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Rams target millennials as they try to expand their reach in Southern California

Ian Thompson is flanked by his nephews Jacob Sanders, left, and Joshua Sanders, right, during a recent Rams practice.
(Gary Klein / Los Angeles Times)

Isabel Nguyen grew up in Southern California without a local NFL team to root for.

The Rams and Raiders both left after the 1994 season.

So Nguyen, 23, adopted the team her father bonded with while growing up in Wisconsin: the Green Bay Packers.

“I’m a stubborn person,” Nguyen, a Pomona resident, said while sitting in the stands at a Rams practice at UC Irvine, “so I think I’m going to stay a Packers fan till my dying breath.”

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For the Rams, back in L.A. after more than two decades in St. Louis, Nguyen is part of the lost generation the team is targeting as it attempts to regain a Southern California stronghold and attract new fans.

Millennials are “one of our main focuses,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer and executive vice president of football operations.

“We love the fans who have been with us forever: We want to make sure they remain hard-core,” Demoff said. “But there’s got to be a way to develop that next generation because they’re the ones in 15 to 20 years that will determine the success of this team long term.”

Experts who have studied fan behavior and millennials said the Rams are primed to win over new fans and convert others, especially through social media.

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Many young Los Angeles natives have gone their whole lives without a football team to cheer for. Now that the Rams have returned, they are excited and ready to show their support.

Simply having a team based in Los Angeles is perhaps the main factor, said Adam Earnheardt, co-editor of the book “Sports Fans, Identity, and Socialization: Exploring the Fandemonium.”

“A lot of our fandom and what we see motivates us to be sport fans is based a lot on geography,” said Earnheardt, chair of the communications department at Youngstown State University in Ohio. “If not on geography, it’s based on social capital and connection to friends and family.

“And when we’re motivated by both location and family, fans have a really high level of identification with particular teams.”

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Morley Winograd has co-authored three books about millennials. The generation that came of age after 9/11 is group-oriented, tolerant, collaborative and inclusive, he said. They are aware of football’s concussion issues and do not watch television as previous generations do.

“They need to tell their story in social media,” Winograd, a senior fellow at USC’s Annenberg Center on Leadership & Policy, said of the Rams, “not in broadcast media.”

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Dan Wann, a Murray State psychology professor who has studied sports fans for three decades, predicts the Rams will win over many of the young fans who adopted other teams during their absence.

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“The literature suggests you probably won’t get them to change allegiance,” he said. “What you hope is that they will add an allegiance.

“As long as a team is not a direct competitor, they can say, ‘I’m a Packers fan because we didn’t have an NFL team.’ They can have their cake and eat it too.”

The Rams are among the youngest teams in the NFL, and their roster is full of players in the same age group as the targeted fans.

Linebacker Cameron Lynch, 23, spent part of his youth in Long Beach before moving to Georgia and attending college at Syracuse in New York. Lynch, a Raiders fan as a kid, said the way to reach young fans was obvious.

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“You probably have to put it on Snapchat or Twitter or some type of ‘Pokemon Go Rams edition,’” he said, laughing.

Since their exhibition game against the Dallas Cowboys, the Rams have ranked at or near the top of NFL teams in engagement and follower growth on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, according to Nate Bain, the Rams’ digital media manager.

Bain, 28, said the Rams partner with Snapchat to provide content for a 24-hour story. The attendance at practice of celebrities such as rapper Kendrick Lamar also boosts the Rams’ profile.

“The people that use social media the most and the people who have never had Los Angeles Rams football are the same,” Bain said, “so that works to my advantage.”

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Fans who have come out to watch the Rams during training camp offered various opinions on whether they would fully adopt the team as their own.

Matt Pearce, 27, and Amy Tamill, 23, sat together and pondered their allegiances.

Pearce, an Irvine resident, is a San Diego Chargers fan. Tamill, from Huntington Beach, said her family members liked the Raiders and the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I think people who are newer to the game like she is may end up jumping quicker on the Rams,” Pearce said, “where other people in the game a lot longer are going to tend to be more die-hard for the teams they’re supporting.”

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Said Tamill: “I just told him, ‘I’m jumping on the bandwagon.’ Why not?”

Aidan Tol, 20, snapped photos of Rams quarterbacks as they warmed up for a workout. The Irvine resident said he was a New Orleans Saints fan because of quarterback Drew Brees.

“I’m going to stay a New Orleans fan, but to be honest I’m really hyped for the L.A. Rams,” Tol said, adding, “To have a team to cheer for in my hometown? I’m doing it.”

Ian Thompson, 29, became a San Francisco 49ers fan after the Rams left Los Angeles for St. Louis. The Paramount resident said a friendship with Rams cornerback Michael Jordan now makes him a Rams fan.

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“I notice a huge switch in the L.A. area with the demographics of my age,” he said. “A lot of people have transitioned to being Rams fans now.”

Thompson’s young nephews, Jacob and Joshua Sanders, also said they would have shared allegiances.

“Raiders,” said Jacob, 11, when asked to name his team. “I’ll be on both teams now. I’ll like the Rams a lot better than I did but it’s still the Raiders.”

Said Joshua, 13: “I’ll stay with the 49ers but I think I might like the Rams too.”

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Some fans don’t need convincing.

Cameron Udell, 20, wore a Rams jersey to practice. The Corona resident said he was the son of a longtime Rams fan.

“Even with the bad times, the 2-14 season, I never left them,” he said, “That’s why it’s a blessing now…. They’re going to have to win for people to get on our side.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

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Follow Gary Klein on Twitter @LATimesklein


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