Can A Group Of Fans Help Bring The NFL Back To Los Angeles?

LOS ANGELES CA - FEBRUARY 01: Farmers Insurance Exchange executives Paul Patsis with cheerleaders after an event announcing naming rights for the new football stadium Farmers Field at Los Angeles Convention Center on February 1 2011 in Los Angeles California. AEG has reportedly sold the naming rights for the proposed stadium to Farmers Insurance Exchange for $650,000 calling the stadium 'Farmers Field.' (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Football fans in Southern California have never forgotten the 49 years they spent with the Rams. Can a new Los Angeles football stadium and an organized group of fans bring them back?

Professional football in Los Angeles ended with a whimper on Christmas Eve, 1994. At the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Raiders lost 19-9 to the Kansas City Chiefs. A few miles southeast of there, in Orange County, the Rams lost 24-21 to the Washington Redskins, a bitter end to the team's 49-year relationship with Southern California.

Al Davis moved the Raiders the back to Oakland following the season. Georgia Frontiere put the Rams on a plane for St. Louis and a sweetheart deal on a new home under the Arch.

In the years since, a myriad of efforts have tried to bring the NFL back to L.A., and they have failed due to a mix of recalcitrant politics and league weariness. A potential NFL return to sunny Southern California is back in the spotlight thanks to a pair of dueling stadium bids and a handful of a teams threatening breakups with their current cities over stadium fights.

Somewhere on a third point of the triangle are fans hoping to gain a team.


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The pain of losing the team he's loved since childhood still lingers for Dennis Bateman, a second generation Rams fan and a leader of a burgeoning fan group called Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams, where he now channels his rooting interest.

"It was like a divorce," Bateman tells SB Nation of the Rams' uprooting. "I grew up a couple miles away from Anaheim Stadium. I went to Rams games regularly.

"No one believed it would actually happen, but in retrospect, there was a certain determination among the previous ownership. They negotiated an early out from the lease at Anaheim Stadium, and that's what ultimately transpired."

The language of a breakup is unavoidable.

"There's a part of you that is like ‘Ok, if you want to leave just go.' Then there's another part of you, you've put so much emotional investment into your team and you're left with a very empty feeling. I think fans in Baltimore and fans in St. Louis can understand that. You feel that something's been taken away from you, and there's really nothing you can do that will fill that."

A breakup might be the most apt analogy for fans losing their team. Boiled down to the bare essence, breakups are an emotional severance, distributed along a spectrum of intensity. Whether you can see the end coming or not, it's still a shock because at one point in time the dizzying highs seemed like they would never end.

Bateman traces his link to the Rams back to the 1974 NFC Championship game. The Rams were six inches away from taking the lead and turning the game over a defense headlined by Hall of Famers Jack Youngblood and Merlin Olsen before a controversial penalty spoiled it. Despite the tough loss, that was the second season of an incredible eight-year run.

During those years, the Rams were the hottest ticket in the entertainment capital of the world.

"Being at an L.A. Rams game was the place to be," Bateman said. "If you see Rams highlights films, when they pan out to the crowds, they'll show [former owner] Carroll Rosenbloom talking to celebrities like Kirk Douglas and Liza Minnelli."

There was something of a revolving door sending Rams players over the Santa Monica Mountains to studios in the San Fernando Valley, furthering the bond between the team and the city.

The Rams' star started to fade when a stadium dispute -- a running theme in the franchise's history -- over the downtown Coliseum sent the team to suburban Orange County in 1980. They had some successful teams in the 1980s, but the relationship with fans took a turn for the worse when owner Georgia Frontiere traded Eric Dickerson to the Indianapolis Colts.

Despite netting five draft picks in return, the Dickerson trade did not work out for the Rams. That trade fueled perceptions of a distant owner who gave little thought to the team on the field or the people in the stands.

"She never made a real connection with the fans, and that's something that owners really need to do," Bateman said of the late Frontiere. "When times are tough, it makes even more difficult when the ownership is not preceived as working in the best interest of a franchise. Georgia Frontiere never really made that kind of connection that she really needed to make as an owner with fans in Los Angeles."

***

The NFL is a national sport. Technology has made it easier than ever to follow teams from afar. It's not enough for Bateman and Los Angeles diaspora that make up his group.

"I've watched NFL football every since, but you're watching and you're separated from a team," Bateman said. "You don't have that affinity for anyone else."

An incident after the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV made the long distance relationship almost impossible for Bateman and thousands of other Los Angeles fans.

"Watching the Super Bowl, I was proud and then when they won, when they handed the trophy to Georgia Frontiere there was something she said," Bateman recalls. "She had a moment where she could have said, ‘This is for Rams fans everywhere.'"

Instead, Frontiere said, "I'm thrilled for St. Louis. It proves we did the right thing in going to St. Louis. This trophy belongs to our coach, our team and our fans in St. Louis."

