The NFL has opened the door to an unprecedented dual relocation that would leave two franchises grappling to get a foothold in a city that hasn't been home to pro football in more than two decades. Both teams featuring L.A. roots — the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers — would have to reclaim the city each franchise has previously called home.
Each franchise claims longstanding fan loyalty in L.A., and the data backs, to some degree, both teams' claims. But with the clock ticking toward the next NFL season, marketing analysts said both teams would have to cleverly — and quickly — market themselves to first establish and then build a hearty support base on top of their existing fans throughout California and Los Angeles County.
"They’re going to spend lots of money, millions of dollars trying to secure a fan base," said Rick Groesch, senior vice president of global sports and experiential at the Marketing Arm, a marketing and promotion agency. "I think Los Angeles definitely will definitely be able to support one team, and it might be able to support two. No other market has had to do this."
Where Loyalties Lie
Following the approval of the NFL owners Tuesday, the Rams are set to move to Los Angeles, playing in a temporary venue before settling into their proposed behemoth stadium in nearby Inglewood, California. The owners also gave the Chargers a one-year option to join the Rams in the stadium, after a joint L.A. plan from San Diego and the Oakland Raiders was rejected.
The Rams spent nearly half of a century in L.A. before bolting to St. Louis after the 1994 season. The Chargers were formed in Los Angeles in 1960, playing just one AFL season there, before moving down the coast to their current hometown. It's still unclear if the Chargers — who have long struggled to get a new stadium built in San Diego — will move to L.A., although since-denied reports have surfaced that they're leaning in that direction.
The Chargers have long been the de facto home team for television stations in Los Angeles, and the franchise, in its relocation papers, claimed that 25 percent of its fan base came from the area. The Rams, meanwhile, spent 49 years in L.A. and boast large fan groups already pushing for their return.
Twitter data of NFL fans in 2014 showed a slight edge in support for the Chargers. More than 6 percent of the Chargers' followers came from L.A. County, while the then-St. Louis Rams registered nearly 2 percent of their followers from L.A. County. (Click here to explore the NFL fandom data visual from Twitter.)
A recent poll performed by SurveyUSA for the San Diego Union-Tribune/10 News/ABC7 Los Angeles showed a tight race for Los Angeles fans' affections. Twenty-seven percent of people surveyed in the vast metro area said they were very interested in the Rams moving to L.A., compared with 31 percent for the Chargers. The Associated Press, meanwhile, reported before the decision from the NFL owners that consensus was the Chargers were actually sitting third in fan support among the possibly relocating teams, behind the Rams and Oakland Raiders. The Raiders, per the decision from the NFL owners, would have the opportunity to head to L.A. should the Chargers decline to move.
— Tim Marcin (@TimMarcin) January 14, 2016
Winning Over Fans
Earning a fan base in a crowded new home essentially comes down to standing out. In marketing terms, that would mean each team "must establish a distinct positioning and marketing message, one that includes the commitment to competitiveness on the field, a compelling game day experience, and community engagement," David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Marshall Sports Business Institute, said in an email.
Attaining that position in the market could mean playing up your local heritage, Carter said. In other words, the Chargers could say they were the only team that was truly born in L.A., since the Rams were formed in Cleveland. The Rams could, in turn, emphasize that their connection was far richer: 49 years against one.
L.A. isn't known as a particularly ravenous football town. Just 37 percent of people polled by SurveyUSA said an NFL team coming to Los Angeles was "very important" to them. The Rams coming to L.A. first and having a longer history there could be a leg up in attracting potentially flaky consumers, experts said.
Teams might also be wise to focus on the younger demographic, the sort of people who are still building their tastes and forming habits. "You’ve got to create football fans now, you're moving to a market that hasn’t had football in 20-plus years," said Bill Sutton, a longtime sports marketing consultant and director of the sport and entertainment management program at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You've got to convince people to change their habits, change their activities."
The Chargers and Rams, to differing extents, already have L.A. fan bases built in, but the key would be to quickly expand toward relatively neutral consumers who could form loyalty to a new franchise.
"You’ve got to capture the imagination, you’ve got to capture the minds," Sutton said. "I would go heavily after under 24 [years old]."
That would mean a lot of grassroots campaigns, and a focus on online and social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube. But in the end, the best move for a franchise would be to have a stellar product, which means good on-field play. The Chargers finished with a dismal 4-12 record last season, while the Rams were a middling 7-9. Marketers can sell — to already loyal and new fans alike — but it's an easier proposition when the team is winning.
L.A. has always been a town of stars, and a winning team would produce new crop of heroes for local sports fans. The Chargers could look to sell someone like veteran star quarterback Philip Rivers, while the Rams could push breakout young running back Todd Gurley.
"A huge component is the actual team and the players that are on the team," said Groesch of the Marketing Arm. "If you do not have marquee stars in Los Angeles, how can you have that?"