uninteresting product.
But even in that, Steinberg saw a silver lining.
“There is nowhere to go but up,” he said.