How the NFL went 21 years without an L.A. franchise - and why it's back - The Buffalo News

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How the NFL went 21 years without an L.A. franchise - and why it's back

LOS ANGELES -- Rita Vennari's corner office provides a striking panorama, Century City's skyline against a Pacific Ocean backdrop to the west and the Hollywood Hills to the south.

Her office is where L.A. dreams may come true.

SBV Talent represents actors for commercials and voiceovers. The work can be lucrative, but in many cases her agency offers a chance to find traction in a cutthroat city filled more with harsh realities than twinkles.

George Clooney worked with SBV before he skyrocketed to fame. Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson, was a client. So were Jason Bateman and Nia Vardalos.

"We help support them when maybe they weren't eating," Vennari said.

On the couch across from her desk sat Pat Studstill, one of Vennari's favorite clients. He also happens to be her incorrigible husband and a star for the Los Angeles Rams in the late '60s and early '70s.

Studstill's story is quintessentially Hollywood. He converted his football career into a different type of celebrity currency, landing roles in movies such as "Paper Lion" and "The Longest Yard" and narrating national ad campaigns with his folksy, Louisiana smoothness.

"You go to a party when you're a Ram, there are all kinds of movie stars," Studstill said. "I was just a kid from Shreveport." He punctuated the thought with a bumpkinish Duuuuhhh.

"I can't tell you all the people I met," he continued. "Burt Lancaster, Angie Dickinson, Terry Moore, Ernest Borgnine ... And if you were a Ram, you were somebody to them."

The names Studstill dropped echoed from olden times, yet each was very much relevant when the Rams relocated to St. Louis in 1995.

The same year, Borgnine co-starred in the NBC sitcom "The Single Guy," while Dickinson had a prominent role in the Harrison Ford film "Sabrina." Moore's career had been somewhat rejuvenated a decade earlier by a Playboy cover shoot and tales of her relationship with Howard Hughes.

Lancaster died in October 1994, but two years earlier earned the Screen Actor's Guild Life Achievement Award and played Moonlight Graham in the 1989 film "Field of Dreams.

So that is how long the NFL was gone from Los Angeles.

Sunday at the Coliseum, the Buffalo Bills will play in America's second-largest market for the first time since January 1993 at the Rose Bowl, where they faced the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVIII. They Bills haven't played the Rams in Southern California since 1983.

Tight end Buster Barnett of the Bills tries to break away from a tackle as linebacker Mel Owens (58) of the Los Angeles Rams closes on him from during a game at Anaheim Stadium on Nov. 27, 1983 in Anaheim. It was the Bills last game against the Rams in California. (Getty Images)

Tight end Buster Barnett of the Bills tries to break away from a tackle as linebacker Mel Owens (58) of the Los Angeles Rams closes on him from during a game at Anaheim Stadium on Nov. 27, 1983 in Anaheim. It was the Bills last game against the Rams in California. (Getty Images)

Rams running back Eric Dickerson was a rookie; he's 56 now.

The Los Angeles Raiders and Rams bolted from Southern California in 1995 for better deals elsewhere. The Raiders moved out of the Coliseum and headed back to Oakland. The Rams abandoned Anaheim for a sweet stadium deal in St. Louis.

"It would've worked last time except people got greedy," Studstill said. "Wait, don't quote me on that."

OK, then. How did Studstill, 78, prefer to explain Los Angeles losing the NFL?

"Greed," Studstill repeated. Vennari shook her head; Studstill shrugged. "They got too overcome with making a big profit."

The Buffalo News two years ago examined the NFL's potential return to Los Angeles.

Generations of Bills fans feared their team would fill the void when founder Ralph Wilson died, but research and interviews found advocates and Southern California leaders mostly were beaten down and numbed by all the grand schemes and the renderings of stadium proposals and the shovel-ready sites that never came to fruition.

Developers couldn't feasibly build a stadium without a team committing to move. A team wasn't willing to commit without a stadium. California voters would not stand for public funding.

Rams owner Stan Kroenke finally solved the problem by purchasing 298 acres in Inglewood -- the old Hollywood Park racetrack site adjacent to the Forum -- to build a new home. The Rams will play in the Coliseum for three years until the stadium is built.

Forbes magazine estimated the move doubled the Rams' value. Forbes last year pegged the Rams at $1.45 billion, 28th out of the NFL's 32 clubs. Their valuation soared to $2.9 billion and sixth place.

The Bills had the lowest valuation at $1.5 billion. Terry and Kim Pegula purchased the Bills from Wilson's estate in September 2014 for a league-record $1.4 billion.

