It was a balmy, blue-sky evening perfect for romance, but Los Angeles greeted the return of professional football tonight with the suspicion and lingering hurt one often finds in spurned lovers.
The National Football League Raiders, once of Oakland, played their first game in their new Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum home, mostly empty on football Sundays since the fickle Rams moved to Anaheim two years ago.
But only 40,906 fans came here to welcome the Raiders to the 90,000-seat stadium. While Los Angeles' new team was beating the Green Bay Packers, 24-3, dozens of disgruntled men and women were outside trying to sell their seats, one sign of the awful ticket mess that has chilled what was to be a new love affair between the Raiders and the once-jilted Rams' fans.
Raiders officials said that they had sold 54,268 tickets for the game.
Asked what he thought of the Raiders, Hacienda Heights salesman Mike Sullivan peered down gloomily from Seat 1, Row 79, Section 11, the very top row of the stadium's far southwest corner. "Is that who they are down there?" he asked.
Like hundreds of other Los Angeles fans who have jammed Raider switchboards and threatened ticket agents with bodily harm, Sullivan ordered season tickets more than two years ago, before the Raiders' move from Oakland was much more than a gleam in an antitrust lawyer's eye. He was told at the time he would be getting excellent seats for his $180, having gotten in so early, and so was stunned when he found the seats. "They said these were terrific seats because they catch the breeze," he said.
He looked down again: "They're great seats if I want to commit suicide." Raiders owner Al Davis, encountered in the elevator on his way up to his box, chewed his gum rhythmically and shrugged off such bad vibrations. "It's just good to be here," he said. If the NFL had not fought so long in court to keep his team from moving, he said, "We'd have sold 75,000 season tickets by now with ease." The Raiders, in part to promote local interest and goodwill, changed their opening game here from Saturday to Sunday night so that it could be televised locally. That, plus the beautiful weekend weather, helped thin the crowd, along with the general disgruntlement over tickets.
The fans who did fight the traffic to the stadium, a problem unchanged from the Rams' era, did become enthusiastic when rookie running back Marcus Allen broke out of the backfield for a couple of good runs in the first half. Allen, last year's Heisman Trophy winner, had been the leading attraction for fans coming to this same Coliseum during the two years of no pro football, for this is the home stadium of his alma mater, the University of Southern California.
Many in the stadium crowd were also longtime Raiders' fans who cared less about the exit of the fumbling Rams. One group even appeared to have traveled all the way from the team's former northern California base to keep the faith with a huge poster, reading: "Five Hundred Miles Won't Keep Us Away."
The Hollywood atmosphere was here, with some celebrities in attendance and Andy Williams present to sing the national anthem.
But up in Row 79 the mood continued grim. "I would have had better seats if I had stayed in Oakland," said longtime Raiders' fan Bill Beal.
The Raiders' management has explained the ticket difficulties -- this reporter never could find the two $18 tickets he purchased despite visits to every stadium will-call office -- by saying they simply did not have enough time to get their system ready after the long court fight. Sullivan and Beal said they were told the Raiders had mistakenly given priority to people who ordered their tickets only this year, but promised to rectify the situation next year.
Ron Gerevas, an executive recruiter, did not seem to mind as he stood next to a will-call desk Saturday waiting for his missing season tickets to materialize. "It's nice to see a winner coming to town," he said.
Millie Blazejack, manager of a stadium hot-dog stand, also applauded the return of pro football after two years of selling her wares only to USC and UCLA fans. The UCLA fans have also defected with the school's games moving to the Rose Bowl, but Blazejack said the return of pro football fans will more than make up for the loss.
"They drink more beer," she said.