Rams, Chargers both have their work cut out for them in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Rams rookies are scheduled to report for training camp by Wednesday afternoon. Three days later, the entire team will take the field for practice on the campus of UC Irvine. The Los Angeles Chargers will do the same about 5 miles north the next morning, practicing for the first time at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, California.

By the end of the week, these two teams will finally -- almost literally -- become neighbors.

And then the fight for control of the Los Angeles market can officially begin.

The Rams have history in L.A., both recent and deep-rooted. They played here for 49 consecutive seasons, from 1946 to 1994, winning a championship and making 21 playoff appearances along the way. They also returned before anybody else, the first NFL franchise in the nation's second-largest media market in 22 years. But the Chargers -- on paper, at least -- seemingly have the better team.

"I mean, that's just facts," Eric Dickerson, the opinionated Hall of Famer and former Rams running back, said in a phone conversation. "They have a more exciting football team."

The Chargers look dynamic on offense and would've been a lot better last year if not for a litany of injuries and an inordinate number of close losses. Still, they went a combined 9-23 their last two seasons in San Diego. They will now play in a city where they spent only one prior season, 57 years ago. The Rams, meanwhile, haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2004. They've lost more games than they've won for 10 straight years and are coming off a tumultuous, dispiriting 4-12 season.

Does Los Angeles, a city that craves excitement and ignores mediocrity, have enough room in its heart for these two teams?

"Every other sport out here has two teams, so we understand the size of the market, the entertainment aspect of this," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last month, while attending an event for Rams season-ticket holders at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. "But there's also a great deal of competition [in L.A.]. You have to be on your game, and you have to provide the right kind of interaction for your fans."

The Rams and Chargers won't share a space until 2020, when both teams move into the $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood, California, that is being funded by Rams owner Stan Kroenke. Over these next three years, the Rams will play out of the expansive, 94-year-old Coliseum while the Chargers call the intimate, 30,000-seat StubHub Center home. But their relationship begins now.

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., sees the Rams and Chargers "in an interesting position of being both competitors and partners."

They'd like to forge a competitive rivalry, but they also must work together. Ideally, they would eventually bring out the best in one another.

"We're all going to have to work harder," Goodell said of making it work with two teams in L.A. "We're going to have to be more creative, we're going to have to be more innovative, to engage with our fans, build fan bases and provide a great experience."

The Chargers, the Rams and the Oakland Raiders, who are soon heading for Las Vegas, make up three teams that were approved for relocation in a span of 15 months. Ganis, who said his firm has worked on projects related to more than two-thirds of the NFL teams, was a central figure in what became an exodus from Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. He represented the Rams when they moved to St. Louis and represented the city of Oakland when the Raiders returned to the Bay Area. Now he's watching the NFL's return to L.A. from afar.

"The key," Ganis said, "is to have success on the field and to be able to carve out a large enough fan base that relates just to your team, rather than to the NFL generally or to the visiting teams."

It won't be easy. L.A. offers real financial opportunities, as evidenced by the Rams doubling in value over the past 12 months. But it also represents an uphill battle for two teams that don't necessarily resonate with this generation of Angeleno just yet. There are too many other distractions in this city, not the least of which is USC and UCLA football, and the Rams and Chargers haven't been around. An entire generation of NFL fans grew up rooting for the Raiders or the Cowboys or somebody else, in a time when out-of-market games are easily accessible.

Ganis hasn't noticed a real appetite for the Rams or the Chargers.

"I would love to tell you that it's overwhelming," he said, "but I don't believe that is the case yet."

It's hard to consider that without lamenting the opportunity the Rams wasted last year. They had this city wrapped around their little finger, with season tickets sold out in a matter of hours and nearly 90,000 fans showing up for a preseason game. Then they lost 75 percent of the time. Their head coach was fired; their offense was dull; their franchise quarterback played poorly; and the fan experience at their stadium was deemed unpleasant, prompting the Rams to reduce capacity to about 70,000.

"I don't think we expected a great season, but I think about captivating L.A.," said Dickerson, who played for the Rams when they essentially shared a market with the Raiders. "It's about the quality on the field. You might not win, but if they would've put something exciting on the field last year, they would've had fans' attention this year. I think that's why they really failed."

Now, Ganis said, "There's almost a bit of a race as to which of the teams can be successful, seriously successful on the field, the soonest."

The team that does, Ganis believes, could take control of this market for good. And though few would argue that the Chargers are better-equipped to win in 2017, some would say that the Rams -- with a younger quarterback, a more talented defense and a potential prodigy at head coach -- can have the brighter long-term future if things go right. Ideally, the dynamic between the Rams and Chargers would eventually play out like that of the Giants and the Jets in New York, two teams that have carved out their own fan bases in a major metropolitan city.

But it doesn't always work that way. The White Sox take a back seat to the Cubs in Chicago; the Lakers dwarf the Clippers in Los Angeles. The Rams and Chargers both have their work cut out for them in this city, for different reasons.

But Ganis sees real, tangible hope on the horizon.

"That new stadium is going to be a game-changer," he said. "... This is a setup period for when the new stadium opens. There will be challenges, there will be some successes, there will be some failures, there will be some griping. But when people see that new stadium – when the fans see it, when the media sees it, when the world sees it -- I think it's going to change the perception dramatically and will change the results, the economic results, as well."