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In L.A., no one rules the NFL roots

Since the Rams and Raiders left 16 years ago, it has gotten more and more difficult to say who is the most popular NFL team in town.

January 25, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna

It has been 16 years since the Los Angeles Rams and Raiders left town, leaving the nation's second-largest market with a gaping NFL void that has been filled by …

Just whom, exactly?

The San Diego Chargers seem a logical answer. They're freeway close, a perennial playoff contender and, let's face it, those powder-blue throwback jerseys and lightning bolts are pretty cool.

"We'll leave on a Sunday at 8 a.m. to tailgate, and it's amazing how many people are on the freeway from L.A. with Chargers flags and lightning bolts on their cars," said Bryan Thrush, a 59-year-old general contractor from San Juan Capistrano. "When the Rams left, there was no alternative for us than to be Chargers fans."

There is a similar migration north when the Raiders, who won one Super Bowl in 13 years in Los Angeles, play in Oakland.

"I go to every home game, and when you're driving up, there is a fleet of cars from L.A.," said Al LoCasale, a 77-year-old El Segundo resident and former Raiders executive assistant.

"Sometimes the [California Highway Patrol] sets up a police escort with two or three squad cars leading people to the game. I think the Raiders are still the most popular team in L.A."

The Rams? St. Louis is a tougher commute, but their Southern California fan club still has 2,500 members who wore Rams gear proudly when St. Louis won the Super Bowl after the 1999 season.

But with no playoff appearances since 2004 and six wins from 2007 through 2009, the Rams seem to have faded from consciousness here.

"I had a Rams helmet as a kid, but I haven't rooted for them since they left," said Angels pitcher Jered Weaver, who took in two divisional playoff games at Rudy's Pub & Grill in Newport Beach. "I'm hoping for a team to come back so I have a jersey to wear."

The Los Angeles area has been without an NFL team since 1994, but there is no shortage of pro football fans here.

Just go to any popular sports bar on an NFL Sunday and there will be plenty of jersey-wearing fans screaming at the big screens and high-fiving over plates of chicken wings.

But ask those fans, especially the ones under 30, who Los Angeles' favorite NFL team is, and the answers will range from New England to San Diego, from Miami to Seattle.

"Southern California is the new Ellis Island in respect to NFL fandom," said Leigh Steinberg, the longtime Newport Beach-based sports agent who chaired the Save the Rams committee in 1994. "We're 16 years out from having an NFL team here, so a whole generation has grown up in L.A. with no home team."

The Raiders have retained a large number of L.A.-area fans, and the Chargers have claimed a share, carving out a sizable niche in south Orange County.

In an ESPN-Chilton poll of L.A.-area fans who were asked to name their favorite NFL team, the Raiders ranked first each year from 2006 to 2009.

The Chargers finished second in 2007 and 2008, third in 2009 and fifth in 2006. The only other team in the top five all four years was the Dallas Cowboys.

The Raiders, Chargers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints have consistently drawn high ratings in L.A. for ESPN's Monday night telecasts since 2008.

But Los Angeles' highest-rated regular-season game this season on Fox, which carries the NFC, was the Cowboys vs. the Vikings on Oct. 17. That pulled a 14.3, meaning televisions in 14.3% of the 5.7 million homes in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties tuned in.

The highest-rated AFC game on CBS was the New York Jets vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers (13.9 on Dec. 19). The highest-rated Sunday night game on NBC was Minnesota vs. the Green Bay Packers (15.1 on Oct. 24). And the highest-rated ESPN Monday night game was Jets-Vikings (13.6 on Oct. 11).

"It's iconic national-appeal teams, star players and matchups that drive ratings in Los Angeles," said Bill Wanger, executive vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports.

"In the NFC, the Cowboys, Packers, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants have that national appeal. In the AFC, it's the Steelers, New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.

"The Jets, with this playoff run, [outspoken Coach] Rex Ryan, and their star players [including former USC quarterback Mark Sanchez], are moving onto that list. The Chargers do fairly well, but not as well as you might expect."

Wanger has been scheduling games for Fox since 1994 and has a keen sense for what teams and games do well in certain markets.

Who does he think L.A.'s favorite NFL team is?

"It's different every year," Wanger said. "Generally, I would say it's the Cowboys in the NFC and the Steelers in the AFC."

NFL merchandise sales indicate which teams are popular. The league tracks sales by market but does not release that information, an NFL spokesman said.

"I don't think there's any unity among fans here," said Corey Andreason, 25, a former Fountain Valley High quarterback and huge NFL fan. "What I run into the most are fair-weather fans."

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