Sunday's game between the two Los Angeles NFL teams, the Raiders and the Rams, was not unlike a funeral. A lot of people showed up who otherwise would not have given the deceased the time of day; the crowd of 65,208 at Anaheim Stadium was about 25,000 more than usual for a Ram game. Even in these days of NFL parity, all those folks probably weren't there because of the tension generated by a matchup of two 4-5 teams. You had to guess that most of them were in Anaheim to pay their last respects to the Rams.
On the other hand, maybe it was a Raider send-off. Like the Rams, the Raiders play in an outdated stadium—the L.A. Coliseum—that their boss, Al Davis, would love to bolt. Just as the Rams are being romanced by St. Louis and Baltimore, so are the Raiders once more being courted by their old sweetheart, Oakland, a city that has a nostalgic appeal for Davis because that is where his Raiders used to win, something they haven't done nearly as frequently of late in L.A.
Strange, isn't it, that Sunday's unremarkable game could presage the disappearance of pro football from the second-largest metropolitan area in the country. It's not a certainty that both the Rams and the Raiders will leave the Southland, of course, but who could have imagined only a short time ago that any professional sports team would leave this recreational gold mine. The NFL, America's Game, can't maintain enough interest to support even one team in the nation's playground?
The league sure hopes that it can. "We want to keep the NFL strong in Los Angeles," says league spokesman Greg Aiello. "And that means having a team presence, a first-class stadium and the ability to play Super Bowls there in the next century."
Accordingly, commissioner Paul Tagliabue has taken a role in trying to develop stadium plans with both teams. But a solution, if one can be found, will probably come too late to keep the Rams in Southern California. In fact, last week it seemed certain that they were gone. Sunday's game was simply the NFL equivalent of a visitation, a chance for old friends to pass by and remark, "How lifelike!"
That the Rams lost 20-17 was of no significance. As far as their community is concerned, they expired in 1990 when they were able to insert an escape clause in their Anaheim Stadium lease. The big guessing game in Southern California now centers not on if the Rams are going, or even when, but where. They have explored the possibility of a move to Hartford but have dealt more seriously with St. Louis and Baltimore, two cities widowed within the last decade by the NFL.
As surprising as this might seem to non-Californians—do you know anyone who has moved from Los Angeles to St. Louis?—citizens of the Golden State are even more stunned. After all, they are accustomed to sports teams moving in from somewhere else. Some fire, a little earthquake and civil unrest here and there, and throw in an anticipated shortfall of some $6 million this year, and suddenly the Rams are ready to bail, the first of their sun-blessed kind to head cast on the interstate.
According to the Rams, it's simply business. Insiders believe that owner Georgia Frontiere, who inherited the team from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, 15 years ago, would prefer to remain in California. Shielded from the press and displayed in public chiefly in moments of philanthropy, she is considered dreamy and ineffectual. It doesn't help her image that this year's Ram media guide opens with an anthology of her prose poems (a eulogy to Henry Mancini—"He wove musical tapestries"—is found on page 3) or that the "advisory board" she has put together boasts such noted football minds as Bob Hope, Maureen Reagan and a Lord David Westbury. This would be considered acceptably eccentric for an owner of a winning team, but it is seen as seriously off-the-wall when the team is on a five-season skid.
Yet the Rams' impending departure certainly is business for team president John Shaw, who for four years has been hoping to move his club to a state-of-the-art stadium—and thereby to profitability—or, failing that, to St. Louis or Baltimore. Shaw has told the Los Angeles Times that the Rams are already $24 million into the $40 million debt limit that the NFL allows each of its franchises. "It's clear that we would at some point in the next few years reach the league debt limit," he said.
The chief obstacle for the Rams is Anaheim Stadium, which they share with baseball's California Angels. With a poor seating configuration for football, it is ill-suited for use as a dual-purpose park, and the location and condition of its 113 sky-boxes are deemed substandard by the Rams.