How L.A. Learned to Love the Rams Again

When the team last played in L.A., in 1994, the reviews were savage. 
But after three decades in purgatory (uh, St. Louis), they came home to conquer a town that loves nothing more than second acts

There was a time when all you had to do to get a Super Bowl in your town was to be sunny and warm in late January. That’s why the first Super Bowl was held at the Los Angeles Coliseum and why it happened at the Rose Bowl in 1993, the last time the game visited the area. But that’s not how Super Bowls are awarded anymore. Since the last Big Game in L.A., it has been in Indianapolis, Detroit, Minneapolis, and East Rutherford, N.J. Now you need a multibillion-dollar stadium just to get your foot in the door. And you know what? It still might have been worth it.

It has been a long, hard two years: you don’t need me to tell you that. The Miami Super Bowl two years ago is now most famous for epidemiologists’ claim that the Chiefs’ win over the 49ers may have saved thousands of lives because San Francisco didn’t have a victory parade as COVID was already silently circulating through its population. The Super Bowl last year featured 30,000 cardboard-cutout fans, and a streaker got within five feet of a then-unvaccinated Tom Brady during a  surge. The Super Bowl has been stuck in the same pandemic muck as the rest of us.

But not this year. This Super Bowl had none of that. Despite early worries that the game would have to be moved because of California’s COVID restrictions, it not only stayed in Los Angeles but also featured the hometown Rams in that shining, almost otherworldly state-of-the-art new football stadium in Hollywood Park—it honestly looks like something from Arrival—that has wowed even the most skeptical observers since it opened last year. (And for $5.5 billion, it’d better.) This NFL season was one of the most exciting—and insanely popular—in recent memory, culminating in a postseason that is widely considered the best in recent memory. The sport navigated the pandemic the way it navigates everything: It plowed through it like it was too big to fail, or at least too big to socially distance. And it all ended with an evening in Los Angeles that the league has been dreaming of for decades.

The history of football in Los Angeles is the history of football and the history of Los Angeles. The Cleveland Rams moved to Los Angeles and made it the first West Coast city to have a professional team, and the city represented a new way to experience pro football: not shivering in the frozen tundra of Wisconsin or the grit and grime of Pittsburgh but, instead, basking in sunshine and hope. For a sport that would ultimately find its greatest breakthrough because of television, Los Angeles gave it something that would blaze that path: terrific lighting. The sport left the area for 29 years—29 years during which the league and the sport exploded in popularity precisely because of that prevalence and ubiquity on television. And it returned for the reason it was always going to return: Location, location, location. You can have a Super Bowl in Indianapolis and make it look decent, but there is nothing like having the Super Bowl back in Los Angeles. The Super Bowl was the showcase the league and the city have been inexorably working back toward since before there was a Super Bowl. It was the glorious, inevitable reunion.

The road here was ugly and ragged, to be sure. The battle to get the NFL back to Los Angeles after the Rams and Raiders decamped in the mid-’90s featured Al Davis fighting off a privately funded $200 million stadium in 1995, various teams in other cities threatening to move to L.A. if their own municipalities didn’t pay for their own new stadiums, and ultimately then-St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kroenke, out of nowhere in 2014, buying the 60-acre Hollywood Park racetrack and then refusing to say what plans he had for it. It turned out—surprise surprise—he wanted to move the team back to L.A. and stave off a competing plan from the Chargers and Raiders to build their own stadiums in Carson. Kroenke took the team out of St. Louis—in a move that cost him and the NFL a $790 million settlement with the city—and stowed them at the Coliseum for a couple of years, just as the Chargers (now in on the deal) did out in Carson. Then the pandemic hit, and construction delays followed, and then they played a season there with no fans—a $5.5 billion project that no fans were allowed to see. Looking back at what it took to get us here won’t exactly make you feel covered in glory.

But that’s how everything—and especially everything in Los Angeles—always gets made, for better and (mostly) worse, isn’t it? By paving over the ugliness of the past to build a shiny, gleaming new future. The people who entered SoFi Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, and the hundreds of millions of viewers watching at home—they weren’t thinking about zoning or breach of contract suits or strong-arming tactics from Kroenke and the NFL. They were thinking, “Ooooh, that place looks amazing.” And more to the point: They were thinking, “This feels so much better than the last two years have felt.” That’s not nothing, right? That is what sports, and all of entertainment, is supposed to provide: diversion, distraction . . . escape.

Having the Rams—the team that has history here, the one that is so Southern California that it even took a brief sojourn in Anaheim—be the team to usher in the new stadium’s Super Bowl is the perfect ending to a story that is only just beginning. (There are many, many Super Bowls in Hollywood Park’s future.) Los Angeles, with its two teams, its transcendent stadium, and its increasing centrality to the league itself (which now houses its NFL media unit at Hollywood Park), is closer to the NFL than it has ever been, and vice versa. The teams might not necessarily have captured the hearts and minds of the citizens the way the Lakers and the Dodgers have. But you can give that time too. The NFL has become this country’s national pastime, its ongoing soap opera, and Los Angeles, with this Super Bowl and this Rams team, has now announced itself as its primary stage. It took a long time to get here, and a lot of elbows were thrown along the way. But that doesn’t matter much anymore, and it will matter even less as the years go on. The gleaming NFL future is in Los Angeles. And that future sure looks better than the past. Which, after all, is the point of the future in the first place.

Kids watching through a fence at the Rams training camp in Fullerton, 1973.
1948 football card showing Rams halfback Kenny Washington, the first African-American to sign a contract with an NFL team.
Quarterback Joe Namath at practice, 1977.
Rams owner Georgia Frontiere and head coach Ray Malavasi attend a Super Bowl party in L.A. in 1980. (PHOTO BY GETTY IMAGES/BOB RIHA, JR.)
Player Eric Dickerson with staff during a 1984 game in Anaheim.
Then-head coach Sid Gillman and players after a win against the Green Bay Packers, 1955.
The new $5.5 billion Sofi Stadium in Inglewood.

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