Should the NFL Consider a Franchise in Los Angeles?
Did you suffer all summer anxiously awaiting the NFL season only to have your favorite team implode? Still in disbelief at how bad the Giants are playing? Or maybe you just had to put your Julio Jones jersey back in the closet for the season. Whatever the case, the NFL season isn’t always kind to everybody. However, the people of Los Angeles scoff at your pain as they have been waiting for the NFL to return for nearly 20 years now. Ever since the Los Angeles Rams left for St. Louis in 1995, the idea has been brought up occasionally that the NFL should bring a team back to LA. Many fans have wondered why the NFL has been trying to cultivate a fan base for the NFL in London over the years while Los Angeles is still left without a team. However, former NFL players and other analysts on ESPN usually do not devote a great deal of time and research to this debate. While their input is helpful, they are not always looking at readily available economic data that would help to determine the fate of the NFL in Los Angeles.
The younger or more casual NFL fans may be unaware of the history of the NFL in LA, history which is critical to understanding whether or not LA should have a team. Beginning in 1946 Los Angeles was host to the LA Rams, who had a significant amount of success and were among the league leaders in attendance. In 1980 the team technically moved to nearby Anaheim (approximately 30 minute drive), but still received support from LA. The Rams showed promise to begin to again become a powerhouse in the late 1980’s until their up and coming QB Jim Everett was the center of controversy that eventually doomed the franchise to more years of futility.
Following an infamous play, dubbed a “phantom sack” in the playoffs in which Everett seemed to go to the ground untouched, he received harsh criticism from fans and media. The embarrassment culminated in a confrontation with ESPN host Jim Rome in which Everett walked off the set after flipping a table and shoving Rome to the ground after Rome continued to question his toughness. The Rams never recovered from this embarrassment and went on to struggle before leaving LA in 1994.
Meanwhile, LA had another NFL team for a period of time, the LA Raiders who had moved from Oakland. The Raiders had been in Oakland for over 20 years, but moved to LA in 1982 after owner Al Davis jumped through a series of legal hoops to move the team after being unable to agree on renovations for the stadium in Oakland. But LA never fully embraced the Raiders and the team often did not fill the stadium, leading to many blackouts. By 1986 Davis was again trying to negotiate renovations, this time in LA, foreshadowing the eventual return to Oakland in 1995. So while two attempts at keeping a team in LA have failed, there is definite support and enthusiasm for the NFL in the area.
Now that we have the background on previous LA teams, let’s take a look at economic and demographic data to help understand if and how a team could survive in LA. One of the first things people should note when looking at the question of an NFL team moving to Los Angeles is the attendance of the team in question. According to ESPN, the Miami Dolphins, one team targeted for moving to LA, were last in home attendance percentage last year, filling on average just above 75% of their stadium for home games. Interestingly enough, the Jaguars, another popular pick to be moved to LA, were actually 17th overall in home attendance percentage. That may not sound like much, but it is actually less than one percentage point less than the New York Giants, whose large stadium drives down their attendance percentage even though they drew the second most fans overall. This number seems to indicate that Miami is the more likely relocation target.
However, it is also worth noting that Oakland and San Diego are 29th and 30th respectively in attendance percentage. These rankings beg the question of whether or not California could handle another professional football team. Oakland is mostly outshined by nearby San Francisco, who had a 99.3% attendance rate, and it is possible that LA could do the same to San Diego, given their relative proximity. While looking at attendance numbers do show struggling fan bases in Miami and Tampa Bay, for example, similar numbers in San Diego and Oakland seem to indicate that attendance numbers alone do not provide us with a distinct conclusion.
To delve a bit deeper into understanding if a team should be moved to LA, we need to take a closer look at where fans are located and who those fans are. Some areas are easy to predict: the Patriots dominate in New England, as do the Broncos in Colorado and the Vikings in Minnesota. But when we take a look at Florida we find something entirely different. With three teams, you might expect Florida to have mixed allegiances, but Florida shows several patches of support from out-of-state teams.
There is no one explanation here, but a strong possibility is that Florida is home to many retirees who moved there for the desirable climate in their old age. These new Florida residents could have stayed true to their former rooting interests. Checking the demographics for Florida supports this hypothesis, as the residents in Florida are on average the fifth oldest in the nation, while California ranks 46th out of 51 (including DC as a separate entity). A younger state certainly seems like a better place to have an NFL team, with younger people more likely to attend games and purchase merchandise, and the retirees’ lack of a connection to the Florida-based teams make it seem like they wouldn’t be missed much. In terms of age demographics, California seems to hold an advantage over Florida.
One question that arises in thinking about the viability of the NFL in LA is why the Rams left in the first place. It is clearly not because LA lacked fan support, for the Rams actually led the league in attendance for several years. Rather, the LA Rams were eventually doomed to failure as a result of poor management. If cities like Houston and Baltimore were able to regain teams after losing one, why should LA be any different? Essentially, LA was more than able to support an NFL team, but it still managed to lose the Rams mainly due to management issues that shouldn’t be held against the city.
Another potential issue is the cost of maintaining a team, including building or renovating a stadium. While the specifics of finding a suitable stadium are too complicated to really compare here, another thing to look at when considering LA’s candidacy for an NFL team is its overall size and income. Los Angeles is the second largest city in the US, and while Jacksonville and Miami aren’t exactly small cities, it seems reasonable that the nation’s second largest city should have an NFL team. One might counter that point by saying that just because LA is big doesn’t mean that the overall market is large. But California is the largest state in the US, with nearly 12% of the total population, and almost doubles the size of 4th-biggest Florida.
Not only does California have the most people, it is also has some of the wealthiest; of the richest 100 towns in America with at least 1000 households, California is home to 23 of them, while Florida boasts none. In terms of overall average household income, California ranks 10th while Florida comes in at a measly 37th place, more than $5,000 less than the national average. So, should the biggest city in the biggest and one of the richest states have an NFL team? However, California has the second highest percentage of Hispanics of any state in the US, and Hispanics make up a small portion of NFL fans, only 10% according to some estimates. So, while much of the data suggests that LA deserves a team, the population data isn’t one sided.
The decision to have an NFL team is a difficult one; if it were easy then there would be no debate. Many numbers seem to favor a team in LA, especially given the size of Los Angeles and California as a whole. Not only is there a large potential fan base, the population is young and generally wealthy, especially when compared with Florida, the presumed frontrunner to lose a team, be it the Dolphins or the Jaguars. However, there are also some negative factors, such as the existing poor attendance rates for two of California’s existing teams.
In short, there is a lot of conflicting or inconclusive data in both directions. While LA could definitely support an NFL team, it doesn’t make sense to move one from Florida right this minute as that could cause more problems than it would solve. One that might be more successful is actually moving an existing and struggling California team (the Raiders or Chargers) to Los Angeles. This method would limit the loss of fans from the move, especially if the move was from nearby San Diego as opposed to a cross country hike from Florida. It would also probably give the Chargers a much-needed boost in attendance, and would allow the NFL to keep the divisions the same with almost no major schedule changes.
In short, it doesn’t appear that the NFL will move a struggling Florida team to Los Angeles anytime soon, not because LA can’t support a team but because the pros are not great enough that the move would have more positive results than negative ones. Potentially moving an equally struggling Chargers or Raiders squad to LA is an idea less frequently considered, but it may have more upside and fewer drawbacks than relocating a team from Florida. As for the NFL’s fanciful dream of starting a team in London, that topic will have to be addressed another day.
Data courtesy of ESPN, SportsBusiness Daily, and Wikipedia
Map courtesy of The Bleacher Report
Georgetown University Class of 2016