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The Rams Are Suffering The NFL’s Worst Attendance Decline In Decades

Los Angeles spent two decades on the NFL sidelines. Then, within the span of 12 months, not one but two teams announced that they would move to L.A.

If the more than 13 million residents of the greater Los Angeles area are thrilled to finally have multiple NFL options, they have a funny way of showing it.

Photos posted online from the Los Angeles Rams’ first two home games of this season — the team’s second back in the city — showed what looked like a half-empty Memorial Coliseum. A little more than 12 miles away, the Chargers’ inability to fill the seats in their first home game raised a big red flag.

This wouldn’t have been shocking — the San Diego Chargers frequently played to empty seats — if it weren’t for the fact that the team’s temporary home is a Major League Soccer venue, the StubHub Center, with a capacity of just 27,167, compared with the average NFL stadium capacity of a little more than 69,000 in 2017. Perhaps even more worrisome is whether the Chargers will be able to fill their planned new stadium in Inglewood, which will hold 70,240. In the Chargers’ debut game, the crowd was apparently very loud, but not all of the noise was for the home team: Many of those cheers reportedly came from the visiting Miami Dolphin fans, at least according to Chargers’ quarterback Philip Rivers.

This lack of apparent enthusiasm has even sparked grumblings that the team might be forced back down the 405 to its old home in San Diego. But lost in the hoopla of this — L.A. fans don’t just give their devotion, teams have to earn it — is that the Chargers’ problems are masking a bigger problem across town. As it stands now, the Rams are on pace for the biggest season-to-season drop in average attendance of any NFL team in 25 years (among teams that didn’t change stadiums). And it’s not even close.

The Rams are on course for a record they won’t be proud of

The largest season-to-season drops in average attendance at NFL stadiums since 1993

YEAR TEAM CHANGE IN AVG ATTENDANCE STADIUM
2017 L.A. Rams -26,087 Memorial Coliseum
1996 Tampa Bay -17,525 Tampa Stadium
1995 Arizona -15,591 Sun Devil Stadium
2009 Jacksonville -15,516 EverBank Field
2009 Oakland -13,566 Oakland Coliseum
1994 Houston Oilers -12,990 Houston Astrodome
1996 New Orleans -12,324 Superdome
2011 Cincinnati -11,114 Paul Brown Stadium
1998 St. Louis Rams -10,916 The Dome at America’s Center
1996 Atlanta -10,433 Georgia Dome

Attendances are based on regular-season games played at home. Teams playing their first year in a new stadium were not included.

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

There are a couple of factors at work here. For starters, the Rams’ first season back in L.A. last year was the most successful of any new team (expansion or relocated team) in 25 years. Among the nine teams in their first year in a new city since 1993, the Rams had the highest single-game attendance (91,046), largest average (84,457) and highest total attendance (591,197).1 To be sure, the huge capacity of the Coliseum — L.A.’s nearly 100-year-old Olympic venue that seats 93,607, most in the NFL — inflated their numbers and gave them a high perch from which to fall.

It’s not unusual for NFL teams in new cities to struggle with attendance in year two when the initial excitement wears off. In 1996 — a year after the season in which the league expanded and the two old Los Angeles teams relocated — the St. Louis Rams, the Oakland Raiders and the Jacksonville Jaguars all saw their average attendances drop from the previous year, albeit by a combined 6,066.

But what’s more mystifying is that the Rams were expected to be a better team this season. After last season’s dismal 4-12 showing, the team had a productive offseason, hiring wunderkind coach Sean McVay, signing Pro-Bowlers in pass-rusher Connor Barwin and tackle Andrew Whitworth, and then trading for Buffalo’s star wide receiver Sammy Watkins to give second-year quarterback Jared Goff a new weapon. If anything, enthusiasm should have been on the rise.

And yet through two games at home, the team is averaging about 58,000 fans per game, down from last season by roughly 26,000 — which is oddly almost the same number as the Chargers have averaged in two games (25,384). Could it be that simple? That there are just 84,000 people in L.A. willing to pay for the NFL?

The Rams have only five home games left this season (that’s because they’re the designated home team in their Week 7 game against the Arizona Cardinals in London). This means that they’ll need to attract an average of roughly 70,000 fans per game from here on out to avoid becoming the team with the worst season-long average attendance decline since 1993. That “record” is currently held by the 1996 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The NFL’s attendance problem in L.A. may reach its most embarrassing level in Weeks 14 and 17, when both the Rams and Chargers play at home. All eyes will be on the city of Los Angeles to see where those 84,000 fans show up.

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. And that’s with just seven home games — the Rams were the designated home team in their game in London against the New York Giants.

Daniel Levitt is a sports writer at FiveThirtyEight. He’s an alum of the University of Missouri.

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