By Matthew Ritchie
LOS ANGELES — The NFC championship game, during which a sea of San Francisco 49ers red made the Los Angeles Rams feel like visitors in their own stadium, was the culmination of a problem that’s been brewing since the Rams returned to Los Angeles in 2016.
Even as the Rams attempted to restrict ticket sales to billing ZIP codes in the greater Los Angeles area, of 73,202 fans in attendance, 65% of the crowd was comprised of 49ers fans, engulfing the Rams fans and neutralizing Los Angeles’ home-field advantage.
The franchise has struggled to cultivate a dedicated and widespread fan base within Los Angeles. A study by Loyola Marymount University in 2020 found the Rams were just the fourth most popular Los Angeles team, with only 6.1% of residents claiming them as their favorite team. However, there are hopes from the Rams players, coaches and their fans that this Super Bowl run, culminating in hosting in their very own stadium, will foster intense growth of the Rams fan base within the city.
“A Super Bowl win would grow the fan base immensely, especially with the teenagers,” Southern California Rams Booster Club president Ralph Valdez said Friday before Super Bowl LVI. The booster club started in 2004 and markets to die-hard Rams fans in the area.
“The majority of Rams fans are ages 35 to 70,” Valdez said. “There are a lot of die-hard fans that followed them even when they were in St. Louis, but there’s not enough because we lost a lot of fans. Everybody underneath the age of 35 is going to be a big fan base to capture.”
The Rams’ departure from LA in 1994 was preceded by uninspiring football, producing the second-worst attendance in the NFL. This, combined with messy stadium arrangements that pushed the franchise to the Angels’ Anaheim Stadium in 1980, left generations of fans without a hometown football team to root for.
In their absence, other California teams became deeply ingrained in Los Angeles fan lore. The Raiders captured the Super Bowl XVIII title just two years after their arrival in the city in 1982. Their success combined with elevated cultural importance, with the likes of N.W.A. continually repping the silver and black in the early 1990s. They remain one of the most popular teams even after their move to Las Vegas in 2020, with 5% of Los Angeles fans calling them their favorite team. The most salient example of their staying power is at Universal Studios Hollywood, where the only remnant of the NFL is an expansive Raiders team store. It’s clear that success breeds support in the city, something the Rams are beginning to discover.
“Attendance of our game days has been up during this playoff run,” said Daniel Lugioyo, bartender at Tom Bergin’s. The bar opened up in 1936 and is one of the oldest Rams bars in the city, acting as a team stronghold since the 1970s. “It’s hard with Los Angeles fans though — they usually wait for playoff runs to show out.”
Even as the merits of home-field advantage are questioned, the Rams players and coaching staff acknowledge the impact of having a city behind you. A team like this, whose success should whip its fan base into a frenzy and flood SoFi Stadium with blue and yellow jerseys, understands the negative effects of being outnumbered on its home turf.
“Obviously fans play a huge part, and in the San Francisco game, it’s clear that they love traveling with the team,” Rams cornerback Darious Williams said when asked about the possibility of having a greater home-field advantage in the Super Bowl. “Having that makes everything feel normal. It doesn’t make the Super Bowl feel as crazy. It’s also just as exciting to get the presence of being home.”
The Rams recognize the only way to bring in new fans is to win. Los Angeles is a town that feeds off championships and glory. The two most popular teams, the Lakers (with 17 championship titles) and Dodgers (seven championship titles), have draped the city in gold in recent years. Both won their respective championships in October 2020, strengthening their positions at the top of LA fans’ hearts.
Getting over the hump and capturing football’s grandest prize in front of their crowd would be the first step to turning Los Angeles into a Rams town. The Rams said they believe they can be loved by fans because of the team’s attitude in addition to its recent success.
“You can just watch the way that our guys compete,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “They care about each other. They love one another. They pick each other up when we face some of those adverse moments. That’s what’s so special.
“I think that can be a rallying point. I think that’s a consistent thing that most human beings would watch and say, ‘It’s hard not to root for those guys.’”
Matthew Ritchie is a sports specialization graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @mkrwrt.