LOS ANGELES — The NFL is finally back in Los Angeles. But so far Los Angeles isn’t showing up.
The Rams played in front of tens of thousands of empty seats on Sunday, and the Chargers are playing in a stadium less than half the size of any other venue in the league.
It doesn’t help that neither team was very good last year. But instead of celebrating its return to the nation’s second-largest market, the NFL is fielding embarrassing questions about whether the City of Angels is football-friendly.
That’s especially pressing because both teams will move to a futuristic $2.6 billion stadium in 2020.
“Anyone who expected instant sellouts with crazy, maniacal fans with painted faces from Day 1 should have been in minority,” a sports television veteran told CNNMoney. “That kind of fandom takes time to build. Winning helps. Changing habits doesn’t happen overnight.”
The teams say ticket sales are just fine.
The Rams, who moved from St. Louis before last season, are playing in the L.A. Coliseum, which holds over 90,000 fans. It’s also home to the University of Southern California Trojans — whose fans regularly fill the place on Saturdays in the fall.
The Rams drew an average of 80,000 last year, partly because of excitement over the team’s arrival. The team, expecting a drop-off for the second year, says it intentionally capped tickets at 56,000 this season to improve the fan experience.
The Chargers, who moved from San Diego for this season, are at the StubHub Center, a complex that holds 27,000 and is also home to the LA Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
The Chargers sold out their season tickets, which were on average the most expensive in the league. They reported attendance of more than 25,000 for Sunday’s game. The team provides more than 1,000 tickets for sponsors and players’ families, and it doesn’t count those toward attendance.
For all the concern over empty seats, ticket sales aren’t a major source of revenue for the league. The real money lies in broadcast and streaming rights, and those deals — billions of dollars in all — are locked in for the immediate future.
Plus, when the two teams moved to Los Angeles their valuations increased dramatically — it pays to play in the second largest U.S. market.
Still, two weeks into the season, the NFL has had to address the issue of L.A.’s suitability.
On Monday, league spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters on a conference call that the teams’ owners “knew going in that this wasn’t a one-game or a one-year solution where they could just turn the light on and expect the kind of support that they are very confident they are going to get as they move towards the opening of their new stadium.”
Team ownership also acknowledges that it’s important to get out into the community to build their brands and create fans in L.A. The city has been home to NFL teams in the past, but hasn’t had one for more than 20 years.
The Cleveland Rams first moved to L.A. in 1946. The relocation changed the face of the league because, to secure a lease for the L.A. Coliseum, the Rams agreed to integrate. That prompted the NFL to lift an informal ban on black players in place since 1933.
The Los Angeles Chargers franchise was born in 1960, but moved to San Diego after just one season. In 1982, the Oakland Raiders moved to L.A., giving the city two teams. But by 1995, the Rams and the Raiders were both out of the city.
Lockhart said the league is confident that support for both teams will grow once the new stadium, which will be privately funded, opens. (Because of record rainfall in Southern California, the opening got pushed back a year from 2019.)
A shiny new home should build support for the teams, and the new place will be easier to get to than either of the current stadiums.
“There are more than 20 million people that live within an easy drive of the new Inglewood stadium,” a league source told CNNMoney. “With three seasons to build up the fan base, both teams should do at least OK in Inglewood. And if one of the teams is good and exciting and in the playoff hunt, that team will do very well.”
The Rams are responsible for financing the new stadium, according to a league source in L.A. The team plans to sell personal seat licenses — expensive one-time fees that allow the buyer to reserve a seat or transfer or sell the rights to someone else.
The Rams are reportedly considering selling PSLs in the $100,000 range. If they can’t raise the money, they could have a problem financing the stadium.
The Chargers haven’t committed yet but are also thinking about selling PSLs, according to the source.
Ultimately, the success of the teams in L.A. depends on whether they’re able to sell themselves to fans and generate interest. One of the best ways to do that is to be good. So far, the Rams are 1-1 and the Chargers are 0-2.
“These teams need to win, and win in an exciting fashion,” the source said. “If you don’t put a compelling product forth for L.A. fans, you’re going to lag badly.”