Low voltage: How Chargers fans became an endangered species

CARSON, Calif. – Step onto San Diego County’s only tour bus bound for the Chargers’ home game last Sunday morning, and inside you’ll find the football equivalent of an endangered species.

These are some of the last remaining Chargers diehards, about four dozen staunchly loyal longtime fans not ready to abandon the team that jilted them eight months ago.

Seated by himself near the back of the bus is Carlsbad resident Jayson Williams, who hosted pregame tailgate parties for dozens of friends for years but couldn’t find anyone willing to join him for Sunday’s home game against the Denver Broncos. Each of Williams’ friends refused because they’re still furious with Chargers owner Dean Spanos for uprooting the team last January and moving it to Los Angeles.

“I couldn’t even give a ticket to this game away,” Williams said. “I called all my friends and they said, ‘No, I’m done.’ ”

Across the aisle from Williams is Nancy Rohland-Heinrich, a Minnesota native who moved to the San Diego suburbs in 1979 and quickly discovered the joy of watching football in a T-shirt instead of a parka. Rohland-Heinrich is the only one of her group of friends who renewed her season tickets this offseason.

“When I mentioned to people this week that I was going to the Chargers’ game, they just kind of looked at me like, ‘Why would you do that?’ ” she said. “People are pretty bitter.”

A couple rows up is Mark Ellingson, who just days earlier completed a transaction that left him wincing. He sold his extra ticket to Sunday’s game to a Broncos fan because none of his friends were interested in coming, nor were any Chargers supporters willing to pay even half of face value on the secondary market.

“I assumed that some of my buddies would want my second ticket, but they all said no,” Ellingson said. “They have so much hate for the Spanos family for moving the team that they don’t want to support the Chargers anymore.”

Stories like those help explain why the Chargers are in many ways now a team without a fan base. Not only did they alienate most of their San Diego-area fans by fleeing their home of 56 years, they also moved to an ultra-competitive, notoriously fickle market where it will take time to win new supporters and move up in the sporting pecking order.

Bracketed by anger to the south and apathy to the north, the Chargers have enjoyed no home-field advantage during their debut season in Los Angeles. Opposing fans have outnumbered Chargers supporters at all four of the team’s regular season home games at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center.

The parking lots surrounding the StubHub Center were already full of Broncos flags and Elway jerseys on Sunday when the tour bus carrying the Chargers diehards arrived at around 10:30 a.m. There was nearly twice as much orange as powder blue in the stands by kickoff, not quite enough to transform the StubHub Center into Mile High West but plenty to give it the feel of a neutral-field bowl game held in Colorado.

“When you walk in that stadium, it’s honestly disgusting,” Williams said. “There are no Chargers fans. At the Philadelphia game a few weeks ago, I had a bunch of Eagles fans pat me on the back and say, ‘I’m so sorry.’ Philadelphia fans are known for being disruptive, angry and passionate. These are the fans who booed Santa Claus off the field, and even they felt bad for us.”

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Chargers fans have been outnumbered at StubHub Center, including when the Kansas City Chiefs came to town on Sept. 24. (Getty)

It’s easy to dismiss the Chargers’ move to Los Angeles as a mistake based on the lack of immediate fan support, but the reality is much more complex than that.

The franchise will be more valuable when it moves into Stan Kroenke’s futuristic football palace in Inglewood three years from now than it would have been in a new stadium in small-market San Diego.

Vanderbilt professor of sports economics John Vrooman estimates the value of the Chargers will be $2.5 billion after 2020 despite the $645 million relocation fee the franchise must pay to the rest of the NFL membership. That’s 25 percent more than Vrooman says the Chargers would be worth in a new stadium in San Diego County and 56 percent more than his estimated value for the franchise had it stayed at aging Qualcomm Stadium.

Those numbers reflect how the structure of the NFL’s revenue-sharing plan rewards big-market teams that play in state-of-the-art stadiums.

Money from TV contracts and other media deals is pooled and redistributed equally among all 32 NFL teams, as is a portion of all ticket revenue. Only venue revenue – mainly luxury suite sales, stadium naming rights and other corporate sponsorships – isn’t shared with the rest of the league.

“The league has an asymmetric revenue sharing scheme that distorts the relative importance of the revenue sources and encourages franchise relocation and stadium extortion games,” Vrooman said. “Venue revenue for the Bolts in San Diego was probably about $70 million, about one-fifth of the $350 million venue cash for the Dallas Cowboys in AT&T Stadium.”

