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Boom-Town Days : Just How Many Big-Time Teams Can the L.A. Area Support?

October 06, 1985|BOB OATES | Bob Oates is a Times staff writer

World War II was ending, and Dan Reeves had had it with Cleveland. An Air Force lieutenant, Reeves also owned the Cleveland Rams. And at a special meeting of National Football League franchise holders, he was seeking permission to move the Rams to Los Angeles.

"I've heard of Los Angeles," said an opponent, Fred Mandel, president of the Detroit Lions. "But it costs too much to go out there. I vote no."

Reeves had expected that reaction. "Here's what I think of the L.A. area," he told Mandel and the other owners. "I'll pay the travel bills for all your teams. I mean if Los Angeles doesn't go for pro football--if Cleveland was better--I'll make up the difference."

From the back of the room, young Wellington Mara of the New York football Giants shouted: "Sold."

And a new age had begun--an age of sports on a previously unimagined scale. In the four decades since the NFL discovered California, the Los Angeles area has become America's most active sports center.

There are now two prominent pro football teams, the Raiders and the Rams; two big-time college football teams, USC and UCLA; two big- league baseball teams, the Dodgers and the Angels; two National Basketball Assn. teams, the Lakers and the Clippers; and two busy race tracks, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, plus a National Hockey League team, the Kings, and a third pro football team, the faltering Express.

Public opinion polls suggest that on a scale of 100, the nation's three most popular spectator sports are football (31%), baseball (26%) and basketball (10%). (Hockey, boxing, golf, tennis and a half dozen other sports make up the remainder.) Significantly:

The Lakers, with the highest ticket prices in sports, lead basketball in net income.

The Dodgers lead baseball in total attendance.

The Raiders lead football in gross receipts.

It seems preposterous today that anyone ever had to guarantee anyone else's travel costs to Los Angeles. And, of course, no payments were ever made.

"From day one, L.A. was a financial improvement on Cleveland," Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney said. "Reeves just woke us up."

In short order, many others also woke up. One of these was an early Ram fan, a film executive who had moved to Hollywood from New York. A season-ticket holder, he walked into the Rams' box office at the Coliseum one day to buy another seat.

"I'm in love," he said. "I'm getting married this summer."

"Congratulations," the ticket seller said cheerfully. "I can move you up five rows and put you and your bride together at every game."

"Five rows?" the man said. "Are you crazy? Put her up there--and leave me where I'm at."

How did Los Angeles get that way? What makes this the best sports town in a sports-minded country?

The most persuasive answer has these three parts:

To begin with, greater Los Angeles is one of the most populous and fastest-growing communities in the nation. Second, it is one of the most affluent places on earth; people can afford tickets that run as high as $100. Third, and more distinctively, this is a community of transients and transplants from the 49 other states and around the world.

As a sports area, Los Angeles is what it is in large part because its people are who they are--imports from everywhere.

Many Californians, to be sure, were born here--particularly in the last 20 years--but millions weren't.

And by definition, migratory persons are those looking for something different, something better.

That suggests they're also ambitious. Turned off by losers, they are ambitious for themselves, for their families and for any organization they admire. And though they enjoy action and excitement, they don't readily put down new roots. They seldom develop deep sports loyalties in the same sense that their less venturesome friends back home support the Cubs or Lions, win or lose.

Hall of Famer Merlin Olsen, the NBC broadcaster who played 15 years for the Rams, calls this the strangest town in the pro leagues.

"It's a shocking experience," he says, "to come here from a cohesive smaller city and play for the first time in the L.A. Coliseum for an L.A. team. They'll cheer you for a good play--they get excited here and love their football--but as a crowd, they're never really for you. They don't involve themselves in the game, in the outcome."

Olsen, a 14-year All-Pro who was one of the most sensitive of the Rams--and among the ablest in their first 40 years--thinks of Los Angeles sports fans as unique.

"They appreciate good football in the same sense that they appreciate good wine," he says. "They like excellence because that's what they hoped to find when they came out here from Iowa or Pennsylvania. But this is a city of spectators, not fans."

As Los Angeles spectators, they cheer for both sides, making it more difficult for the home team to win.

"At the L.A. Super Bowl," Pittsburgh center Mike Webster says, meaning Super Bowl XIV at the Rose Bowl, "there were more Steeler fans than Ram fans."

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