COLUMN ONE : Tough Sell for the Home Team : Pro clubs find it can be hard to gain a big following in Southern California. Most fans seem a bit more laid-back or impatient, and many have loyalties elsewhere.
There are 50,000 names on a waiting list for Washington Redskins season tickets. The only hope for some is that a family member will die and leave them his seats.
In Cleveland, a few thousand fans sit in a stadium section known as the Dawg Pound, throw dog biscuits on the field and bark throughout Browns games like a pack of Great Danes.
In Minneapolis, the Timberwolves had an average home attendance of 17,888--10th highest in the National Basketball Assn. last season--even with a 20-62 record that was the league’s second-worst.
And then there’s Southern California.
It is the home of the nation’s second-largest sports market. And yet its fans are known for being so laid-back--some would say blase--that the first major professional team to arrive in the state is leaving after nearly 50 years, blaming in large part lack of support.
The Rams, pending National Football League approval, will play in St. Louis this year, drawn by a lucrative deal and a fan base expected to be so strong that the city has pledged to sell 40,000 season tickets by March.
The Rams also cited deteriorating attendance in Anaheim. The past season’s average--42,312--ranked last among 28 NFL teams and reflects the larger, alarming slump at the gate suffered by most local pro teams. Beyond the numbers is an attitude: Many fans here seem to be as fair-weathered as, well, the fair weather. Even the popular Dodgers’ rooters are notorious for coming late and leaving early.
Even now, as the Rams pack up, the outcry usually heard when cities lose teams has failed to materialize. The prevailing sentiment seems to be: Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
All of which raises the question: What’s wrong with Southern California sports fans?
Many argue that there’s nothing wrong. It’s just that the local sports community is different than anywhere else in the United States.
Everyone loves a winner. And even the worst teams have ranks of loyalists. But, in general, pro sports fans here are a bit more discerning, a little less demonstrative; a bit more fickle, a little less forgiving; a bit more skeptical, a little less die-hard.
“The image is that they don’t take it seriously, that it’s entertainment, and people don’t really live and die with their sports teams there,” said John C. Phillips, a University of the Pacific professor of sports sociology.
Because Southern California’s franchises are relatively young--the Rams came to Los Angeles in 1946 and lost a good deal of their fan base when they moved to Anaheim in 1980--team loyalties have not had the chance to be passed from generation to generation.
Also, many residents moved here from other states, bringing their loyalties to previous hometown teams.
By contrast, “there aren’t many who migrate to Pittsburgh,” said Jonathan Brower, a Cal State Fullerton professor of sociology who specializes in sports. “They have a solid base of people who have been there for generations and generations. People come here and adopt the Lakers or Dodgers, but it’s not the same kind of connection.”
The crowded entertainment market here also makes it tough to find a following. If you get fed up with one team, you can turn to many others. Southern California’s seven remaining major pro teams are second in number only to the New York City metro area, which has nine.
Many fans also maintain strong ties to colleges, especially USC and UCLA.
“L.A. has so many teams, it’s hard to be loyal to one,” Phillips said. “And it’s hard to have a real sense of civic pride or identity because L.A. is made up of so many smaller communities.”
Also, “there’s a lot more to do here, especially in the winter, than there is in Minnesota or Pittsburgh,” Brower said. “So the population doesn’t need that kind of sports fix the way other towns do. Being fit is also a high priority here, and a lot of people don’t want to spend their Sundays watching a team play.”
Area fans won’t tolerate a loser for long, in part because teams are not as deeply rooted in or connected to the community.
Only the Angels, Kings and Mighty Ducks are Southern California natives. The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn in 1958, the Lakers from Minneapolis in 1960, the Raiders from Oakland in 1982 and the Clippers from San Diego in 1984.
“With a team like the Steelers, they’ve not only been in Pittsburgh for a long time (since 1933) but the whole identification of the team, their nickname, is aligned with the industry of the city,” Brower said. “Fans there have a real working-class mentality, which means they’ll stick with the team through hard times.”