Whether the Chargers decline or increase in value during their first decade in Los Angeles will surely depend on their ability to win games, attract new fans and gain relevance in the market. Otherwise, corporations may avoid partnering with a losing team that plays in a half-empty stadium and marquee free agents might think twice about signing up for nothing but hostile crowds.

The Chargers declined to make any team officials available for comment on this story, but their stance on the franchise’s future is well-established. They didn’t expect anything to be easy right away. They intend to grow their fan base by working hard on the field and in the community. And they’re optimistic they’ll eventually establish a strong presence in the Los Angeles market.

Among the biggest challenges the Chargers face is that the Los Angeles market is saturated with other entertainment options.

Just in the sports world alone, the Lonzo Ball-led Lakers are Southern California’s most recognizable brand, the Dodgers are in the World Series for the first time in 29 years and both USC and UCLA football boast quarterbacks who are contenders to be selected No. 1 overall in next year’s NFL draft. Throw in a Los Angeles Kings team with two Stanley Cup titles since 2012 and a Los Angeles Clippers team in the midst of its best era in franchise history, and that’s even more competition for the Chargers.

Sports fans in Los Angeles who are interested in the NFL have also grown accustomed to not having a football team in the market for more than two decades. Many transplants from other parts of the country still root for the teams they grew up supporting. Other people show more interest in their fantasy teams than any real-life squads.

The Raiders were easily the most popular NFL team in Los Angeles prior to the league’s return to the market last season. Between the two current Los Angeles teams, the Rams have a massive advantage over the Chargers because they arrived a year earlier, they have stronger historical ties to the market and they appear to boast a younger, more star-studded roster right now. The Rams are Los Angeles residents’ favorite team right now (17 percent), followed by the Raiders (9 percent) and then the Chargers (8 percent), according to a Yahoo Sports/YouGov poll.

“It’s a very difficult market to carve out any meaningful shelf space, let alone when you’re the second NFL team,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business institute. “You need to make sure you’re investing in payroll so fans believe you’re trying to put a winner on the field. If you don’t do that, no amount of marketing is going to help. Beyond that, it’s about customer service and community relations. You have to work twice as hard if you’re working to improve a brand that doesn’t have much traction.”

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A Charger fans shows his displeasure with team owner Dean Spanos. (Getty)

The Spanos family certainly didn’t enter the Los Angeles market naive to the challenges. They only had to look back at the franchise’s inaugural season to know it could be rough.

The Chargers had a good team and a very good quarterback. They had every expectation of being better than the cross-town NFL team, the Rams. And still they couldn’t pass the 25,000-mark in attendance.

This isn’t 2017. This was 1960.

A lot of NFL fans forget – or never knew – that the Chargers were in Los Angeles more than 50 years ago, for one season. Those L.A. Chargers were good at the game and bad at the gate. How bad? The lowly Rams drew 370,341 for six games that season, and the Chargers drew 110,376 for seven home dates. The Bolts had Jack Kemp and won the division title. It didn’t matter. They averaged roughly one fan for every four for the Rams.

Greeted in a starlit city with a shrug, team owner Baron Hilton looked south to San Diego almost immediately. Urged on by a public campaign, Hilton decided to cut bait and move the Chargers after only one year in Los Angeles.

The Spanos family’s decision to move back to Los Angeles wasn’t nearly as hasty.

Speculation that the Chargers might abandon San Diego began soon after the Raiders and Rams both fled Los Angeles in 1995, leaving America’s second-largest TV market without an NFL team. There was always talk the Chargers were considering a move north even during their golden era from 2004-09 when they captured five division titles in six years and drew 48 straight sellout crowds.

The Chargers’ wandering eye stemmed from dissatisfaction with the condition of Qualcomm Stadium, a long-obsolete venue saddled with outdated plumbing and lighting, insufficient luxury boxes and a Jumbotron so archaic that Sony had stopped making parts for it. Either the Spanos family needed to get a new stadium built in San Diego County, or they were going to move the Chargers somewhere else.

Complicating the Spanos family’s early attempts to get a new stadium built in San Diego County was a hostile political climate exacerbated by the Chargers’ infamous “ticket guarantee.” The city had to reimburse the Chargers for every unsold ticket to a game from 1997 to 2004, an expensive arrangement that did not make San Diego citizens or politicians eager to also help pay for a new stadium with public funds.

