Hollywood glitz set to lure St Louis Rams back home to Los Angeles

After 20 years without a team, Los Angeles could finally be back on the NFL map after St Louis owner Stan Kroenke announced bold plans to build an 80,000 stadium, writes Tim Walker from LA

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The Independent Online

The Hollywood Park racecourse in Inglewood, once frequented by film stars who enjoyed a flutter, today sits empty and unused alongside a dingy-looking casino on a swathe of pockmarked Tarmac beneath the LAX flightpath. In just a few years’ time, however, this unprepossessing location may be the new home of America’s favourite sport.

Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States, has not had its own NFL team for more than two decades. But this week St Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke announced plans for an 80,000-seat American football stadium adjacent to Hollywood Park, in partnership with the owners of  the racecourse site, who intend to build a major retail,  office, hotel and residential development.

Though no promises have yet been made, the announcement led many to believe that Kroenke’s team, who played in Southern California as the Los Angeles Rams from 1946 to 1994, could return to the city as soon as next year.

Kroenke is married to Ann Walton, the daughter of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, and the couple’s combined fortune is estimated at more than $11bn (£7.3bn). As well as the Rams, the 67-year-old real estate mogul also owns an NHL ice hockey team and an NBA basketball team, and is the largest shareholder in Arsenal FC.

Bettis.jpg
Jerome Bettis celebrates a win over the Falcons at the Anaheim Stadium in 1994

To a European football fan, the idea of teams moving home is almost unthinkable. But in the US, even some franchises considered integral to a city’s identity originated elsewhere. The LA Dodgers baseball team were once the Brooklyn Dodgers, but  controversially swapped coasts in 1957. The LA Lakers basketball team was founded in Minnesota in 1947 as the Minneapolis Lakers – a nod to the state’s nickname, “Land of 10,000 Lakes” – and moved to California in 1960.

“The NFL is a substantially different environment and culture than the English Premiership,” said Michael MacCambridge, author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation, who lives in St Louis. “But you can’t tell me the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t on some level a reflection of that city and its people – just as any Liverpool side reflects the values that have been established over years and years at Anfield.

“And if any city has the right to claim the Rams as their own, it’s Los Angeles. They were one of the most culturally important teams in the history of the league. They were in LA for the better part of a half-century. So even as people are tearing their hair out in St Louis, a lot of people in Los Angeles feel that this should have happened much sooner.”

The Rams were in fact established in 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio, but their relocation to Los Angeles a decade later was historic. The team was the first major professional sports franchise to move to the West Coast, more than 2,000 miles from their nearest NFL rival, the Chicago Bears. It was also the first NFL side in the modern era to field black players, signing Kenny Washington and Woody Strode upon their arrival at the LA Coliseum  in 1946.

In 1980, with crowds reluctant to sell out the stadium in LA’s increasingly seedy Downtown, the Rams moved south to more affluent Anaheim, in suburban Orange County. And in 1994, under then-owner Georgia Frontiere, the team left California altogether for St Louis.

Months later, the Oakland Raiders, who had relocated to Los Angeles in 1982, returned to the Bay Area – and a city that had just grown accustomed to having two NFL teams was suddenly left with none.

“The strongest emotion when the Rams left was complete disbelief,” said 43-year-old Tom Bateman, the director of fan organisation Bring Back the Los Angeles Rams, which was formed in 2009 and now has almost 45,000 likes on Facebook. “It was like a bitter divorce between the fans and the owner, and the team was the children. We never stopped loving the team.”

There have been several attempts to bring American football back to Los Angeles. Two other sites in the city have already been approved for an NFL stadium, including one under development by AEG, the entertainment firm founded by billionaire Philip Anschutz, who owns NHL franchise the LA Kings and the MLS team LA Galaxy. Yet this is the first time an existing NFL team owner has secured a site in the city big enough for both a stadium and parking space.

The Rams’ tenure in St Louis has not always been a happy one. In 1999, the franchise unexpectedly won the only Super Bowl in its history, and the city took the team to its heart. But last weekend, the side reached the end of their 11th consecutive losing season, playing in the outdated Edward Jones Dome, which opened in 1995 but nowadays conspicuously lacks mod cons such as luxury boxes and giant replay screens.

If the team and its current home city do not agree on a plan to renovate the stadium by next month, the Rams can change the terms of their lease to a month-to-month agreement, and then potentially up sticks for Los Angeles in time for the 2016 season. While Kroenke’s prospective Inglewood stadium would not be completed until at least 2018, the Rams could play at a temporary venue such as the  Coliseum until then.

Los Angeles is often accused of being a bad city for sport. “That’s the kind of thing people say but it’s factually untrue,” says Bateman, noting that six of the seven existing major professional sports teams in southern California are ranked in the top 10 for attendance in each of their respective leagues.

“The USC and UCLA college football teams can both fill their 70,000-seater stadiums on the same day, and they charge NFL ticket prices,” he says. “If you bring the Rams into that environment and they put out a competitive team, fans will respond.”

The developers claim the Hollywood Park proposal could generate $1bn per year and 40,000 new jobs in Inglewood, a largely low-income LA suburb. The neighbourhood has suffered economically since 1999, when the Lakers and Kings both moved from the Forum – next to Hollywood Park – to the AEG-owned Staples Centre in Downtown.

The threat of relocation to LA has become a standard way for NFL owners and teams to extract concessions from their home city.

More than half the NFL’s 32 teams are said to have mooted a move to LA over the past 20 years. One reason they have never followed through on those threats is the LA authorities’ lack of enthusiasm for helping to fund stadiums. But Kroenke and his colleagues say no public money will be used in their construction project.

In the long-term, the move would undoubtedly be good for Kroenke’s bottom line. The Rams were ranked last in Forbes magazine’s most recent valuations of NFL teams, at $930m. The NFL teams in America’s top-five television markets – of which Los Angeles is second – are valued at an average of $2.11bn. And besides, if St Louis loses the Rams, who is to say it can’t find another team? Word  is, the Jacksonville Jaguars might be looking for a new home soon...

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LA STORY - HOW GRIDIRON LEFT TOWN

The Rams (1946-94)

Founded in Cleveland, Ohio, the Rams moved to LA in 1946. After owner Carroll Rosenbloom drowned in 1979, his widow, Georgia Frontiere, moved the franchise from the Coliseum to Anaheim in 1980 to combat the NFL’s TV blackout rule, which prevented screening of games that were not sold out. In 1994 she moved the Rams again, to the city of her birth, St Louis, where they won their only Super Bowl title in 1999.

The Raiders (1982-94)

The Raiders arrived in LA in 1982, moving into the Rams’ former Coliseum home, when former coach Al Davis eventually managed to move his team from Oakland  after a protracted legal battle. The franchise opted to return to Oakland at the end of 1994 after $220m was spent on renovating the stadium, as Davis had requested. LA has been without an NFL side since.

TOM PYMAN

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