It’s a foregone conclusion that the second-largest city in the United States will receive an NFL team. The city of Los Angeles has just about everything you need for a professional football team to succeed. A rabid sports culture, diverse subcultures, money and, to a degree, a lot of space.
Of course, you could point to the current support for the UCLA and USC football teams to make a stronger case that football is as popular of a sport in LA as it is anywhere else in the country.
But that’s where things get sticky.
Because that’s an area that could screw an NFL team before it gets here; college football is well-established in Los Angeles and the UCLA-USC rivalry goes beyond tradition. It’s damn near religious in nature.
And, to a degree, the UCLA-USC rivalry has ruined the NFL’s tenure in Los Angeles before. Consistent out-performance in attendance and waning attendance compared to other NFL teams overall doomed the L.A. Rams’ and Raiders’ stay in the City of Angels.
Let’s take a look at the average attendance, in 1980 (two years prior to the Oakland Raiders moving to LA), for the UCLA and USC football programs while looking at the Los Angeles Rams’ attendance that same year.
- UCLA Average Attendance: 53,170
- USC Average Attendance: 64,255
- L.A. Rams Average Attendance: 62,550
At that time, UCLA finished ranked 13th in national polls, USC wound up ranked 12th in national polls (and it’s fair to note that they were not eligible for a bowl bid due to Pac-10 sanctions) and the L.A. Rams went 11-5. Basically, there’s quite a bit of parity between the three football teams in terms of attendance, but USC still managed to garner significantly more attendance than the L.A. Rams did that year.
How about the Raiders’ first year in Los Angeles in 1982? Was the transition smooth and attendance high compared to their L.A. counterparts?
- UCLA Average Attendance: 58,710
- USC Average Attendance: 55,814
- L.A. Rams Average Attendance: 49,690
- L.A. Raiders Average Attendance: 46,285
The Raiders’ first season in L.A. was disappointing, to say the least. Although they finished 8-1 that season, they still garnered the lowest attendance of any of the four LA football teams, while both NFL L.A. teams finished well below the average attendance of the two storied college programs.
It must be noted, though, that this was a lockout-shortened season, so perhaps interest in the NFL waned while college football became the focus.
So let’s fast forward to 1989, enough time for the L.A. teams to recover and enough time for the Raiders to build a fan-base that still is dominant in L.A. today.
- UCLA Average Attendance: 54,120
- USC Average Attendance: 64,667
- L.A. Rams Average Attendance: 58,846
- L.A. Raiders Average Attendance: 49,620
Once again, the NFL teams in Los Angeles were vastly out-performed by USC, although they were more competitive with UCLA in terms of attendance. It’s fair to note that the Raiders had a particularly mediocre year (at 8-8) while the Rams went 11-5 that season.
And the Rams’ and Raiders’ last season (in 1994) in L.A. probably defined the NFL’s tumultuous tenure in L.A. Here are the numbers.
- UCLA Average Attendance: 51,396
- USC Average Attendance: 58,538
- L.A. Rams Average Attendance: 42,312
- L.A. Raiders Average Attendance: 51,196
In essence, the NFL teams in Los Angeles never eclipsed UCLA and USC consistently during their tenures. College football was king in L.A. for that time, and is unrivaled today.
Of course, things are different these days. This time around, UCLA’s football program has been lackluster at best for the past decade, and while USC has all the hype it has ever received, the rivalry itself has been watered down. UCLA has become irrelevant nationally and that could factor into the success of an NFL team in L.A.
Even then, though, UCLA’s attendance hasn’t done terribly during this era of mediocrity and averaged nearly 57,000 in attendance in a laughable 2011 campaign. Meanwhile, USC averaged 74,800 in 2011, a season in which the program was not eligible for a bowl game. For comparison’s sake, the median attendance for an NFL team in 2011 is 68,986.
But what will happen if an NFL team winds up succeeding in Los Angeles after all? What if an NFL team hits, consistently, 70,000 in attendance?
Then the college programs suffer, because then those programs will have taken a backseat to the most profitable, most popular sports league in America. Even when USC is nationally relevant as it is now, or when UCLA awakens from its dormancy, an NFL team will cast a shadow that neither of these programs can move out of, because this is the NFL after all.
It won’t destroy UCLA or USC football, mind you. Attendance could suffer, but not drastically. Instead, merchandise sales — USC and UCLA gear are still highly sought after items — and branding may become more difficult in a city where the biggest sport in the nation becomes dominant.
An NFL team in L.A. won’t increase attendance at USC or UCLA games, nor will it empower college football fans to become bigger college football fans. If anything, some may sacrifice a Saturday night game at the Rose Bowl or Coliseum for a Sunday afternoon game in a stadium that’s going to blow the current stadiums out of the water, historical significance be damned.
Either way, an NFL team is landing in Los Angeles. It’s not a matter of if but how soon and who. Don’t be fooled into thinking that an NFL team is good for everyone, that everyone in Los Angeles will be winners. An NFL team in L.A. won’t aid college football, nor will college football in L.A. aid the NFL.
No, as soon as an NFL team is established in Los Angeles, cutthroat competition begins. A fight for a bigger share of the market between the three teams will occur, and keeping the games on separate days won’t do anything to hinder that.
In other words, someone will win and someone will lose.
Your move, NFL.