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HOLLYWOOD RAMS BETTER NOT BLOW IT, OR L.A. WILL TUNE THEM OUT
As an NFL superteam built for this moment and stadium, Stan Kroenke’s big-budget creation has reached the Super Bowl, which means nothing if an upset loss bores a city that demands championships
For those who assume Super Bowl LVI is a massive home advantage for the Rams, I present a tutorial about the most misunderstood place on Earth, including these shockers: (1) Not everyone in southern California has made a sex tape; (2) You Tube influencers own the mansions; and (3) The Hollywood sign isn’t actually in Hollywood.
Consider this a transplant’s guide to Los Angeles, a city that can’t be parochial about its championship-dreaming NFL franchise because wide swaths of the population are from Somewhere Else. One such person is the cinematic prince, George Clooney, who is from … Cincinnati, the so-called “other team” playing Sunday.
Bet you didn’t realize fans of 30 NFL teams spiritually congregate at team-specific bars across the region, which are listed in the L.A. Times and become homecoming conventions. We’re all living something of a post-collegiate life here, regardless of age. If you dare ask the bartender to flip to a Rams game, he’ll ignore you and take a pee break in fear of angering somebody from Cleveland or New England or Seattle or Philadelphia … or Cincinnati. In sports-absorbed cities such as Chicago, where I spent 17 years, the locals are so provincial that they inevitably ask which high school you attended. They grow up there and never leave.
No one grows up in L.A. The high schools, I’m convinced, are studio props. When you live so close to the ocean that a Tsunami Evacuation Route sign is posted down the street — while blessed by 70-and-sunny days in early February — you’re generally devoted more to weather apps than sports talk shows, which continue to draw punier ratings than campus and oldies stations.
Thus, other than the Dodgers and Lakers and people with entitled allegiances to the University of Spoiled Children (USC), the local sports franchises suffer a niche existence. The NFL’s biggest business blind spot was allowing more than two decades to pass without a team in America’s second-largest market, and, to this day, the most popular team in L.A. is the one that moved to Oakland in 1995 and then to Las Vegas. Yes, the Raiders are more popular by every raw metric than the L.A. team that won the NFC and is favored to beat the Bengals in its second Super Bowl in four seasons, without having to board an airplane.
All of these cultural quirks contribute to something else that shocks America: Yes, the San Francisco 49ers had more fans at SoFi Stadium for the NFC Championship Game than the home-team Rams, except for one who was cold-cocked in the parking lot by a Rams fan and remains hospitalized. There isn’t a mad rush in L.A. to buy Super Bowl tickets — for one reason, tickets are averaging $9,086 on the secondary market — and there’s a concern the venue will be filled with celebrities and other affluent sorts who have no problem paying $906,000 for a single ticket in a 24-person suite … but also don’t make the loud noise of common fans. Considering the Rams receive the same 17-percent ticket allotment as the Bengals, it’s possible the Los Angeles Rams again won’t feel like the home team in their Los Angeles County stadium.
Part of me wonders if the county supervisor is pushing officials to relax Super Bowl mask mandates for that very reason: They want more bodies in the building, including a California governor and outgoing L.A. mayor who were caught on camera un-masked during the last game. And because the NFL runs the entire extravaganza, the Rams can’t even use their public-address announcer to drive up decibels with his trademark battle cry:
In this case, it’s not the “Rams’ house.’’ It’s the NFL’s house, prompting the Rams to release a statement all but begging their fans to make noise: “Like many elements at the heart of our gamedays, ‘Whose house? Rams house!’ — that reverberates across SoFi Stadium — was developed by our fans for our fans. Although Super Bowl LVI will be put on by the NFL as if it were a neutral site game, we know that our fans will bring the Rams House to life on Super Bowl Sunday.’’
Which sort of explains why Stan Kroenke, another transplant who just happened to marry a Walmart heiress, is throwing billions of dollars at the chance L.A. will embrace his team, too. With audacity the size of the Gateway Arch, he relocated the Rams from St. Louis — though he grew up in Mora, Mo., and graduated from Mizzou — and left behind an irate metropolis that raised such a stink that Kroenke paid $790 million to settle a lawsuit.
Add that to the $6 billion he took from Walton coffers to construct a magnificent home — California is one of those wise states that reject extortion attempts and make the sports owners pay for their edifices. By agreeing to house the league’s new West Coast office complex, including the NFL Network, Kroenke arguably has become the most important owner in sports. The world’s most prosperous league needs its most progressive market — think: young demographics, music, entertainment, tech, gambling in Vegas and soon enough in California — to adopt the Rams as a civic passion. I would add the Chargers, but they’ll always be an afterthought, just as the NBA’s Clippers have been since moving from San Diego.
But the only way to capture Los Angeles is by winning championships and throwing parades. So Kroenke summoned his deputies, COO Kevin Demoff and general manager Les Snead, and mandated that the Rams reach The Big Game in Stan Canyon with 100 million watching. And then, win The Big Game. Mortgage the future, peddle draft picks, go all-in now. Say goodbye to problematic Jared Goff and hello to a quarterback with a hungry heart and a massive chip, Matthew Stafford. Von Miller is old? Bring him in. Odell Beckham Jr. is a pain in the ass? Bring him in. Add them to Aaron Donald, an all-time defensive force who’s aiming to break Joe Burrow in half; and Jalen Ramsey, the shutdown corner who must help minimize Ja’Marr Chase; and Cooper Kupp, the biggest fan favorite of all, a wide receiver who refreshingly shuns the position’s traditional braggadocio and controversy and simply does his damned job, leading the league in receptions, yards and touchdown catches.
