The prospect of an NFL team or possibly more than one NFL team moving the L.A. market has been perhaps the most intriguing story hanging over the NFL for the past year and beyond. Any team moving city provides a huge cultural change to the cities involved, but the story has had even more variables involved and potential impact because it has involved four cities: L.A., St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland. As it stands, St. Louis will be losing the Rams team back to L.A. as soon as the 2016-17 season. As impactful as it is though, it is a part of North American sports culture; but as the reach of the NFL grows world-wide, I have considered how it appears to the burgeoning market of British fans of the sport.
I have many friends who have bought in to the NFL as a concept and sport, and many others who dismiss it out of hand, and anecdotally, I think the split can be boiled down to few fundamental aspect of NFL culture meshing with British sports culture. For those who can accept and even see the benefits of the regular commercial breaks, the short season, and the ability for teams to move markets, they can access and enjoy magic of the sport; but there are many for whom those aspects of the sport are alien, and further, something to be scoffed at and allowing them to dismiss the sport at face value. In North America though, it appears that the moving of a sports franchise is a familiar though potentially unfortunate part of the accepted business of American football. This is something that will likely never change give the huge financial investments and incentives surrounding hosting and moving American football teams, and unfortunately, though I understand and accept the trend as part of NFL culture, it is an aspect of the game that will likely limit the growth of the game internationally.
Part of the reason this aspect of North American sports culture is so alien to potential British fans, I believe, is the sheer amount of soccer teams in the UK, and more specifically, the fact that practically every city, town, and village has at least one football team, be it a multi-million pound conglomerate, or a fan owned, volunteer ran village team. A local soccer team is practically a birth-right, and each team has the right to compete for any honour in the country. Even if it’s just in theory, and teams in the depths of the non-league levels won’t win major competitions, the fact remains that they have a shot at silverware, however unlikely. That is the magic of soccer and emblematic of its universality.
Perhaps that is why such a move has only happened once in soccer in Britain, and that was with the historic and successful team of Wimbledon FC. Founded in 1899, they were whisked from their fanbase in Wimbledon, London relatively suddenly in 2004, to be moved to the new modernist city of Milton Keynes which was devised in the late 1960s. I was young when this happened, but it is a very vivid memory to me because of how roundly unpopular it was, even to fans with no interest in the team originally. Wimbledon FC had had a strong recent history in the top flight of the English football league, even winning the FA Cup in 1988, and their dark blue and yellow jerseys were truly unique and somewhat iconic in the British game, so the idea of a team with that much history being transplanted to an American-style modern city seemed at odds with the spirit of the game and of the idea that the fans had a right to the team. In retrospect, it means that the people who now dwell in Milton Keynes have a team to be born in to and people from Wimbledon have the burgeoning AFC Wimbledon – a team which was founded to protect their former team’s legacy, almost like a protest team – to support. Nonetheless, eventhough Wimbledon’s move to Milton Keynes was now over ten years ago, the new ‘MK Dons’ are still viewed with a degree of villainy in the country.
As with most things, though I understand the British sporting culture and have argued sincerely about the magic of every city, town, and village practically having a permanent team, there is a plus-side, of sorts, of the Los Angeles move specifically. While I strongly sympathise with the city of St. Louis, it is certainly great to see the return of the Rams to L.A., be it from the point of view of a fan who remembers them, or in my case, the point of view of someone aware of their history. My only experience to date of anything like this was the creation of the Houston Texans in 1999, and even then it was the creation of an expansion team rather than the moving of a franchise. The Texans were born when I was only 10 years old and when I was only just discovering the sport. As a British fan I found it strange but also somewhat thrilling to see the creation of a new team. I must admit that some of my uneasiness related to a team’s roots and history being shifted again are overcome by the thrill of seeing a team that is both old and new enter the league, especially when it’s a team with a successful, near-50 year history. Despite the misgivings around it, on its own, having the L.A. Rams back in the league is great.
While the Rams do feel like they should be in Los Angeles due to their history, it is certainly a little irking that the move is so clearly money and business-driven rather than being driven by demand. There is a reason that several teams have left the city before and it’s because the fan-base has historically been fickle, supporting them well enough in the good times but falling away during periods of struggle. The city is historically a basketball and to a slightly lesser extent, an ice hockey and baseball city with the Lakers, Clippers, Kings, and Dodgers. Those teams have a strong fan-base and it’s hard to tell whether the current L.A. Rams will pick up a fan-base. Meanwhile, Rams owner Stan Kroenke has gone from championship corralling hero to turncoat villain, all to move to the glitz and potential financial jackpot of the L.A. television and media market. There is a larger point to be made elsewhere about the culture of venture capitalist owners demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from local government to take on the responsibility of their stadiums, but the fact that Kroenke left St Louis after seemingly ignoring a generous package from the city to stay because he didn’t feel the team was profitable enough there despite a resilient cohort of fans is what really leaves a shadow over this deal for many from both inside and especially outside of North America.
As part of the announcement that the Rams would move to Los Angeles, there was the extra revelation that the San Diego Chargers could join the Rams in L.A. by the start of the 2017-18 season, and this is the part of the NFL’s agreement which is really troubling. Apart from having a friend from San Diego who supports the Chargers, I don’t know much about the team, but whatever the following or economic potential of the team currently in San Diego, I don’t see how them moving to L.A. as a little brother team to the Rams can help their prospects. While the Chargers played their inaugural season in Los Angeles, they have very little history there having been in San Diego ever since. When compared to the Rams, there is no competition with regards to their place in L.A. culture, and especially as the Rams will have a year’s head start, it’s hard to imagine many L.A. fans from a historically limited pool of fans, being moved to support the Chargers. Even if it’s true that they have a historic fan base in LA, it’s hard to imagine it’s enough to sustain a team. Even worse, with them due to share the stadium with the Rams if they move, the Rams and Chargers won’t have any natural geographical boundaries to delineate fan-bases either, so not only will each team – at least initially – be somewhat inter-changeable, but the two teams will be in direct competition. That will make, hopefully, for a natural rivalry on the field when the teams play each other, but also puts the potential for especially the Chargers to have a fan base on very uncertain ground. While the Rams move might upset a lot of people, the Chargers move could be very bad for the team and make for a very dormant spectacle from the team and for the league.
So, from a British point of view, the idea of moving a team to another city is pretty problematic, but one that will ultimately be accepted by those who already enjoy the sport. The case of the Rams is complicated as they have a longer history overall in Los Angeles anyway – a fact which makes an unsavoury move a little more palatable. Saying that, as the popularity of the sport has exploded in the UK over the last 15 years or so, most British-based Ram fans only know the team as the ‘Greatest Show On Turf’ from St. Louis, and it will be interesting to see how the demographics of LA/St Louis fans shift around. Will St Louis fans support the LA Rams or will they look to a new team? Will fans who remember the original Rams or maybe brand new fans take up the Rams? It remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there is one thing I am sure of: no matter how accepted this sort of phenomena is among UK fans, it is the sort of shenanigans that will create a natural ceiling to the popularity of the sport in Britain – a baffling aspect of the sport which will dissuade people who might otherwise be interested from getting in to the sport, seeing it less as a tactical, athletic battle, and more of a crass, fickle, capitalist showcase.