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The Rams Are Still Trying to Win Over Hearts and Minds in L.A.

How does an “expansion team with roots” build a fan base?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Here we are, midway through the NFL’s 2016 regular season, and gosh — can you even remember a time before there was football? Bear with me, but I think maybe you can; an age before we talked about Dak Prescott and contemplated the extremely-very-good-no-seriously Raiders and before any wheels had either been fixed to or gone flying off of the Wentz Wagon. Back, I mean, in the chilly depths of the offseason, when all we could do was speculate about what lay before us — back when we used to talk about how the St. Louis Rams weren’t going to be in St. Louis anymore. Remember that? An NFL team used to be in one place, and now it’s in another, 1,800 miles, a couple of mountain ranges, and untold beds of arugula away.

I have come here to ask: How is that going? Not the football (the Rams are 3–4), and not the moving — the being-in-L.A.-ing. After all the hype that followed the franchise to Los Angeles, it faced the not-so-simple prospect of reawakening a base that watched the team skip town more than two decades ago, in 1995; beyond that, it had to persuade new fans — people who’ve spent the interim rooting for other franchises, or who were never given a reason to care about football at all — to buy in.

The first step was helping them literally buy in. “We found during some research that the most common question people were asking was, ‘How do I get tickets?’” says Jake Bye, a Rams vice president who oversees consumer sales and marketing. “‘How do I attend a Rams game after 22 years of being out of the market and not having an NFL team here?’”

So, as the Rams loaded up 32 semitrucks and ripped out locker stalls to be reassembled in California, they set out to answer that question. They launched — a site that is less about the Rams (though an informational video will helpfully tell you who Aaron Donald and Todd Gurley are) and more about topping mid-2016 search results for rams tickets los angeles how buy. The franchise did other outreach, hosting a community rally shortly after the move was announced in January, at which owner Stan Kroenke promised Super Bowls, plural; billboards appeared across the region, showing massive Rams players striding Godzilla-like over L.A. landmarks alongside the text “We’re Home.”

This has been the historical strategy for new NFL franchises: Plant an NFL HERE! sign on the lawn and let the people and their face paint and sweet, sweet dollars come pouring in. And for the Rams — who are not new to Los Angeles, but were away long enough to pick up a college degree and move back in with mom and dad; Bye calls the repatriated franchise “an expansion team with roots” — this has mostly been successful. A week and a half after NFL franchise owners approved the move, the Rams announced they had already received more than 45,000 deposits for season tickets at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the team’s home for three seasons until its $2.6 billion, 80,000-seat stadium is completed in Inglewood. That number has since ballooned to 70,000 season tickets sold, a figure the Rams say both they and the league are pleased with.

Getty Images
Getty Images

This is no great shock. As with most things NFL-related, the move to Los Angeles ran little risk of being a money-losing endeavor. The mere act of heading west doubled the worth of the franchise, transforming it overnight into the league’s sixth-most valuable team at $2.9 billion; last season, the lowly Missourian Rams held the no. 28 spot. You can debate just how badly Angelenos were hankering for football, but the country’s second-largest metropolitan area was never going to have too much trouble filling seats. After setting preseason attendance records, the Rams sold out their home opener with a crowd of 91,046; the team’s second — and, to date, only other — home game drew 83,679 spectators.

Still, the Rams are aware that a challenge awaits them. ESPN the Magazine recently released its Ultimate Standings, the outlet’s annual ranking of the 122 North American professional franchises in football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. The Rams came in at no. 121, placing no. 121 in the “Fan relations” category. ESPN wrote: “The Rams will have to win consistently if they hope to maintain attention spans on the West Coast.”

“It’s a marketplace that is so large, that is so diverse, and there are just wonderful things to do here — everything from the weather to the activities to the professional sports teams in the market,” Bye says. “We’re really trying to stand out and have a message that’s different.”

Bye also notes: “The work is really just beginning. Once the novelty wears off, in Year 2, in Year 3 — we’ll work toward that and keep building.”

There have been promising signs, beyond the sheer numbers. Many fans have been eager to reacquaint themselves with the team. Rams faithful — new and rekindled alike — have hosted tailgates. Lance “Big Seed” Goldberg, who gained notoriety for wearing painted watermelons on his head to Rams games before the team left for St. Louis, returned to the Coliseum this fall, toting fresh headgear and a new generation of Melon Head.

And fan clubs sprang up, like the Conejo Valley Rams Club, named for the location of the Rams’ temporary practice facility as the permanent site is completed nearby, and where many players have settled. The group now claims nearly 1,500 Facebook members and hosts regular events and contests.

“It’s just been a general melting pot of everyone realizing: Hey, this is our team, and we’re going to get behind them,” says cofounder Steve Ballenberg, who gushes about the time a handful of players showed up at a local haunted house. “I think the Rams will really own the town of Los Angeles, especially once the new stadium is built.”

But even Ballenberg confesses that there have been stumbling blocks. The Rams’ home opener against the Seahawks, a 9–3 win on September 18, came in 90-degree weather; concession stands quickly ran out of water. By the game’s end, 160 people were treated for heat-related issues. Fourteen were hospitalized. “I neglected to bring a hat,” says Ballenberg, who then went looking for one. “Every souvenir stand was sold out before the game had started.”

As for the rest of Rams fans — or prospective Rams fans — well, they’d be forgiven for being less than enthusiastic about the football product they’ve been offered so far. The team’s 2016 campaign has not exactly been one to win hearts and minds. Coming off a bye week, the Rams are in third place in the NFC West. Jared Goff, the much-touted no. 1 overall draft pick who the organization traded a bounty to acquire, has spent the season on the bench; he finally got first-team practice reps last week after starter Case Keenum tossed four interceptions in a 17–10 loss to the Giants in London. And Gurley, last season’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, has struggled; his 57.6 rushing yards per game are 25th in the league. Head coach Jeff Fisher has not, in short, inspired a surfeit of confidence in his team’s half-season in Los Angeles.

And for all the promise of home attendance, the television numbers tell a different story. The team’s first game as the L.A. Rams, a 28–0 loss in San Francisco on Monday Night Football, saw a 25 percent drop in viewership from the equivalent game last year. The home opener was watched in just 12 percent of homes in the Los Angeles market, and in 6.8 percent in St. Louis. The ratings improved in subsequent weeks — just in time for a 6:30 a.m. Pacific time kickoff for the London game that left West Coast fans out of the loop.

Perhaps it’s just growing pains. Or perhaps — as the NFL continues to toil through a stretch of depressed viewership — the Rams will need to do more than simply announce that a football team is in town.