The stereotype about Los Angeles sports fans is that they only love their teams when they’re winning. For decades, this hasn’t been much of a football town.
“It was never cool to be a Rams fan growing up in LA,” said Ryan Nixon, 40. “It was like this safe team your grandparents liked to watch.”
The Rams only had one winning season as Nixon was a kid, and then the team decamped to the other side of the country. This week, they have a chance to once again win over the city that loves winners, with a story so corny it could be nominated for an Oscar.
The Rams are back in their old hometown after a long and dramatic absence, one that was prolonged for years by the machinations of rival team owners. But even after the team moved back to the city from St Louis in 2016, there was plenty of skepticism about what it would take to make the city care much about its football franchise.
A whole generation of local kids younger than Nixon had grown up without any hometown allegiance, as the Rams played, increasingly poorly, in St Louis. The city had done without an NFL team for 20 years, and there were superstar basketball players, a beloved baseball team and high-quality college football to keep Angelenos’ loyalties tied up. Did it really need the NFL?
Some old-school Rams fans never forgave the team for its departure. ‘When they moved, that was my first experience with the whole ugly side of sports, the strictly-business, money-dominates-everthing-else of sports,” said Ryan Jones, a basketball writer who grew up in Orange county. “That there were LA fans that stuck with them was wild to me. Why would you have a sense of loyalty to a team that essentially abandoned you as a fan?”
But other original Los Angeles Rams fans kept their faith, even during the team’s long 20 years wandering in an NFL desert.
“I think Rams fans are very emotional fans. All football fans are emotional, but you have to have an emotional attachment to this team because of the fact that they’ve moved and the fact that you’re always taking some type of berating from other fans,” said Christian Duguay, 52, who provided a photograph of himself in Rams gear at around age five as proof of his longstanding commitment.
Many longtime Rams fans inherited their allegiance to the team from their families, and stayed loyal, even in the absence of regular wins, even when the team left the city.
As a kid, “I cried when my team lost, so I cried a lot of times,” said Manuel De La Rosa, who grew up in suburban east Los Angeles in the 70s, the son of even-more-original Rams fans, who had cheered on the team since it arrived from Cleveland in the late 1940s.
Michael Johnson, a Rams fan since the 70s, regularly saw groups demonstrating with “Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams” signs and banners outside other Los Angeles sporting events by 2012 or 2013. “I was very enthusiastic, very hopeful,” Johnson said. “In my heart of hearts, I really believed that one day they would come back.”
By January 2016, with the team’s potential return imminent, hundreds of Rams fans demonstrated outside the Coliseum stadium to demand the team’s return. “It was like a supermodel leaving you,” one mournful 70-year-old Rams fan told the Associated Press, describing the tragedy of the St Louis move.
Out of a Hollywood script
Sunday’s hometown game gives the Rams a chance to win the Super Bowl in a storyline that seems too good to be true.
They’re led by a boy wonder coach, Sean McVay, who was 30 when he became the youngest head coach in NFL history.
It’s their first season with fans allowed inside a palatial new stadium. The team’s new home – courtesy of their laconic billionaire owner, Stan Kroenke, also known as “Silent Stan,” that came with a price tag of more than $5bn.
The team endured a Covid-19 outbreak in December, with as many as 29 players out of the game on the Covid-19 list at one time, ESPN reported.
“If it was a Hollywood script it would get tossed out because no one would believe it,” the team’s chief operating officer, Kevin Demoff, told reporters last week.
Demoff’s comments suggested the team owners felt the Rams were on the brink of “supersizing” their local fan base, the LA Times reported.
But Demoff also sounded a note of caution: “We still have to go accomplish the last step for all of that to actually come to fruition.”
“It’s weird to see that the Rams have become the cool LA team, and to see all the celebrities at the game. It’s weird to see everyone rooting for them,” Nixon said, especially for old-school fans like him who were “there in Anaheim in the 80s putting up with teams that were just terrible”.
“I’m stoked for my little billion dollar team,” he added. “It’s just odd to see them embraced.”
It’s not just that the Rams are winning more, Nixon said. It’s also that they’re providing fans with a more glamorous experience, including a stadium that the head of the Dallas Cowboys said last year needed to be so “ iconic” it was “like Mt Rushmore”.
“LA is that town: it’s showtime,” Nixon said. “You want somewhere to go to be seen, to have a spectacle and to get a show, and I think with the new stadium they’ve done that.”
Meanwhile, the role the Rams used to play of the Los Angeles NFL team few Angelenos care about, is being filled by the Los Angeles Chargers, who moved from San Diego in 2017 and share the Rams’ SoFi stadium as the decidedly less-popular team.
As a former San Diego resident, “I know how strong the Chargers fandom is. I can’t imagine what they’re going through,” Nixon said.
“I feel bad that they’re here,” Duguay said of the Chargers. “I think the Rams have a chance to really be a symbol of the city.”
The Rams’ Hollywood storyline does come with a risk: if they lose after all the buildup, their rise to true Los Angeles popularity may slow down, though it won’t stop altogether.
“I always tell people, when the Raiders had their first year in Los Angeles, they won the Super Bowl. That’s why you have so many Raiders fans [here],” De La Rosa said.
For the Rams faithful, the potential thrill of a Rams win, in their home stadium, after decades of exile, is hard to overstate.
“My son is getting married in two days,” Johnson said. “Short of that: the birth of my child, watching my son get married, or being married myself, I can’t imagine a bigger thrill in my life.”