"I just don't think it can fail," Studstill said of the Rams' return. "If you have any business sense at all you can make this thing work."

Bills just visiting

BURBANK, Calif. -- Stage 20 on the Warner Brothers lot was built in 1935. That mustiness wafting below its rafters and catwalks and klieg lights must be the smell of excellence.

A plaque commemorates what has been shot at Stage 20, including "The Big Sleep," "Dial M for Murder," the original "A Star is Born," "National Lampoon's Vacation," two of Tim Burton's "Batman" movies, "The Perfect Storm" and the "Ocean's Eleven" remake.

Stage 20 now is where the CBS sitcom "Mom" is produced. The show was created by Chuck Lorre, the hit-maker behind "The Big Bang Theory" and "Two and a Half Men," and stars Anna Faris and Allison Janney.

Another episode wrapped Friday night. In the darkness, sitting in a video bullpen with 20 other producers, directors and writers, Nick Bakay monitored the process.

Bakay, a Nichols School graduate, is one of the show's executive producers and writers.

The lifelong comedy writer generally deals in laughter and happy endings. But until the Pegulas emerged, Bakay was pessimistic the next NFL game he attended in Los Angeles might involve his beloved Bills. As the home team.

"There were long periods of my life where I actively worried about it," Bakay said in his office before the taping. He lounged on a brown sofa, a throw pillow tucked inside his left arm.

"Sometimes I would think, 'So what if the Bills moved out here? I did.' But who cared when I left Buffalo?"

Bakay moved to Los Angeles in 1992 to write for comedian Dennis Miller's talk show. The Rams and Raiders still played in Southern California, but he jonesed for home. His wife bribed the apartment manager to let them install a crude satellite dish to watch the Bills, Sabres and Empire Sports Network.

Bakay quickly realized the NFL didn't work the same out here. The Bills visited the Raiders in Week Six.

Writer Nick Bakay and actor Kevin James arrive at the premiere of Columbia Pictures' "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" on Jan. 10, 2009 (Getty Images)

Writer Nick Bakay and actor Kevin James arrive at the premiere of Columbia Pictures' "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" on Jan. 10, 2009 (Getty Images)

"I assumed I'd be able to turn the TV on and watch the game," Bakay said. "Little did I know the Coliseum seats 90,000 people and they never sell out. I had to listen to the radio.

"That was my introduction to L.A. football."

Bakay grew accustomed to not having the NFL in Los Angeles after its teams split.

His only concern was watching the Bills on his satellite dish, a much nicer hookup after successes writing for "In Living Color," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" (also the voice of Salem the cat), "The King of Queens" and movie scripts for Kevin James.

Bakay will attend the game Sunday, his 58th birthday, and his heart almost certainly will stir. This is a man with "Go Bills" inscribed inside his wedding band.

"The fact they are still the Buffalo Bills." Bakay said, "is magnificent and right."

And Los Angeles. Will it ever be an NFL town?

"No!" Bakay said. "I may be coming at this from a very cracked lens, but it's the only lens I know.

"I come from a place where the team is the town. It is our identity. The hardships the team has endured are parallel with your life experiences as a Buffalonian, where you're connected emotionally on a very profound level, a place where you live and die and it drives you crazy, and you turn up every year like it's a new dawn.

"Nothing about L.A. is that. L.A. is about perfect weather and perfect people. L.A. is all about gratification, and as a Bills fan I can't wrap my arms around that."

Already a hot ticket

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As the Rams played out the 1994 season, community leaders and fans pleaded with Vince Ferragamo. They wanted him to help prevent the Rams from moving to St. Louis.

Ferragamo wasn't the Rams' greatest player by a long shot, but he personifies L.A. football.

He grew up in suburban Torrance and attended Phineas Banning High, named after the Port of Los Angeles founder and financier. The Rams drafted him out of Nebraska in 1977. Two years later, he quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams to their only Super Bowl, played at the Rose Bowl, no less.

Vince Ferragamo says the Rams were destined to leave Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

Vince Ferragamo says the Rams were destined to leave Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

But there was nothing Ferragamo could do -- aside from laugh at the helplessness -- over the Rams' decision to vacate. St. Louis was desperate to replace the Cardinals, who had moved to Phoenix in 1988, and was willing to give the Rams the keys to its newly built domed stadium.

"The Rams were apathetic," Ferragamo said Thursday at his Touchdown Real Estate office in Anaheim. "The feeling was they weren't doing anything in the community, weren't doing anything with sponsors, weren't doing anything with charities, weren't doing anything with fans."