Los Angeles has “a lot of working-class people,” Brower said. “But most buy into the Hollywood scene, which is glitz and glamour, and it’s harder for them to stick with a team when they’re not doing well.”
But fans here do have at least one thing in common with fans across the country--they have no stomach for teams whose front offices do not seem to make a full effort to win.
Some teams have disillusioned fans by allowing some of their best and most popular players to leave by trades or as free agents.
Although the Rams made seven playoff appearances during the 1980s, they will leave town after five losing seasons in which they were accused of scrimping on salaries and driving many key players to contract holdouts.
The team has said the cost-cutting was necessary because it operated under an oppressive lease in a venue inadequate for generating the revenue needed to finance a winner.
“There’s nothing wrong with the fans,” said Marc Woods, 47, of Irvine, who canceled his Rams and Angels season tickets three years ago. “There’s a problem with the product being put on the field.”
David Carter, a business consultant who teaches sports management at USC, defines an NFL winner as a team that acts like a 12-4 team, win or lose.
“The Raiders always act like they’re 12-4,” he said. “Remember when Denver went after (Raider receiver) Tim Brown? Al Davis (Raider owner) matched a big offer and kept him. They’re committed to winning.
“You don’t get the feeling that (Rams owner) Georgia Frontiere has that commitment. She’s let her best players--and some of the league’s best--get away.”
So have the Angels and Clippers, whose front offices, some fans say, sometimes resemble the Keystone Kops.
Marquee players such as Danny Manning, Dominique Wilkins and Ron Harper have left the Clippers in recent years, with Harper claiming that management made playing here seem like “being in jail.” And he was making $4 million a year.
A series of botched draft picks have hindered the team, which has had only one winning season in Los Angeles. The Clippers’ record is reflected at the gate--they’ve been among the worst-drawing NBA teams for years.
The Angels, who were founded in 1961, spent big money on free agents in the early 1980s and won division titles in 1982 and 1986. But the lasting memories of those seasons are of the Angels blowing leads in the American League Championship series against Milwaukee and Boston.
The Angels have spent most of the ‘90s slashing their payroll and dumping several high-priced stars and veterans. They say that free spending does not work, given their economic situation, and believe that success can come by developing their own younger players. Well, fans are not buying--average attendance has dropped from 32,682 in 1989 to 24,009 in 1994.
“I think people are basically loyal, and if they don’t see loyalty from management or the team, then maybe there’s an underlying psyche there,” said Laird Hayes, men’s soccer coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa. “Why should fans be concerned about the team when the team isn’t concerned about them?”
That attitude has hindered the Angels and Rams’ chances of capturing second-generation fans in Orange County, which otherwise is seen as a potential sports mecca because of its affluence.
Case in point: Gene Duncan, a 35-year-old financial analyst from Fullerton, is a longtime Angels fan. His son, Zachary, 9, idolized Wally Joyner, the former Angel first baseman. But Duncan and his son feel the team betrayed them.
“Zach was with the Wally World crowd, he had the poster in his room, the whole bit,” Duncan said. “Then Joyner left (after the 1991 season) for more money, and Zach couldn’t understand it. Once it was explained to him, he didn’t want the poster anymore.
“Then (pitcher) Jim Abbott got him back into the Angels. He was a phenomenal guy, on and off the field. Then he went to New York (in 1993) because his agent didn’t think the Angels offered enough money. . . . It’s hard to root for the team if you don’t know the players.”
High player turnover has hurt all of baseball.
But just up the freeway, the Dodgers seem impervious to many of the sport’s problems. They have been among the major league’s best-drawing teams, attracting at least 3 million fans nine times in the last 15 years.
Why do they succeed? Because since they have been in Los Angeles they have a winning tradition (nine World Series appearances, five championships); stable leadership (only two managers, Walter Alston and Tom Lasorda); one of sports’ most respected play-by-play announcers (Vin Scully); a baseball-only stadium, and highly successful marketing, public relations and community relations departments.
But Dodger fans, as well as Laker fans, may be spoiled by their teams’ success. When the Dodgers suffered a rare losing season in 1992, average game attendance fell more than 10,000 from the previous season.