"It was really a stab to the heart," Bateman ruefully explained. "It spoiled what I thought was truly a great moment for the Rams franchise."

***

Ten years later, things started to change. Ownership changed, stadium issues cropped up in St. Louis, and a new movement began in Southern California that demanded a new home for professional football. The movement has inspired a new generation of would-be LA Rams fans to get involved and it gave spurned fans like Bateman a new spark.

Andrew Hogan, a Cal student hailing from Anaheim, started Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams in November 2009. Naturally, it started on Facebook, the incubator for movements and revolutions large and small these days.

"I wanted to see if there was support out there for the Rams," Hogan said. "I was shocked, within a few months a 1,000 people had followed us without us really doing anything."

Bateman recalls joining somewhere between the 100 and 200 "likes" milestones. A year later Bateman made an appearance on the Mason and Ireland Show on LA sports talk radio. The group blew up almost overnight as Rams refugees found at least a digital homeland in which to connect.

"We get a lot of posts on the board of people sharing great memories they have of watching games at the Coliseum or Anaheim Stadium, going to training camps and meeting the players," Bateman said.

Hogan makes it clear that the group is not exclusive to fans with long memories of the team's 49 years in LA. His Rams memories begin with his father, who took him to a game at five. Others are just football fans, hungry for a team.

The group brings Rams fans together for various occasions. Last week it was a date with Deacon Jones and a series of tailgates around the Kings' playoff games at the Staples Center.

"Our position is that if a team is going to move to LA then we want the team here that has 49 years of history to build on," Bateman said.

***

Stoking the hopes of the group is Farmers Field, the Anschulz Entertainment Group's downtown stadium project. Whether or not the project ever gets turns over so much as a shovel full of dirt is subject to some debate. Regardless, AEG president Tim Leiweke offers a reassuring presence, along with an all-out public relations push, that lends the project a sense of inevitability. AEG owns the Kings and the Staples Center, which would be part of the same downtown entertainment complex as Farmers Field and the convention center, which AEG is promising to help renovate as part of the project.

"Farmers Field has a lot of momentum right now," Bateman said. "They've made remarkable strides, far better than the proposal when an expansion franchise was on the table in 1999. I think when push comes to shove, it's hard for me to imagine that they're not going to go all the way on this."

Farmers Field is one of two Los Angeles stadium projects. AEG recently submitted a $27 million environmental impact report for review, and the project could, theoretically, begin in the early part of 2013, if they can find an NFL tenant. Outside Los Angeles, in City of Industry, developer Ed Roski's Grand Crossing stadium project is also shovel ready and awaiting a team.

Besides attracting the blessings of political leaders, AEG has recognized the importance of bringing fans into the process. When AEG delivered its $25 million Environmental Impact Report on April 5, they rolled it past a group of fans from Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams, decked out in team gear and carrying the club's banners.

"I think [AEG] has been impressed by what we've done," Bateman said. "They're definitely open to anybody learning about the process and what's going on. They just had a workshop the other day."

Fans like those who make up Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams help AEG spread the word, which goes straight from the source to fans and potential future customers. Social media gives fans an easy means to organize around a clear message, whether its tailgating the USC spring game or showing up en masse for an event like the EIR delivery, one with plenty of television cameras on hand getting shots of a frenzied crowd alongside elected officials and billionaire stadium developers.

***

To be sure, downtown LA is not Tahrir Square, neither in scope or seriousness, but taking a movement-like approach to luring the NFL back to Southern California might help accelerate the process. It certainly makes it harder to accept old ideas of local fans' unwillingness to support a team.

"Our mission is to show him that if he were to decide to make a move here, that there's a ready-made fan base," Bateman said.

The NFL is not a multi-billion business prone to whims. Commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners do not take relocation lightly. Pulling up roots threatens to disrupt to what is a very stable business model, which is one reason Goodell was a chief lobbyist in reviving and pushing a Minnesota stadium bill through the phalanx of a hyper-partisan state government.

Wooing the league to Los Angeles and finding a willing owner may take far more than a mobilized group of fans, uncharacteristically docile California politicians and billionaire entertainment mogul Phillip Anschulz.

A March report from Jason Cole at Yahoo! Sports cited NFL skepticism over Farmers Field financial plans and dividing team ownership with Anschulz. Tim Leiweke and AEG have pushed back on that notion. The Grand Crossing project has been "shovel ready" for some time, but financial issues are also complicating that project. Resolution appears unlikely until a team's stadium troubles get to the brink. Even for the Rams, that may not be until 2015.

For fans like Bateman and Hogan, matters of the heart trump politics and the whims of the billionaires who will ultimately decide the fate of professional football in Los Angeles.

"You never forget your first love," Bateman said. "Maybe there was a bad breakup along the way, but as the years go by you recognize all the good times you had. You were good together. If there's a chance to rekindle that, I think there's definitely an opportunity there."

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