Ferragamo, 62, still looks like Southern California. He's tan and trim. His thick, salt-and-pepper hair was slicked back, the collar on his dress shirt unbuttoned to expose a gold necklace, his sleeves rolled up at the wrist.

"The Rams needed a reason to move, and they created that reason," he said. "They had 25,000 people at the last game. They orchestrated the downfall."

Ferragamo was the Rams' quarterback the last time the Bills played them in L.A. His Rams career spanned Joe Namath's final NFL season, Pat Haden's emergence and career-ending knee injury and the arrival of quarterback Jeff Kemp, son of Bills legend Jack Kemp.

Ferragamo started for the Bills in 1985, throwing the first three touchdowns of Andre Reed's career, and finished with the Green Bay Packers a year later.

All along, his heart remained with the Rams, and it hurt to watch the inevitable occur in 1995.

As part of the transition to St. Louis, Rams owner Georgia Frontiere sold 40 percent of the club to Kroenke, a native Missourian married to Wal-Mart heiress Ann Walton Kroenke, for $80 million. Kroenke purchased the other 60 percent for $450 million in 2010.

While in St. Louis, fan support crumbled the past few years as it became clear moving back to Los Angeles was a legitimate possibility.

"When you have a scenario where a team considering relocation -- no matter how small the chance might be -- fans, and rightfully so, emotionally hold back," said Rams COO Kevin Demoff, a native Los Angeleno.

"Nobody wants to invest emotionally and have their hearts broken. In the end, fans want to give their all to a team. They want to believe through the good and the bad."

As evidenced by Western New York's reaction once the Pegulas pledged the Bills will stay for generations to come, fans in the latter years of Wilson's ownership seemed to have held back similarly to St. Louis fans.

Sales escalated as soon as the Pegulas' purchase was official, and although the Bills have missed the playoffs 16 straight years and the 2016 forecast was gloomy, they sold 58,385 season tickets and filled their suites.

"Most fans know there isn't a lot they can do in a relocation situation to change the outcome," Demoff said, "but they can change how they handle it by choosing not to invest."

Kroenke's relocation fee to return to Los Angeles cost more than the Rams' total price tag: $650 million.

The Rams impending departure hardly created an uproar on Dec. 24, 1994, the day of their final game in L.A. (Getty Images)

The Rams impending departure hardly created an uproar on Dec. 24, 1994, the day of their final game in L.A. (Getty Images)

"The Lakers, the Rams, the Dodgers have always been the Big Three," Ferragamo said. "The Rams were here for 50 years.

"So when the move was official, there was jubilation. Fans were so excited they were crying. The tradition of the name and the team still means a lot to the people here."

The Rams took $100 deposits for season tickets and then called fans in the order deposits were received. All of the 70,000 season tickets were sold to people who placed deposits within the first six hours.

The Coliseum holds about 23,000 more fans than the new stadium will, and those extra seats have been sold out so far.

Ferragamo has a pair of season tickets on the 35-yard line, 32 rows from what he calls the NFL's nicest playing surface.

"Rattle the cage. The fans are back," said Ferragamo, a TV analyst alongside Hall of Fame tackle Jackie Slater for Los Angeles' Fox affiliate. "More people are in the game already than they were before."

Stranger than fiction

Ed Cunningham has a better idea than most how to tell a story. The former NFL offensive lineman is a college football color commentator with ABC and ESPN.

What's more, Cunningham produces critically praised documentaries.

"Undefeated," chronicling a Memphis high school football team's season, won the 2011 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters" is widely considered to have been robbed of a 2007 Academy Award nomination. "New York Doll" was nominated for the Grand Jury Award at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.

Cunningham this week was asked to contemplate how a documentary about the NFL's 21-year absence from Los Angeles might be pitched.

It was the Battle of Los Angeles when the city's two franchises, the Raiders and the Rams, met up on Dec. 18, 1982 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Raiders won 37-31. (Getty Images)

It was the Battle of Los Angeles when the city's two franchises, the Raiders and the Rams, met up on Dec. 18, 1982 in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The Raiders won 37-31. (Getty Images)

"It's one of those stories that's so bizarre that it has to be true," said Cunningham, 47, a Long Beach resident. "That they could go so long without an NFL team in this market is remarkable.

"It's actually an achievement, if you think about it. You have to try really hard not to put a team in the L.A. market."

A popular theory, one with which Cunningham disagreed, is the NFL wanted to keep Los Angeles vacant to provide other owners leverage.

