For more than twenty years, the Los Angeles Lakers had little competition in the Southern California sports market. Between 2000 and 2010, the team appeared in seven NBA Finals and won five of them. The Los Angeles Dodgers, in contrast, were an exercise in futility, going from one ownership group to another while placing a team on the field which most experts believe were never in serious contention for a World Series title. In fact, the Dodgers have experienced the longest drought in franchise history as they have not appeared in or won a World Series in nearly 30 years, during which the overall popularity of major league baseball has waned.
As for professional football, it has not been a problem for the Lakers since 1994. That is when the Los Angeles Rams, who had played in Los Angeles from 1946 to 1980 and then in Anaheim for the next fourteen years, moved from Southern California to St. Louis. The Los Angeles Raiders fled the area that same year and returned to Oakland. As unimaginable as it seemed at the time, the second-largest market in the country went from two NFL teams to none, and it remained that way for more than twenty years.
During that period, the popularity of the National Football League exploded. For half the year, from July when training camps open to late January or early February when the biggest spectacle of all, the Super Bowl, is played, nothing dominates the local and national sports landscape like professional football. Fantasy football is more popular than all other fantasy sports combined. The television revenue, which is allocated to all NFL teams equally allowing even the smallest market franchises to thrive, is through the roof. The ratings for NFL television programming dwarfs the ratings for all other sports. These days, televised NFL games draw more viewers than even the most popular drama and comedy shows on network television.
The Lakers were able to avoid the direct impact of this juggernaut for a long time since they did not have to compete with any professional football team in Los Angeles. As time passed, residents became tired of all the rhetoric from local politicians who promised that a team was imminently returning, and a new stadium would be built either in Irwindale, downtown Los Angeles, or near Dodger Stadium. It never happened, and eventually, most fans tuned out because it seemed like it would never happen.
Then, in a fast-moving and unexpected turn of events, the NFL approved a team (actually, two teams) returning to Los Angeles and the first to arrive chose to play temporarily at the old Coliseum, which Al Davis and the Raiders fled in 1994 because they thought it was such an awful place to play. It wasn’t just any team that showed up. It wasn’t the Minnesota Vikings or the Jacksonville Jaguars, both of whom were rumored over the years to be in the running to move to Los Angeles. It was the once-beloved Rams.
From a marketing point of view, it was the best possible choice. The Rams still have a lot of passionate fans in Southern California, and the teams’ return allowed those fans, who are now middle-aged or older, to glow in the memories, to reminisce about their youth and the great players they idolized from Roman Gabriel, Deacon Jones, and Jack Snow in the 1960s to Jack Youngblood, Lawrence McCutcheon and Tom Mack in the 1970s, to Eric Dickerson, Henry Ellard and Jackie Slater in the 1980s. Once the team moved to St. Louis these all-time greats were largely forgotten, but with the team’s return to Los Angeles this year, they are once again front and center on television and radio, a lot older but still larger than life to adoring Rams fans.
Publicly, the Buss family welcomed the Rams back to Los Angeles. But privately, they must be wondering what the return of the NFL to Los Angeles means for the Lakers. Jerry Buss is gone, and the team is at an all-time low in terms of their basketball product on the court. Last season was excruciating, as they finished with a historic low 17 wins. Their popularity has remained high thanks to the Kobe Bryant storyline and the goodwill the franchise earned from years of winning championships. If they don’t start improving, however, the goodwill could be exhausted soon, and their popularity could begin to diminish.
The Rams returning to the area is a factor for the Lakers, who are set to open training camp in little over a week with preseason games and the regular season set to follow quickly. Ordinarily, the focus in Los Angeles would be on the Lakers even though football season is in full swing, but one must wonder if that will still be the case. The Rams are likely to dominate local and national sports talk radio through at least the end of the year. Even the Dodgers may have their best chance to make the World Series in years. Will anyone be talking about the Lakers other than die-hard Lakers fans? Will the masses be watching Lakers games on television or listening on the radio, or will they be focused on the enormous media attention paid to the Rams?
Speaking of radio, the Lakers have dominated the discussion on ESPNLA 710 for a long time, which is largely a product of the fact that Lakers games are heard on that station. In a nutshell, the hosts are no doubt told to focus on the Lakers whether they are good or bad. It just so happens that 710 will also be the flagship station of the Rams, and at a time when they might be promoting the opening of Lakers’ training camp, the station is heavily promoting the Rams.
Of course, there is a possible silver lining for the Lakers. Based on the Rams’ performance in their season opener last week against the San Francisco 49ers, they may be an even worse football team than the Lakers are a basketball team. Given the magnitude of the moment, for the Rams to play that poorly does not bode well for their season. They may improve, but the offense clearly has little talent and is unlikely to score many points. The game last week was a reminder that the Rams have not had a winning season for a long time.
The Buss family can be accused of a lot of things, but certainly, they want to win (whether Jeanie and Jim know how to do it is another story). In contrast, Stan Kroenke, who owns the Rams, is a very wealthy man even outside the sports world who, according to Forbes Magazine, just saw his team more than double in value simply by moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles. There have long been rumors that Kroenke is not passionate about his team winning, he is more interested in the bottom line financially. That criticism may be unfair, but with the Rams now valued at over $3 billion before winning a single game, and with that figure likely to increase as the new stadium gets closer to being ready, he may not feel the pressure to go all out to win.
The return of the NFL to Los Angeles is going to have an effect on the Lakers. The team has been the toast of the town for a long time despite the recent down years, but at a minimum, they will now be forced to share the stage. Their best course of action is to start winning, as there will always be room in this town for a champion. In contrast, even with a storied franchise, there are many other entertainment options in Los Angeles and fans become bored with a team that has a losing record. The Rams will benefit from a honeymoon period as people are just thrilled to have football back in their hometown. If the Lakers and Rams both continue to lose, it is likely that the Rams will come out on top because of the enormous popularity and influence of the NFL and the sport of professional football.
For the Lakers, a new era has begun, one in which they will no longer be the biggest show in town. It will be interesting to see how the franchise adapts to the change.