LOS ANGELES — With the N.F.L. regular season about to end, the verdict among football fans in Los Angeles looks clear: Raiders 1, Rams 0.
The Rams may be the team that returned to Los Angeles, but the Raiders fans are the ones who are celebrating, even if their team is in absentia — in Oakland, where it has spent most of its existence, except for a 13-year stay in Southern California. The Raiders’ 12 wins are their highest total since 2000, and with a potent offense and dynamic defense, the team seemed destined for a long playoff run until quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg last weekend.
Amid all the fanfare over the Rams’ return from a 21-season detour in St. Louis, the team has mustered only four wins. Its top draft pick, quarterback Jared Goff, has failed to impress. And its longtime coach Jeff Fisher was fired despite having signed a two-year contract extension earlier in the year.
So on Christmas Eve, with the teams going in opposite directions, it was clear which team had won over football fans in Southern California. At the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Rams fans were trying to muster some holiday spirit as they tailgated before a home game against the hapless San Francisco 49ers. But the team’s struggles left them longing for next year.
“We really want the Rams to succeed in L.A.,” said Angel Fabela, who helps run Rams Empire, a fan group that tailgates near the stadium. But “it’s been a tough first year. There was a lot of buzz, but it’s a little like the air has come out of the balloon.”
Less than 10 miles away, members of the Raider Nation South Los Angeles fan club were lining up in front of the Cork Bar & Grill to watch their team play the Indianapolis Colts in Oakland, nearly 400 miles away. With the Raiders assured of a playoff spot for the first time since the 2002 season, the club members were buoyant.
Floyd Gross, the group’s publicist, snapped pictures and handed out rally towels. Freddy Baker, the sergeant-at-arms, who wore a black T-shirt that read, “Straight Outta Raiders Nation,” hugged some of the other 160 members. Jamal Smith raised the club’s black and silver flag on a pole, while another member unfurled a banner that read: “Bring Back the Los Angeles Raiders. Just Move Baby.” M’anon Thompson, or Tudub to his friends, pulled up on his Harley-Davidson.
“We look like we’re going to the game,” Baker said. “I’ve been thirsting for a year like this.”
It was never going to be easy for the Rams to regain a foothold in Southern California. They have to compete with college football teams at U.S.C. and U.C.L.A., as well as popular out-of-town N.F.L. teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Green Bay Packers. A host of teams in other sports, including the Dodgers and the Lakers, vie for fans’ attention, and great weather provides plenty of reasons to abandon the sofa and the television remote control.
“We are the shiny new toy, but we need to be the favorite toy,” said Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer. “No matter how successful we are, there are going to be challenges.”
The team’s slow start illustrates the problems the N.F.L. has long had here: a city with uneven devotions to professional football and the enduring popularity of the Raiders.
Like the Rams, the Raiders left Southern California after the 1994 season. But while Rams fans seemed to go into hibernation during the team’s absence, Raiders fans continued to wear their colors. They remained drawn to their team’s brash play and menacing image even though its performance on the field was often uninspiring. Many Raiders fans in Los Angeles remain attracted to the team’s mystique — its silver and black colors, the pirate logo, the team’s longtime owner, Al Davis, who died in 2011 but who in his prime strutted the sidelines in leather and snubbed his nose at the football establishment.
Raiders booster clubs dot the Southern California landscape: The Knights of the Shield 323, Original Los Angeles Raiders Boosters, the Autumn Wind Pirates, Southland Pirates and so on.
The team’s maverick attitude, though, has also attracted gang members, some of whom caused mayhem at Raiders games in Los Angeles. Fan groups have tried to shed that outlaw image, and they say that most of today’s supporters are peaceful.
“Raiders fans in L.A. got a bad rap,” said David Wisansky, the president of Raider Nation South Los Angeles. “In the ’80s, gang violence was big. But we have people from all parts of the city to party with us now, no problem.”
Rabble-rousing aside, the Raiders’ upswing, coupled with the Rams’ fizzling play, has not gone unnoticed. On average, television broadcasts of Raiders games have been slightly higher-rated than Rams games in the Los Angeles market on Sunday afternoons this season, and the Raiders were a far bigger draw last weekend, when the teams’ games were shown on rival networks in the same time slot in Los Angeles.
Raiders merchandise has outsold Rams merchandise in Los Angeles this season, and during the holidays, Carr’s jersey has been the top-selling N.F.L. item in the city, according to Fanatics, an online seller of licensed goods.
With the Rams about to finish their 13th consecutive season without a winning record, their fans hope that a new coach and some new players can jump-start a middling defense and the league’s lowest-scoring offense.
Before their dismal start, the Rams attracted a new following to go with the die-hards who watched them play 1,900 miles away in St. Louis, where they won the franchise’s only Super Bowl title. The team quickly sold out its 70,000 season tickets and drew more than 90,000 fans — near full capacity — to a preseason game against the Cowboys and a regular-season game against the Seattle Seahawks.
The Rams have attracted big-name sponsors, including American Airlines, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T and Hyundai, as well as local stalwarts like Albertsons supermarkets and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. The team has broken ground on a $2.6 billion stadium complex in Inglewood, 10 miles from downtown, that is expected to open in time for the 2019 season.
By then, the Rams will own the city again, said Manuel Moreno, who helps run the fan group RWO Ram Central. Many older Raiders fans, he said, used to root for the Rams but jumped ship because the Raiders performed better when they arrived in Los Angeles for the 1982 season. Those fans could return to their roots if the Rams improve.
“There’s a lot of pressure to win in L.A., but it doesn’t happen overnight,” Moreno said, showing off a tattoo of a ram’s horn on his right arm. “A lot of fans get uptight about the losses, but I went through the 1990s, bro, when they were bad.”
Raiders fans know about losing, too. The team’s last winning season was in 2002, when the Raiders made it to the Super Bowl, where they lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Between then and this season, the team churned through draft picks, quarterbacks and coaches and turned into a butt of jokes for its ineptitude. But the team’s fans in Los Angeles insist that they stood by the Raiders while Rams fans went underground during their team’s absence.
“You only see Rams fans because they’re back,” said Mary Evans, who goes by the name Moma. She sat with her daughters at the Cork and rang a cowbell and blew whistles each time the Raiders scored against the Colts. “It’s like when you buy a new car — suddenly you see all those cars on the road.”
The Oakland resurgence has been good for Raider Nation South Los Angeles, which left two other bars that could not accommodate the growing numbers. Bolo Muhammad, the Cork’s manager, said he was happy for the business, which included about 200 fans wearing black and silver. “We couldn’t draw this kind of crowd with the Rams,” he said. “This is a Raider town.”
Still, given the gritty reputation of Raiders fans, he stationed a bouncer at the door to pat down patrons. “It’s a nice crowd, but we have an equalizer — security,” he said.
In the fourth quarter, the noisy crowd went silent and held its breath as Carr was carted off the field and the team’s season was potentially derailed. The Raiders held on against the Colts for a 33-25 win, and the bar once again erupted with hugs and high-fives.
“We have fair-weather fans in L.A. sometimes,” said Atara King, who wore Chuck Taylor sneakers that she had decorated with silver glitter and a Raiders emblem. But, she said, “this is our time to shine.”
Across town, the Rams blew a fourth-quarter lead and lost to the 49ers, 22-21.
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