PRO SPORTS FACE SOURED MARKET LOS ANGELES: UNFULFILLED PROMISED LAND

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Anaheim, Calif. -- There was no midnight ride. The Los Angeles Rams spent much of June packing up the trucks for their long-anticipated move to St. Louis. The Los Angeles Raiders were not far behind, announcing soon thereafter their intention to move back to Oakland and give up sole football claim to the second-largest sports market in the United States.

How can this be? NFL training camps are opening everywhere . . . . everywhere but in Los Angeles and Orange County, a massive metropolitan area that once made sports moguls from other parts of the country drool with envy.

The Rams left for a sweeter stadium deal. The Raiders left for similar reasons, although there were other factors that contributed to their decision to reoccupy the Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum. Regardless of the specific circumstances, the willingness of both teams to move is symptomatic of a dramatic change in the sports environment in Southern California -- a region once viewed as the promised land for major-league teams.

"I suspect that Los Angeles is such a gigantic place that people thought they could go there and you are bound to get somebody to come to your games," said John C. Phillips, a University of the Pacific professor and author of "The Sociology of Sports."

History has proved otherwise.

To be sure, the NFL has temporarily deserted Los Angeles, in part for reasons unique to the NFL. Its teams get so much money from network TV that ticket sales and local media rights -- revenue sources that are dependent on large population bases -- are less important.

And revenue-sharing rules strongly favor teams that can raise money from sky boxes, club seats and luxury concessions, amenities the Rams and Raiders will find in their new digs.

But attendance figures for all eight major-league teams in Los Angeles and nearby Anaheim during their most recent seasons suggest a remarkable fan apathy. Of the eight, only two -- the Dodgers and hockey's Mighty Ducks -- exceeded league averages for per-game attendance.

Most weren't close: The Rams and NBA's Clippers were one-third below their respective league marks, and the Angels ,, were off 25 percent. A short-term blip? Rams attendance was off 30 percent from 1990 to 1995. Angels attendance has been in decline since 1989. And even the Dodgers are well below their historic highs.

More than wins, losses

It's not just performance, either. The Angels, who once owned the American League single-season attendance record, are struggling to lure fans to watch a club that has been in first place for much of the season. The Lakers, once the hottest sports ticket in Southern California, were the fifth-worst-drawing team in the NBA this past season, even though a rebuilding effort paid off with an overachieving young team.

Even the Dodgers, whose attendance is the envy of many in baseball, have lost their league-leading rank to teams playing in new stadiums. And the Dodgers finished first in their division last season.

There's no simple reason for the sports malaise in L.A. People in and around sports cite several factors, from an awful transportation system and lack of a focused downtown to the abundance of beaches, mountains and other things to do in the region. And the area that gave the world daredevil skateboarding and roller blades may prefer participatory to spectator sports.

Moreover, the growing fascination of sports teams for new, publicly financed stadiums -- an economic necessity in a world of $200 million franchises -- comes at a bad time for the battered California economy, and to a bad place. Southern California is the birthplace of America's modern anti-tax movement.

The late Walter O'Malley shocked the sports establishment in the 1950s when he engineered the deal that resulted in both the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants moving to the West Coast, but he could see that the nation's westward expansion was only beginning.

The Dodgers' move for the 1958 season was followed two years later by the NBA's Minneapolis Lakers. A year after that, expansion brought the Angels. The NHL's Kings, an expansion franchise, came in 1967.

In less than 10 years, L.A. had gone from one major-league team -- the Rams, who moved from Cleveland in 1946 -- to five.

In 1982, the Raiders moved down from Oakland, and in 1984, the Clippers moved up from San Diego. The NHL added the expansion Mighty Ducks in 1993.

Boom to bust

"It was a gold mine," said Pennsylvania State University sports historian Ron Smith. Population and wealth were growing quickly, and air transportation had evolved to where a team could play in Los Angeles one day and New York the next.

The gold rush created its own problem: overkill. Before the Rams and Raiders announced they were leaving, there were eight major-league teams squeezed into a geographical rectangle that measures just 15 by 25 miles.

Although about 15 million people live within driving distance of the six venues used by those teams (the Rams and Angels shared Anaheim Stadium and the Kings and Lakers share the Great Western Forum), there are too many entertainment options to breed unconditional fan loyalty.

"We've had to compete with two NFL teams -- until recently -- two NBA teams, two NHL teams, two major universities [USC and UCLA], Disneyland and a day at the beach," said Angels president Richard Brown, "not to mention countless other attractions and activities."

Brown retains confidence in the market, but admits fans won't pay to watch a loser.

"Southern California is an area that supports winning," Brown said.

