By TIM DAHLBERG
The (sort of) Los Angeles Chargers are on the road again this week, which isn’t such a bad thing for fans of the former San Diego franchise.
Seems like the Chargers are always on the road. Even when they’re home.
That was evident this month when Pittsburgh Steelers fans filled most seats at the converted soccer stadium that is the team’s temporary home. Things got so bad that the Steelers theme song was played, so bad that linebacker T.J. Watt thanked Pittsburgh fans afterward for being so loud the Chargers had to use a silent count — in their own stadium.
“Helped us out a lot guys, thanks,” Watt said.
That’s life so far in the big city for the Chargers, who haven’t exactly taken Los Angeles by storm. Three seasons into what might have been the most ill-advised move in NFL history, the Chargers are a team in a desperate search of a fan base.
Their temporary stadium is overrun on game days by fans wearing the other team’s colors, even though it seats only 27,000. Finding someone wearing a Philip Rivers jersey is harder than snagging a parking spot near the beach on a hot summer weekend.
The sad thing is, it didn’t need to happen.
The Chargers were the undisputed No. 1 team in San Diego for more than a half century, selling out most games and building a following that was passed down from one generation to the next. Fans in San Diego were fiercely proud of their team and, unlike their owners, even seemed to like their stadium just east of downtown in Mission Valley.
But Dean Spanos wanted a glitzy new stadium for his team like he saw other NFL owners getting. He wanted new suites and club seats that would boost the value of the team he inherited from his father — even if it meant sticking taxpayers with the tab.
The problem was, he couldn’t bully San Diegans to cough up enough money to build it for him. So Spanos went looking elsewhere and decided to join the Rams in returning to an LA market that had little use for either team.
And now it looks as if the Chargers will fulfill the prophesy of San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer when the team announced it would leave.
“Dean Spanos made a bad decision, and he will regret it,” Faulconer said. “San Diego didn’t lose the Chargers. The Chargers just lost San Diego.”
If Spanos does regret it, he’s not saying. The Chargers owner said in an interview this year with The New York Times that he knew the team would have to fight for fans in the crowded Los Angeles market and would be patient as a new fan base was built.
The reality, though, is that the Chargers are in season No. 3 in LA and aren’t the top NFL team in town. They’re not even second in a two-team market. Stop LA football fans on the street and you’ll likely find more rooting for the Raiders than either the Chargers or the Rams.
Hard to blame them. The NFL allowed the Rams to leave town for St. Louis, of all places, in 1994, and for more than two decades there was no NFL team in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area.
That meant no fan loyalty for 20 years, no fathers taking their kids to games. The Rams are back, but even they are having trouble connecting with their own fanbase as illustrated by large numbers of visiting fans in the stands in the Coliseum for home games.
Meanwhile, the Chargers basically gave up being the only game in town to jump into a crowded market for the sports dollar in Los Angeles. They owned San Diego, which has no NBA team and a baseball team in the Padres that has underperformed for so long it doesn’t even count.
Contrast that to Los Angeles, where the Chargers are competing with the Rams as well as the USC and UCLA football programs. The Lakers are huge with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, the Clippers are on the rise with Kawhi Leonard, and the Dodgers drew nearly 4 million fans this season.
Now Spanos is in LA and he still doesn’t have his own stadium. The Chargers are stuck as a tenant in the new $5 billion stadium the Rams are building in Inglewood, selling season tickets for next year at a fire sale price ($100 to get in, plus $50 a game) to try and fill the place up.
They moved out of spite, upset that taxpayers wouldn’t build them a new stadium.
And now the Chargers are finding out that fan loyalty comes at a price.