Teams in need of new stadiums frequently mentioned Los Angeles as a threat and -- voila! -- public money would appear to build new venues and elicit favorable leases.

From 1995 through 2015, the Los Angeles Times linked 17 clubs, including the Bills, as relocation candidates. An 18th, the expansion Houston Texans, entered the league in 2002 after outbidding a Los Angeles group.

Cunningham played at Anaheim Stadium during the Rams' farewell campaign. He was the starting center for Cardinals coach Buddy Ryan, whose twin sons, Bills coaches Rex Ryan and Rob Ryan, were assistants.

"It feels like a whole different country now, a whole different time and place than Anaheim was then," Cunningham said. "I remember what it looked like, that they were playing in a beat-up baseball park, that they didn't have a real sense of home. It never seemed to fit for them.

"It's almost like there was a time warp. What they've come back to and what they've proposed, the market feels more ready now than when they left."

Despite the ticket frenzy, Cunningham and Ferragamo insist the Rams must win to maintain interest. The Rams will compete for entertainment dollars with other pro sports teams, UCLA and USC, Disneyland, the beach, theaters, comedy clubs, concerts aplenty, golf courses ...

"The team won't succeed if all they do is engage with the leftover Rams fans," Cunningham said. "That was a long time ago, and some of those fans may have jumped ship, never to return.

"The bigger puzzle is reaching out to potential NFL fans who will come out and support a team if given a chance. That's a really hard leap in this town. It's a transplant city. People come here with allegiances."

Los Angeles is a notorious front-runner town, too.

Teams here not only must win, but they also better be entertaining.

"People want to be at things that are cool," Cunningham said. "If you make the games a want-to-be-there experience, then you'll get real good buy-in.

"Perception is critical here."

The Rams made a splash after they announced they were coming back. They traded up in the draft to select Cal quarterback Jared Goff first overall, but he hasn't thrown a pass yet through four games.

"If it's not star-driven or entertaining, they'll go somewhere else," Ferragamo said. "They want Jared Goff to get on the field.

"The fans will give you an honest chance, but they want winners. That's how this town is."

To live and die in L.A.

Studstill couldn't wait to get to Los Angeles.

He was an All-Pro receiver, returner and punter for the lowly Detroit Lions. After leading the league with 1,266 receiving yards in 1966, he played for George Allen at the 1966 Pro Bowl. The future Hall of Fame coach expressed interest in acquiring Studstill for the contending Rams.

At the mere memory of the trade, Studstill balled his fists and shook them in celebration.

"I was going to Los Angeles!" Studstill said. "I was out every night. I'm amazed I lived through it.

"And we were a good team. It was the height of my career, really."

The devilish Studstill peppered recollections from his heyday with the names of starlets he claimed to have flirted with. Then he'd wink and wait for Vennari to react.

"That better not be in the article," she said multiple times.

The Hollywood sign in a picture from 1992, the last year the Bills played the Los Angeles Rams. (Getty Images)

The Hollywood sign in a picture from 1992, the last year the Bills played the Los Angeles Rams. (Getty Images)

Vennari helped Studstill land over 200 commercial jobs on camera or as a voice actor. She gleefully pointed out he appeared in five Chevrolet commercials while saying only three words: "This is it."

"He made more money on the five spots," Vennari said, "than he did on any NFL contract."

SBV's ideal client, Vennari said, isn't the future star who's passing through the office.

The company represents prolific animation voices Rob Paulsen and Corey Burton, Visa voice Edward Grover ("It's everywhere you want to be"), television hosts Rich Eisen and Chris Hardwick and "Family Guy" cast member Patrick Warburton. SBV handled two celebrated ABC lead voices, Ernie Anderson and Robert Ridgley.

"We like to grow talent," Vennari said. "We work with established talent, too. But we like to help the journeyman actor walk through the door and develop. It's very rewarding."

Not all of the wannabes, of course, make their mark.

Even with Bakay's achievements, the married father of two young boys admitted he had money concerns in between his stressful screenwriting ventures with Kevin James and his salvation with Chuck Lorre.

"Los Angeles is a tough place if you strike out," Bakay said. "These big dream factories, producing these big billboards, remind you every day what didn't happen for you.

"And if you do get over the top here, then it's never what you thought it would be. Maintaining is hard. People are phony. Everybody needs an agent because nobody wants to tell you what they think to your face."

Los Angeles is the kind of place that could chew up a man and spit him out.

"Oh, it will," Studstill said, looking out the window.

The Hollywood sign beckoned.

 

 

 

 

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