The Rams are positioned to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium. And this can’t be emphasized enough: They’d better win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in their home stadium. Or L.A. will dismiss Kroenke as another wealthy wannabe who couldn’t make it in Hollywood — Frank McCourt without the parking lots. L.A. will smirk, head to the beach and wait for the real champions, though the Dodgers are derailed by a labor lockout and the Lakers by LeBron James’ bright idea to trade for Russell Westbrook.
“If it was a Hollywood script it would get tossed out because no one would believe it,” Demoff said during a media videoconference. “Now, that being said, we still have to go accomplish the last step for all of that to actually come to fruition, but the stage is set so far. This is a unique opportunity on the biggest stage in the world.’’
If the Bengals lose, Cincinnati still will shower them with love. It’s a small town that hasn’t sniffed a Super Bowl in 33 years, and the owner, football lifer Mike Brown, somehow has arrived with a skeleton staff of only six scouts. The stories are legendary, how Brown and Jerry Jones argued at owners’ meetings about the right way to do business. Kroenke, like Jones, is trying to buy himself championships.
But when he chose Los Angeles as his new home, championships were the sole option. It’s the only way to penetrate a market with 18 million people, about a million of whom might be called diehard L.A. sports fans. Maybe. It’s an area of artists, screenwriters, tech and fashion people, barista actors, various Kardashians. Back East, and in the Midwest, people derive their identity and even self-esteem from sports teams. Here, it’s about that only to a degree. People want to be entertained.
“The most important thing we can do to build this franchise after being gone for 20 years is to capture the next generation of fans,” Demoff said. “It’s not about flipping someone who’s a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, who grew up in Pittsburgh and moved to Los Angeles and becomes a Rams fan. That’s great if it happens, but that may not be realistic. What it’s about is their kids who are 8, 9, 10 years old, growing up wearing Cooper Kupp jerseys, wearing Aaron Donald jerseys and becoming lifelong Rams fans. That’s what this season has been about.
“We’re just scratching the surface of what we can become.’’
Might they still blow it? If they do, all eyes will shift to coach Sean McVay, who almost sabotaged his team in the NFC title game with panic-stricken replay challenges. Like an NBA coach or Major League Baseball manager blessed with a superteam, McVay is responsible for winning the final game … or else. He wouldn’t be fired, but the football cognoscenti will start asking serious questions. Is McVay really all that? What if Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, a branch of his “coaching tree’’ — absurd as that sounds for someone 35 years old — beats him Sunday? Remember, the last time McVay was in this spot, he left the podium after a 13-3 loss to Bill Belichick and New England by saying, “Definitely, I got outcoached.’’
That can’t happen again. He knows it. The quarterback he demanded, Stafford, will have to avoid killer turnovers. There can be no slip-ups, no failures in clock management and in-game adjustments. The Rams are loaded with talent like few teams in NFL history. They can’t lose in Hollywood to the Cincinnati Bengals and expect a soul in L.A. to care about them again anytime soon.
“The criticism is just part of being in these leadership roles,” McVay said. “Definitely, you kind of get callous to it a little bit. But I also think one of the best ways is, you know, you kind of try to stay ignorant to it. You try to minimize having stuff that can put into your being that just isn’t good energy and good positive vibes.”
Is McVay too intense? So driven to win that he ties his mental processes into knots? “At times he walks the line between unhealthy competition and healthy competition,” said Kupp, smiling. “He wants to win at all costs. He’s aware of it. We talk about the anger sharks here quite a bit. When the anger sharks start swimming, he’s mad. He’s not mad at people — he’s mad because he doesn’t have an answer for something yet or there’s something that’s giving him some consternation that he wants to get an answer to. If something’s putting us in a bad position, he doesn’t have time for that. I appreciate that about him.”
It’s early in the week, but I went to an outdoor mall in Century City to gauge Rams Fever. On the drive there, I saw one Rams flag on a car and a banner flying at a condo building. Inside the mall, I saw a woman wearing a Bengals t-shirt. That’s it, for now. Demoff remains confident. “If you were born in Los Angeles after 1995, you did not grow up with a team,” he said. “If you moved to Los Angeles from another city after 1995, there was no team, so you probably kept your previous team. So now you have people who have moved here, generations who grew up here, and you all have this team. It’s something to rally behind. When you see the jerseys, the excitement, the car flags, you walk into a grocery store and see the displays for the big game and the Rams logo, it’s a great sense of pride for our organization. But it’s a reminder of how much work we have to do to continue to grow the next generation.”
Whose house? Call it what it is: SoFi Stadium remains a high-priced rental, built on spec by an out-of-state developer, a gigantic TV studio currently occupied by Al Michaels and NBC. Not until the Rams win a Super Bowl will it be theirs.
And if they don’t win this one, when would they?
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.