"When the Lakers were winning, you couldn't get a seat. When they were losing, you couldn't give one away. I think the Southern California market is terrific, but there's a different type of fan here than anywhere else. They are loyal to their teams, but they won't support a team when it's losing."

One case in point: the Dodgers have won two World Series championships and seven division titles in the past 20 years, but when they dropped below .500 in 1992, attendance fell by an average of 10,000 fans per game.

Identity crisis

"People in Los Angeles really do not have that sense of community and identity with sports teams. In Cleveland and Buffalo, people identify with the city; in Los Angeles, they don't," said Phillips.

He blames the city's helter-skelter development and lack of architectural or cultural focus, such as Baltimore's Inner Harbor or Chicago's Lakefront.

"As a city, Baltimore has suburbs, but people consider themselves as a part of Baltimore. Los Angeles is really a conglomeration of lots of towns. People don't identify themselves as a part of Los Angeles," he said.

Even nature seems to be working against sports here. The series natural disasters has depressed tourism, which affects walk-up sales for all of the major professional teams.

And the recession -- which has left California with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country -- has significantly reduced the amount of money that local fans can afford to spend on entertainment. Factor in the sour after-effects of the baseball strike and the hockey lockout, and Southern California fans can't turn around without tripping over another reason not to go to a sporting event.

"It's a tough market. It requires a much higher level of marketing effort," said Paul Much, a sports team consultant and senior managing partner of Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin in Chicago. "If you are a winning team, you are providing the best entertainment value and won't have any troubles. If you are not winning, you have to depend on marketing and entertainment appeal.

"The message is there is more to having a successful sports team than just a large market."

The two best-attended teams benefit from strong management and facilities: The Dodgers are still operated by the O'Malley family, which has been part of the team since World War II and has distinguished itself in franchise operation. Though 34 years old, Dodger Stadium is considered one of baseball's showcases.

The Mighty Ducks are owned by the Walt Disney Co., the entertainment giant whose entry into sports has raised hopes for a renaissance in the industry. The Ducks play in the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim, a state-of-the-art arena finished in 1993.

Officials of the four other L.A. teams point to the age (which averages 34 years) and conditions of their facilities as big factors in their inability to generate sufficient revenues or fan interest. Building new facilities could be the cure the sports market needs, they say.

Aging facilities hurt revenues

"It really is a matter of facilities," said Brown. "A new facility with a favorable lease allows you to compete. The Cleveland Indians get $6 million for in-stadium advertising. We get $100,000. It's the difference between two superstars and a middle infielder.

"If we had a new stadium with the right kind of lease, we would have an easier time competing, but the only type of deal the city has offered -- either for a new stadium or for stadium renovations -- has the Angels footing most of the bill."

Former Raiders executive Irv Kaze agrees that new stadiums could inject new life into the moribund sports market, at least with the NFL.

"Outside of Washington, it's the only major area that does not have a real Class A football stadium," Kaze said. "Baltimore doesn't have one, but they were going to get one if they got a team. Washington doesn't have one, but Jack Kent Cooke is working on it. The [Los Angeles] Coliseum has a wonderful history, but it's not a major-league football stadium."

The NFL is looking at a number of options for returning a team to Los Angeles, including expansion. But it seems to acknowledge the need for a new stadium first and has engaged in talks with various entities about building one.

The Disney factor

The Angels, meanwhile, are going in a different direction. Owners Gene and Jackie Autry recently agreed to sell 25 percent of the franchise and turn over control of the team to Disney, which may be in a far better position to negotiate for stadium renovations or new construction.

Disney was awarded the NHL expansion franchise in Anaheim vTC two years ago and quickly turned the Mighty Ducks and their new arena into one of the most popular sports attractions in the country.

Angels officials are hoping that the same kind of marketing savvy will bring back baseball fans and that Disney's vast corporate wealth will be able to provide the financial foundation necessary to build a consistent winner.

"Disney is committed to this area," said Bill Robertson, a spokesman for Disney Sports. "There is no question that this is a top marketplace. If you provide a good entertainment value, are honest with people, and put a good product on the diamond or the ice or the court, people will support you."

Disney is guarded about its future plans, but it isn't hard to foresee the company taking advantage of the currently sagging Southern California sports market to build a sports entertainment conglomerate that includes the Ducks, Angels and a new NFL expansion franchise, if prohibitions on corporate ownership are lifted.

If the NFL feels the need to keep the number of teams in the league even, then a second franchise could also be awarded. Toronto is generally favored by league insiders, but if it fails there is another Eastern time zone city eager to capitalize on L.A.'s sports troubles: Baltimore.

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