Pro Sports Face Soured Market Los Angeles: Unfulfilled Promised Land

July 16, 1995|By Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan | Peter Schmuck and Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writers

Anaheim, Calif. -- There was no midnight ride. The Los Angeles Rams spent much of June packing up the trucks for their long-anticipated move to St. Louis. The Los Angeles Raiders were not far behind, announcing soon thereafter their intention to move back to Oakland and give up sole football claim to the second-largest sports market in the United States.

How can this be? NFL training camps are opening everywhere . . . . everywhere but in Los Angeles and Orange County, a massive metropolitan area that once made sports moguls from other parts of the country drool with envy.

The Rams left for a sweeter stadium deal. The Raiders left for similar reasons, although there were other factors that contributed to their decision to reoccupy the Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum. Regardless of the specific circumstances, the willingness of both teams to move is symptomatic of a dramatic change in the sports environment in Southern California -- a region once viewed as the promised land for major-league teams.

"I suspect that Los Angeles is such a gigantic place that people thought they could go there and you are bound to get somebody to come to your games," said John C. Phillips, a University of the Pacific professor and author of "The Sociology of Sports."

History has proved otherwise.

To be sure, the NFL has temporarily deserted Los Angeles, in part for reasons unique to the NFL. Its teams get so much money from network TV that ticket sales and local media rights -- revenue sources that are dependent on large population bases -- are less important.

And revenue-sharing rules strongly favor teams that can raise money from sky boxes, club seats and luxury concessions, amenities the Rams and Raiders will find in their new digs.

But attendance figures for all eight major-league teams in Los Angeles and nearby Anaheim during their most recent seasons suggest a remarkable fan apathy. Of the eight, only two -- the Dodgers and hockey's Mighty Ducks -- exceeded league averages for per-game attendance.

Most weren't close: The Rams and NBA's Clippers were one-third below their respective league marks, and the Angels ,, were off 25 percent. A short-term blip? Rams attendance was off 30 percent from 1990 to 1995. Angels attendance has been in decline since 1989. And even the Dodgers are well below their historic highs.

More than wins, losses

It's not just performance, either. The Angels, who once owned the American League single-season attendance record, are struggling to lure fans to watch a club that has been in first place for much of the season. The Lakers, once the hottest sports ticket in Southern California, were the fifth-worst-drawing team in the NBA this past season, even though a rebuilding effort paid off with an overachieving young team.

Even the Dodgers, whose attendance is the envy of many in baseball, have lost their league-leading rank to teams playing in new stadiums. And the Dodgers finished first in their division last season.

There's no simple reason for the sports malaise in L.A. People in and around sports cite several factors, from an awful transportation system and lack of a focused downtown to the abundance of beaches, mountains and other things to do in the region. And the area that gave the world daredevil skateboarding and roller blades may prefer participatory to spectator sports.

Moreover, the growing fascination of sports teams for new, publicly financed stadiums -- an economic necessity in a world of $200 million franchises -- comes at a bad time for the battered California economy, and to a bad place. Southern California is the birthplace of America's modern anti-tax movement.

The late Walter O'Malley shocked the sports establishment in the 1950s when he engineered the deal that resulted in both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moving to the West Coast, but he could see that the nation's westward expansion was only beginning.

The Dodgers' move for the 1958 season was followed two years later by the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers. A year after that, expansion brought the Angels. The NHL's Kings, an expansion franchise, came in 1967.

In less than 10 years, L.A. had gone from one major-league team -- the Rams, who moved from Cleveland in 1946 -- to five.

In 1982, the Raiders moved down from Oakland, and in 1984, the Clippers moved up from San Diego. The NHL added the expansion Mighty Ducks in 1993.

Boom to bust

"It was a gold mine," said Pennsylvania State University sports historian Ron Smith. Population and wealth were growing quickly, and air transportation had evolved to where a team could play in Los Angeles one day and New York the next.

The gold rush created its own problem: overkill. Before the Rams and Raiders announced they were leaving, there were eight major-league teams squeezed into a geographical rectangle that measures just 15 by 25 miles.

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