This week, the National Football League answered a question that has lingered over America’s cities since Christmas Eve of 1994. That’s the fateful day that professional football left Los Angeles. Ever since, NFL teams have threatened to move there, mostly to extort better stadium deals from their host cities. Now that the St. Louis Rams are moving (back) to the city—for real this time, and with the San Diego Chargers potentially returning right alongside them—the inglorious history of L.A. football is back.
With this news comes several new questions for football. Should the Oakland Raiders, stymied in their own attempts to move (back) to L.A., move to San Antonio instead? Will St. Louis Rams fans embrace the River City Raiders indoor football team? (Pity St. Louis, the city isn’t handling this news well. The /r/StLouisRams thread on Reddit—its official status already transferred to /r/LosAngelesRams—reads like a group therapy session.)
And for football fans in L.A., there’s one big question to answer: Are you going to root for the Rams, or the Chargers?
No bandwagoning here
This would be the first time in NFL history, and maybe in professional sports history altogether, that two teams playing the same sport in the same league have moved into a city at the same time. Sports fans who have grown up in a football-less L.A. may of course already have a team (with good odds it’s either the Raiders or the Chargers) and understandably—honorably, even—will want to stick with them.
But other L.A. sports fans, and especially fans going forward, are going to want to adopt a brand new L.A. team. Relocation works a little like expansion. There’s no bad juju in adopting a team that’s new to town.
The case for the Los Angeles Rams
They played in Los Angeles longer, and at 7-9 over the last season, they’re the better team. The Rams aren’t a great team, but they’ve got Todd Gurley II, a record-breaking rookie running back (and fantasy football favorite) who will shine brightly in a city that loves its stars. He’s the kind of running back that will make super-fans out of football-curious Angelenos. Or, if not true fans, at least apparel-purchasing ones.
Beyond Gurley’s star-power (and the Chargers’ lack thereof), the Rams’ biggest advantage is the fact that it looks like they’re moving to the city first. Tuesday’s vote by NFL owners means the Rams will start the 2016 season at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, while they wait for a new facility to be constructed in Inglewood. Expect the team to take advantage of the opportunity to market themselves as the authentic face of L.A. football.
That won’t be a hard sell: The Rams have only been gone from L.A. for 20 years. More than that, though, Rams owner Stan Kroenke appears to get L.A. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, he said the new stadium will attract L.A.’s celebrities, much in the way the Lakers do with Jack Nicholson. “We've designed concepts throughout the stadium that allow entertainers to basically sit outside but in a way that allows them to be differentiated,” Kroenke said.
The case for the Los Angeles Chargers
Historically speaking, there isn’t much of a case here. The Chargers played their first season in L.A. in 1960 before the team moved to San Diego, where they’ve played ever since. Don’t count on that many Chargers die-hards welcoming them back home.
In most respects, the Bolts are going to have a tougher go of it. By all indications, a deal between the Chargers and the Rams will be worked out over the next few weeks, but the Chargers may not actually move for at least a season. And if that’s how it plays out, they may well have missed the L.A. welcome wagon by then.
Worse still, the Chargers could end up playing the 2016 season in San Diego—potentially after the team has already decided to abandon their existing fans. That’s going to be a brutal year for Dean Spanos, the Chargers’ owner, and for Bolts Nation, wherever exactly it stands by next season. Such a scenario could very well shred one of the Chargers’ advantages in the hunt for L.A. fandom: The team has a huge base of Chargers fans just a short drive from L.A., in San Diego.
Of course, if the Chargers do ultimately decide stay in San Diego, then that’s the ballgame.
The case for the Oakland Raiders?
The Raiders left L.A. for Oakland the same year as the Rams, but they stayed closer to home. While Raiders owner Mark Davis would love nothing more to move the team to a larger California market where it already has a pre-existing constituency, it’s not in the cards—especially not if Davis has already purchased land to build a stadium between Austin and San Antonio in Texas.
So this complicates the map: The Raiders had previously signaled an interest in moving to San Diego if the Chargers decamp for L.A. Under that scenario, it’s possible to imagine longtime Bolts fans abandoning the team in disgust and signing on as Raiders fans instead. A development like that could totally neutralize the post-move Chargers’ base. (At 4-12, the Chargers aren’t exactly making a case for themselves.)
But a Raiders move is anything but sure. If it is true, as it’s been reported, that Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones led the campaign to stymie Davis’s efforts to relocate to L.A., then Jones is damned sure not going to want Davis to move the team a few hours south of the Dallas Cowboys on I-35.
There may not be much that Jones can do about it, when push comes to shove. And the push for Davis, in this case, is a shove at Oakland leaders to sign a new stadium contract.
Lakers/Rams vs. Chargers/Clippers?
The culture of NBA fandom in L.A. could guide where the fans of L.A. football wind up settling. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Rams and Chargers fans fall along the existing fault lines between Lakers and Clippers fans. But where exactly are those lines?
Some fool might try to convince you that Clippers fans live in the San Fernando Valley, while Lakers fans are in L.A. proper, but that isn’t right. Thanks to the team’s decades-long dominance (this season and last notwithstanding) in the game, Lakers fans can be found everywhere across the sprawling L.A. metro area, from Brentwood to Burbank to Calabasas to Compton.
Similarly, Clippers fans too can be found almost anywhere in L.A.—there are just a lot of fewer of them. Clippers fans might be somewhat more likely to have actually grown up in Los Angeles. They certainly are more likely to be the kind of people who enjoy aligning themselves with underdogs. And they are super, super loyal. But the truth is there is no clear, bright line—geographic or otherwise—that predicts which NBA team someone from L.A. will adopt. Like so many other sports traditions, a lot of it has to do with family.
But could there be a clear Lakers/Rams and Chargers/Clippers alignment? Sure, especially since the Rams are the better team right now. Lakers fans are nothing if not fans of having a better chance of winning.
For decades, Los Angeles has served as the pressure valve for other NFL teams: In case of emergency, threaten to move franchise to L.A., receive publicly subsidized stadium. (And that could still happen for San Diego!) Whatever happens next should be exciting for football fans. L.A. will get an another chance to decide whether it actually likes football or not, while cities elsewhere won’t have to hear threats about L.A. anymore.