Unlocking Los Angeles’ Hidden Football Rivalries
“The Incumbency Effect” is when an institution or industry first enters a region, has early success, which leads to an infusion of talent, capital, and networked resources, which leads to more successes, and thus a virtuous cycle is generated.
This is also known as a flywheel effect, and eventually, the successes are so significant in number and scope, that it becomes impossible for any other regions to thrive in those industries. It’s why regions like Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Capitol Hill, and Wall Street have the enduring monopolistic impacts they do in technology, entertainment, politics, and finance, respectively. For all the societal discussion about distributing talent, good luck trying to succeed in one of those industries living outside the epicenters.
There’s also an incumbency effect in sports. When a sports team first arrives in a city, it generates a fresh buzz of fan excitement, which leads to an infusion of capital that hopefully translates into early championships, which then leads to more top-tier players, sponsors, fans, and willingness to pay from owners, which leads to more championships and…you get the idea.
There are five very clear incumbent sports brands in LA: Lakers, Dodgers, Rams, USC football, and UCLA basketball. To slightly redact Julius Caesar, “they came, they saw, they won, they conquered.” The collective number of championships these brands have won: 48.
There are also five very clear upstart sports brands in LA. These are the brands that have to compete with, differentiate from, and attempt to unseat the incumbents, who have accumulated all the built-in advantages of the flywheel effect by being the first to succeed. These five brands are: Clippers, Angels, Chargers, UCLA football, and USC basketball. The collective number of championships these brands have won: 2.
When we think about LA football rivalries, there are two very obvious ones involving an incumbent and an upstart, respectively. But subtly hiding within the veil of plain sight are two others that have the potential to tectonically shift the future landscape of Los Angeles football.
The Obvious Existing Rivalry
No surprise here…these two schools are separated by 12 miles from each other, compete in every dimension of the university experience, and have built-in four-letter words to describe the other in their fight songs during rivalry week.
The Bruins and Trojans have always had a sibling rivalry so pure, so unbridled, and so unique to any other in college sports. The proximity of the two campuses creates households divided, cultures defined, and even individuals donning alumni status from both schools (me being one of them).
The juxtapositions are delicious with UCLA priding itself as the accessible public school, yet residing in the most affluent area of town, while USC marketing itself as the wealthy private school, yet located in one of LA’s most impoverished neighborhoods and with a smaller endowment dollar per student ratio. We even have hidden territorial boundaries – LA’s northwest (Santa Monica, Brentwood, Bel-Air, Beverly Hills) belonging to the Bruins, while the southeast (Irvine, Laguna & Newport Beach, Downtown) donning Cardinal & Gold.
The Trojans early football success has made them mainstream, as evidenced by the 49-33-7 all-time record over their crosstown rivals. Regardless of record, that historical incumbency makes every Bruin victory feel like an upset, and that only adds to the Victory Bell’s mystique.
The Obvious Emerging Rivalry
One is the Super Bowl Champion, the other is the NFL’s Off-Season Champion. One has Matthew Stafford, Sean McVay, Aaron Donald, and Jalen Ramsey, while the other has Justin Herbert, Brandon Staley, Khalil Mack, and Joey Bosa.
Even if a place has two pro teams, there’s only room for one when capturing a city’s heart, mind, and identity. The Rams and Chargers are playing for LA’s long-term soul. What makes this budding rivalry so unique is two-fold: a.) they’re both playing the high-stakes, all chips-in, win-now game within the sport, b.) they share a home stadium with an equivalent number of superstars, and c.) the Rams incumbency effect isn’t insurmountable.
The fact that the Rams have only returned five years ago after a 23-year absence makes the 2021 victory lap feel like a far cry from the outcome of the war. Week 17 will introduce a fresh dynamic the city hasn’t ever seen as SoFi’s current owner and ambitious tenant battle it out.
The Hidden Alpha Rivalry
As compelling as those two rivalries are and can be, there are two others that could carry much greater cultural significance.
Back in the Pete Carroll era of the 2000s, USC marketed itself as LA’s pro team. Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were celebrity A-listers (Bush even dated Kim Kardashian), red carpeting at every nightclub while navigating a sea of paparazzi and adoring fans everywhere they went. LA didn’t need a pro team because they already had superstars, championships, and a sold-out 90,000+ pre-renovated Coliseum every fall home weekend.
The ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on the University of Miami talked about how the 80s Hurricanes were so successful, their players were of much greater celebrity status than the Miami Dolphins. That’s how LA felt back then without a pro team. LA didn’t need a pro team nor did it miss one, because it had SC.
There was a brief overlap in 2017 with USC trying to build on its Rose Bowl victory from the prior year in Sam Darnold’s final season, while the upstart Rams surprised everyone with an 11-5 record in McVay’s first. The Trojans flamed out at the hands of Notre Dame and Ohio State that year to truly generate a Carroll-like buzz, while the Rams were stunned by the Falcons at home in their first playoff game before anybody could start noticing.
Now, the Rams are all grown up as one of the NFL’s preeminent brands. But are they kings of LA? The jury’s still out and with USC’s spring game attendance being 33,000 while the Rams championship parade attendance being roughly 20,000, one could beg to differ.
Truth be told, unless you’re in Texas where football is religion, you have to pick one team and one level within the sport. In basketball, you can go to Crypto.com Arena Tuesday night and then Pauley Pavilion Saturday night. You can be college-focused January-March and then locked in for the NBA playoffs April-June. But if you’re an adult fan, unless you have a DEEPLY UNDERSTANDING spouse, an incredibly astute divorce attorney, or you desire to be a social hermit, it’s impossible to spend all day Saturday and Sunday, nearly 20 weeks a year, on football.
Trojans-Rams. Game on. Let the best alpha dog win.
The Hidden Fashion Rivalry
Fashion has a massive impact on culture. That phenomena holds up just as strongly in sports as in any other walk of life.
At the outset of the Chip Kelly era, think about how Oregon revolutionized uniform variation to attract recruits, fans, and sponsors. Think about the multitude of stories that immigrants to the US have had on how they picked their sports teams. Whether it was seeing the Cowboy Star or the Packer cheesehead on Thanksgiving Day for the first time, there’s an inordinate number of stories around the beauty and wonder of the uniforms they saw. Think about when it was first reported by ESPN in 2017 that Kelly was coming to UCLA, how Kirk Herbstreit talked about hoping to see those powder blue and gold uniforms on national television in big games once again just like in his youth. Uniforms matter.
In a city that’s still grooming its youth on which teams to root for into the next generation, like it or not, it won’t be QBR, defensive efficiency, or (insert your PFF metric of choice here); uniforms will be a compelling reason for them to decide.
There’s only room for one powder blue and gold team in this town. Discretionary funding, wardrobe limitations, or color blindness will tell you that. One has a majority of its 500,000 alumni in the Southern California region, the other has a critical mass of its incumbent fans just two hours down the 405 in San Diego.
Bruins-Chargers. Game on. Let the best pageantry win.
How special of a time are we in that a single sport in a single city has the potential for four culturally defining rivalries? It’s why LAFB exists.
Our city. Our network. Our rivalries.
Tell us which team you rep below!