The Lakers regularly sold out the Forum in Inglewood during the 1980s, when they won five NBA championships with a “Showtime” style that featured Earvin (Magic) Johnson and many of the league’s best players.
But when they slipped under .500 the past two seasons, average game attendance fell from 17,055 to 13,315. Although newcomers Cedric Ceballos and Eddie Jones have led a Laker resurgence--they are 23-12 this season--Forum turnstiles are still lagging. Laker attendance (13,062) is 23rd in the 27-team league.
The long-moribund Kings’ average attendance shot up to the 15,000 range--about 1,000 short of Forum capacity--in 1988-89 after the team acquired superstar Wayne Gretzky. The Kings made it to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals, giving them another boost.
As the strike-shortened 1995 hockey season opens, they hope to retain the status they inherited from the “Showtime” Lakers as the hottest ticket in town.
And the Disney-owned Mighty Ducks’ surprisingly competitive inaugural record of 33-46-5 and a strong marketing effort contributed to 27 sellouts out of 42 games last season at the Pond in Anaheim.
“Fans here are not as raucous or rabid,” said Bill Robertson, Mighty Ducks public relations director, who grew up in St. Paul, Minn. “I’ve been to Boston and New York, traveled to a lot of different arenas and stadiums, and the following is so much more intense (elsewhere) on a daily basis.
“Another thing you don’t see a lot of here is tailgating. At Metropolitan Stadium (where Minnesota’s Vikings and Twins played before Minneapolis built a new stadium) the parking lot was always a sea of hibachis, coolers and lawn chairs and people had their radios on. Some people didn’t even have tickets to the game but would tailgate to soak up the atmosphere.”
There are die-hard fans in Southern California. Remember the boisterous guys who went to Ram games wearing watermelons on their heads to show their loyalty? Flags with the Raiders’ pirate logos fly all around the Coliseum. Even if the Kings didn’t have Gretzky or the Ducks Disney, they’d still attract people who just love hockey in the desert. And many fans bleed Dodger Blue.
Dr. Richard Lister, a clinical/sports psychologist from Costa Mesa, believes there is a hunger here for spectator sports. He points to the Clippers, one of the NBA’s worst teams, selling out games when it plays at the Pond.
“If hockey, which is so foreign to Southern California, can make it here, you mean to tell me pro football can’t make it?” Lister said. “People love pro football here, but the Rams never seemed to put a team on the field to excite fans, and people got disgusted.
“Then they got so mad at the Rams (for considering a move to St. Louis), they figured, ‘Why should I pay for a ticket and help a team that’s deserting us?’
“Southern California is a sports mecca in terms of the socioeconomic level of fans. For the Rams to fail here, they should be embarrassed.”
Indeed, fan success may be hard to get here. But winning is one way to do it. And when you’re winning, in this 14-million-person market, you can win big.
“If you’re going to have a winning team, (this) is the best place to be because of the tremendous support and interest the market can generate,” said Alan Friedman, editor of Chicago-based Team Marketing Report, an industry newsletter. “But if you’re not a winner, it’s an extremely tough place to be.”
Times staff writer Bob Oates contributed to this story.
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Following a Winner
Over the last 15 years, attendance figures would seem to bear out the theory that Southern California sports fans will support a winner but begin to stay away when a team is losing. Winning percentage based on regular season record:
Rams Average attendance: (1994) 42,312 Winning percentage: (1994) .250
Raiders Average attendance: (1994) 57,000 Winning percentage: (1994) .563
Angels Average attendance: (1994) 24,009 Winning percentage: (1994) .409
Dodgers Average attendance: (1994) 41,443 Winning percentage: (1994) .509
Source: Individual teams
Average attendance: (1994) 13,315 Winning percentage: (1994) .402
Average attendance: (1994) 11,489 Winning percentage: (1994) .329
Average attendance: (1994) 15,655 Winning percentage: (1994) .393
Average attendance: (1994) 16,989 Winning percentage: (1994) .423