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City of Angles

The NFL got what it wanted by having the Chargers join the Rams in L.A., but no one else seems excited

LAST MONTH, at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, I watched the Rams fall behind 7--0 just 10 seconds into a game in which they had received the kickoff. (This is difficult to do even if you are trying.) The Falcons eventually won 42--14, L.A.'s fourth straight loss on the way to a 4--12 finish. The performance was such a disaster that the Rams fired coach Jeff Fisher the next day, even though they'd just confirmed a two-year extension for him nine days earlier. It was as ugly as professional football gets.

And you know what? The 82,495 people who watched the blowout were pretty much fine with it. There was only scant booing, a stray complaint here or there, but mostly, they just sort of sat idly by. Hey, it's a nice day outside. Why let the Rams ruin it?

Last week the Chargers announced—before unveiling a logo so universally derided that the team changed it twice in 36 hours—that they, like the Rams had a year earlier, would be moving to the supposedly lush, welcoming City of Angels. And they were greeted the same way the Rams were: with a shrug that felt like a slap to the ardent fans in the city the team had abandoned. For two decades L.A. has been the market the NFL has used to try to pry new stadiums out of municipalities. When, at last, St. Louis and then San Diego elected not to play ball, their teams decided to decamp to a shiny new 70,240-seat palace in Inglewood (left) that is expected to open in time for the 2019 season.

But it's difficult to imagine a worse rollout for all involved. There was a lukewarm greeting for the Rams, who actually called Los Angeles home for almost 50 years; how do you think Angelenos are going to react to a 5--11 team that spent one season there, in 1960, and seemed apologetic about moving back in the first place? (According to an ESPN report, Chargers owner Dean Spanos told his peers at the league meetings last month, "I don't want to go to L.A. I want to stay," though this did not in fact stop him from going to L.A.) The closest recent comparison to either of these moves was the SuperSonics' breaking Seattle's heart in 2008 and heading to Oklahoma City. But that's not much of a comparison. The Sonics had a star in Kevin Durant and a potential star in Russell Westbrook; any town would have supported them, especially one starved for pro sports. There are no Durants or Westbrooks on the Rams or the Chargers. The L.A. area already has a pair of teams in MLB, the NBA and the NHL and showed no real enthusiasm for the Rams, whose TV ratings were lower in Los Angeles than they were in St. Louis. The Chargers won't even be playing in L.A.—or in a football stadium. They're likely to spend the next two seasons at StubHub Center (capacity 27,167) in Carson, home of the MLS's Galaxy. Thanks, NFL!

The good news for the league, of course, is that this isn't about football at all. This was a real estate deal that made Rams owner Stan Kroenke even richer, and it is always important to remember that making money is the prime directive for commissioner Roger Goodell. Even if L.A. remains indifferent to the NFL, it won't affect the league's bottom line one bit. This is a television league, with stadiums serving as hyperexpensive soundstages and fans as the studio audience, paying for the right to yell into a camera once in a while.

Pro football, more than any other sport, has gotten away from the locality of its games. To watch one in person now is to realize how betrothed to the television experience you are; roughly half your time is spent waiting for commercial breaks to end. If my hometown of Mattoon, Ill. (pop. 18,368), could come up with $1.5 billion for a new stadium, the NFL would probably build one there as long as it looked good on TV. (It wouldn't: Our skyline is mostly just water towers.) The NFL's business model is not founded on fan passion. It's founded on real estate and deals with cable and satellite providers.

The NFL may someday pay a long-term price for its decisions to leave cities with passionate fan bases and aging stadiums for cities where people couldn't care less but have some open land near the airport. Forsaking these supporters and handing their teams to apathetic Angelenos isn't an unfortunate by-product of the NFL's business plan. It is the business plan.



Score at the Sony Open for Justin Thomas, the lowest ever in a 72-hole PGA Tour event. He shot 59-64-65-65 to break the record of 254 set by Tommy Armour III at the 2003 Texas Open. Thomas, 23, finished 27 under to earn his third victory of the year, by seven strokes.


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