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Cashing in on Rams Super Bowl hype isn’t easy if L.A. doesn’t love the Rams

Cashing in on Rams Super Bowl hype isn’t easy if L.A. doesn’t love the Rams
L.A. Rams gear is sold in a tent in a parking lot at La Cienega Boulevard and Imperial Highway the week before the Super Bowl. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

At Sporte Fashion, there’s a Lakers shirt — only it doesn’t say the team’s name, and the purple is a few shades too dark. It’s a knockoff inspired by a major brand, one of the many that fill the stall at the L.A. Original Farmers Market.

In the back — past Dodgers- and Lakers-inspired shirts, lanyards and keychains — licensed L.A. Rams hats sit on a counter next to the cashier.

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Co-owner Eric Coffey hopes they sell soon.

After the Rams beat the New Orleans Saints to advance to the Super Bowl, Coffey figured he should stock up. But his suppliers’ Rams knockoffs were stale, from before the team moved to Los Angeles from St. Louis in 2016. So he ordered official Rams apparel.

He priced his 14 licensed hats at $38.99 apiece. And then they sat there. Two days before the game, only three had sold.

“I was just hoping they’d sell before the Super Bowl, but hopefully they’ll sell in the next year,” 41-year-old Coffey said. “Hopefully they won’t get dust on them.”

While longtime fans of the Rams relish L.A.’s first Super Bowl appearance in 35 years, local businesses are trying to convert new fans into new customers. It’s an uphill battle in Los Angeles, which long lacked an NFL team and now, with the Chargers’ arrival in 2017, has two to compete for people’s affections.

Still, there are opportunities to sell. Google Trends shows that searches for “Rams gear” surged in the United States — and nearly quadrupled in California — on Jan. 20, the day the Rams defeated the Saints and advanced to the Super Bowl. Los Angeles led in searches by location.

Street vendors go where the fans are. Inglewood, where the team's future stadium is under construction, became a Rams hot spot this week, with vendors selling T-shirts out of plastic garbage bags and setting up tents on street corners with “Honk for Rams” signs.

At Randy's Donuts in Inglewood, whose iconic giant doughnut sign was painted gold for the occasion, customers posed with blue-and-gold doughnuts, limited-edition jerseys and free T-shirts slung across their shoulders Wednesday at a promotional event hosted in partnership with Nike and the Rams organization.

Across the street, Juan Romero set up his white truck filled with Rams merchandise to tempt the crowd.

Romero, 58, sells Lakers, Clippers and Kings apparel downtown outside L.A. Live. He goes to Boyle Heights to vend Dodgers gear. When the Rams moved to L.A., he stocked up on fan apparel and found a spot outside the Coliseum. Now he wants in on the Rams Super Bowl hype, even if it’s just fueled by bandwagon fans.

“It’s good for business, so I’m OK with it,” Romero said. “I’m a Raider fan, but I’m a businessman. So I support the Rams, too.”

Turning a fan into a customer is one thing. Creating a fan from scratch is quite another.

Top-40 station KAMP-FM 97.1 wanted to appeal to locals by talking about the Rams, but the hosts of its “Edgar, Brian & Chelsea” morning show noticed that their listeners had a distinct lack of passion for the topic.

So they doubled down. This week, they began giving away Rams bandwagon starter kits — containing a jersey, T-shirt and hat — to callers.

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“We decided that instead of doing a contest, we’re just going to embrace the fact that we need to convert people to Rams fans,” said Brian Moote, one of the hosts, “because, for whatever reason, people aren’t excited.”

On Tuesday, the first day of the giveaway, he was pleasantly surprised that they had at least nine callers for the free items.

Some longtime Rams fans are embracing the efforts to build up the fan base. Juanita and Jimmy Gonzales, who attended the Wednesday event at Randy’s, stood by the team even after it left L.A. for St. Louis in 1994.

Juanita said all are welcome, even those who are just jumping on the bandwagon. “If they want to get on, that’s fine. This is supposed to be like a family,” she said.

The Rams’ growing Los Angeles fan base provides a new opportunity for businesses to try to tap into the energy surrounding a favorite team.

Rocco’s Tavern, a small L.A.-area chain, has offered a special menu created with NFL Hall of Famer and former Rams running back Eric Dickerson since the NFL season began.

“We don’t hold a single team allegiance,” said Alex Manos, co-owner of the chain. “We’re a local bar-restaurant, so we’re big Dodgers, big Lakers and now we’re big Rams.”

George Belch, a professor and chair of the marketing department at San Diego State University, said promotions with tie-ins to successful sports teams can use fans’ excitement to boost sales.

“There’s a significant number of people who get excited about these teams, and you can impact their purchase decisions with related promotions,” he said.

Trejo's Coffee & Donuts, owned by actor and longtime Rams fan Danny Trejo, was one of the first to offer Rams-themed doughnuts and is sending taco trucks to feed fans in Atlanta. Chain restaurants El Torito and Acapulco are offering free nachos to customers who say “Go Rams” on Sunday during the Super Bowl.

Big sports apparel brands — such as Nike, which makes the Rams' official jerseys — stand to benefit if hordes of fans get behind the team.

Local vendors are still learning how to navigate the new market. At Santee Alley, a popular outdoor bazaar known for bargains, a stall selling T-shirts and memorabilia overflowed with Dodgers and Lakers items, but aside from a single kind of jacket, nothing represented the Rams.

Meanwhile, street vendor Romero is betting the Rams will win the Super Bowl and is hoping to cash in.

Romero has already ordered 360 pieces of apparel naming the Rams as Super Bowl winners. And he said he’s been keeping up with gossip about rumored parade routes, just in case, so he can pick the perfect spot to meet a sweep of new fans — and customers.

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