Have the Rams Become the NFL’s Enigma?

It all happened so quickly — well, unless you live in Los Angeles, that is. It’s now been over 20 years since the Raiders and Rams left Los Angeles in ’94 and ‘95, a loss which the city of St. Louis is now all too familiar with. Since Rams owner, billionaire Stan Kroenke, purchased a majority stake in the Rams in 2010, the speculation about a potential move never seemed to cease. In those short six years, Kroenke was able to purchase land to build a new arena in downtown Los Angeles and convince the other 31 owners that a return to L.A. was far from a mistake. Now, here we are in 2o16, and the Los Angeles Rams are entering their first season following their strident relocation. With all of that said, is it fair to wonder now — and no longer speculate — how the mere placement of an NFL franchise in Los Angeles will affect the way the rest of the league operates, now that the move has actually happened? Considering the league’s never been more successful and is currently riding at an all-time high — it’s safe to assume the Board of Governors want to preserve as much of their success as humanly possible. The question is, how will the return to L.A. affect that?

Much of the deliberation surrounding the relocation of the Rams surrounded the viability of a pro-football team in Los Angeles, hardly a city with a primary focus on the sport. But what were some of the other reservations about the homecoming? Was it that L.A. would have an upper hand in free agency, or that draft prospects would try to strong arm their way to the Rams out of their desire to play in a larger market? Since most owners’ primary concern is usually the bottom-line, it wouldn’t be too brash to suggest that the leverage an L.A. franchise would hold in business ventures could’ve also come into play in this situation. Perhaps the best way to not only understand, but to determine what some of these concerns may have been, is to look deeper into the history of professional football in Los Angeles.

As the NFL began to grow more popular through the stardom of players like Joe Montana and others throughout the 1980’s, the league started to generate more overall revenue and a salary cap became necessary by 1994. What started in ’94 as a cap of $34 million, now stands in 2016 as a salary cap of $155 million. That means that the yearly revenue of the National Football League — the figure of which the salary cap is based on — has grown more than 400% in just 22 years. Based off of those numbers, you could argue that the NFL could place a team in Antartica and it would still be successful, but why was that not the case for the Rams in the early 90s? Was it the owner’s unwillingness to spend money on good players?

What’s important to remember here, is that free-agency as we know it today, is a much different climate than what is was in the beginning stages of the league. From 1977 to 1987, only one free-agent switched teams during that time period. This was in part, due to the strict compensation that was required to sign other team’s free-agents — often the relinquishment of a 1st-round pick, possibly multiple— depending on the salary the particular player signed for. It took years of anti-trust litigation before the league and the player’s association could reach a compromise that worked for each party and real free agency could finally begin in 1993. When the salary cap was introduced in 1994 to protect owners from themselves, every team at that time spent to at least the salary floor — including the Rams. This means that the Rams struggles had nothing to do with a frugal owner. Another wrinkle of the salary cap’s establishment was to protect teams from losing star players to teams in larger markets — a’la Los Angeles. So how did all of this affect the Rams?

Well, since free-agency and the salary cap were introduced during the Rams’ final two seasons in Los Angeles, it’s hard to tell just how much of an edge they were given over the rest of the league. The ’93 and ’94 L.A. Rams finished the season 5–11 and 4–12 respectively, a virtually disastrous final two seasons. Those two seasons in L.A. during the free-agent era did little to help the team’s chances in the following years as well, as the team’s combined records over the following four seasons was 22–42. Their struggles on and off the field likely dried up any business advantages the Los Angeles market had over other franchises and was no longer a competitive edge. Collectively, these are the reasons the franchise was relocated to St. Louis in 1995.

Bringing things back to 2016, the Rams have all but wrapped up their first free-agency period in L.A. and it’s been proven that — right now — the luster of Los Angeles doesn’t appear to be the tremendously great selling point some might’ve imagined. Their offseason has been largely quiet up to this point and as a rebuilding team, they’ve watched players like Chris Long, Rodney McLeod, and Janoris Jenkins leave for greener pastures. Who knows if their fate will change as the team becomes more competitive and their facilities are realized. Given the fluidity of the league, and how rapidly teams competitive fortune can change, it would surprise no one if the Rams were a free-agent juggernaut in the coming years. However, right now, the rest of the NFL doesn’t appear to be concerned with that.

One thing is clear on the owners end — they’re going to do their best to capitalize off of the market size in order to get their share. The Rams have already agreed to appear on the widely popular HBO series “Hard Knocks” this season, giving the team exposure beyond the field of play. In addition to such inside access, reports have already surfaced that the NFL is planning to expand the palatability of the Rams overseas — with games in both China and Germany forthcoming, in addition to the league’s obligations in Great Britain. It’s likely that the Hard Knocks appearance and the scheduling of games overseas were ideas that Kroenke himself proposed to the league’s owners during his sales pitch — along with touting the Rams as the league’s hip new team, in order to benefit the league’s revenue stream, which, again, is why events such as the Super Bowl, the league’s scouting combine, and possibly even the Olympics are likely going to be on the table once the Rams new facility opens in 2019.

Although football in Los Angeles might seem like an enigma now, there’s no doubt the success of the revitalized franchise is going to greatly affect the direction of the league as it moves forward. It seems possible that the league’s only real reason for hesitation all these years was the financial impact it would impose on the team’s proprietor. Though the rest of the league might not see the Los Angeles Rams as an imminent threat right now, that could very well change just as quickly as Stan Kroenke was able to move the team. As for the NFL, it’s still business as usual — with the primary concern the same as it’s always been — the bottom line — but perhaps they ought to be careful what they wish for.

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