The Chargers made at least nine unsuccessful proposals to build a new stadium in San Diego County, from downtown, to Chula Vista, to Mission Valley, to Oceanside and Escondido. Even after the ticket fiasco faded to a distant memory, they had to contend with a series of unusual obstacles including a city pension crisis that put the stadium issue on hold for awhile and the worst economic recession in generations.

It’s apparent that the Spanos family grew frustrated with the frequent delays and became more enamored with the possibility of relocating to Los Angeles in recent years. Critics allege that many of the franchise’s later stadium proposals were half-hearted attempts to meet the league’s relocation criteria by proving the Chargers had exhausted all local options.

“I think they started thinking seriously about Los Angeles 10 years ago,” said Jim Steeg, a former Chargers executive who later served on San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer’s stadium task force. “With each passing day, their interest in staying in San Diego was getting less and less.”

The Chargers were exploring a move to the Los Angeles suburb of Carson until January 2016 when NFL owners voted to scuttle that plan and instead approve the Rams’ relocation to a cutting-edge $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood. The league gave the Spanos family a year to decide whether to stay in San Diego or join the Rams as a second tenant, seemingly a financial no-brainer considering the money the Chargers could make selling personal seat licenses, luxury suites and corporate sponsorships.

The Spanos family offered San Diego one last-gasp chance to keep its team, pursuing a $1.2 billion downtown stadium that would have required $550 million in public money through a hotel tax increase. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the ballot initiative last November, paving the way for the Chargers to follow the Rams to Inglewood rather than face further stadium uncertainty in San Diego.

“San Diego has been our home for 56 years,” Dean Spanos wrote in a letter to Chargers fans. “It will always be part of our identity, and my family and I have nothing but gratitude and appreciation for the support and passion our fans have shared with us over the years. But today, we turn the page and begin an exciting new era as the Los Angeles Chargers.

“The Chargers are determined to fight for L.A. and we are excited to get started.”

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A fan demonstrates his bitterness that Phillip Rivers and Antonio Gates will finish their careers playing at StubHub Center. (Getty)

The site of the Chargers’ future stadium in Inglewood is 120 miles from their previous one in San Diego, but the distance might as well be 100 times that much for some longtime fans. They hate the idea of their once-beloved Chargers playing in a city that supports the Raiders and Dodgers, San Diego’s two most hated rivals.

The night the Chargers announced they were leaving, one angry fan splattered a carton of eggs against the glass doors of the team’s headquarters in Mission Valley. Other fans responded by dumping their Chargers hats and jerseys at the team’s facility or setting them ablaze. More than two dozen San Diego-area moving companies even banded together to express their displeasure by publicly pledging not to help the Chargers relocate.

Among the legions of ex-Chargers fans who have turned against their former team, few are saltier than Joseph MacRae. In January, the lifelong San Diego resident drove to a Chargers welcome rally in Inglewood and interrupted Dean Spanos at the podium, heckling him by raising two middle fingers and shouting obscenities.

Emboldened by the attention the viral video of that confrontation received, MacRrae launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to pay for five digital anti-Spanos billboards along Interstate 405 near the Chargers’ temporary home in Carson.

“Fight for LA? LA doesn’t want you!” one of MacRae’s billboards sneered.

“No Freaking Loyalty,” said another, with a picture of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell alongside it.

Some 650 people have contributed more than $20,000 to the GoFundMe campaign during the past five months, enabling MacRae to also pay for planes towing anti-Spanos messages to fly over every Chargers home game so far this season. The most clever of the flyover banners read: “Want to see a sellout, Dean? Look in the mirror!”

“This is all just to show that San Diego got the short end of the stick with this,” MacRae said. “Nobody thought that Dean Spanos would really be stupid enough to move, but he was. When the Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, that stadium was sold out every game. It was packed full of Chargers fans. Now you look at it, and it’s just so sad. Because of Dean Spanos, Chargers fans are going extinct.”

The Chargers can’t say they weren’t warned not to expect an enthusiastic welcome in Los Angeles. The day the team announced it was moving north, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times wrote a column best summed up by its four-word second line: “We. Don’t. Want. You.”

Strong evidence supporting Plaschke arrived during the Chargers’ home opener when quarterback Philip Rivers heard a thunderous roar from the stands and mistakenly assumed rookie kicker Younghoe Koo hit a game-winning field goal as time expired. Turns out the cheers were actually the thousands of Miami Dolphins supporters in the stadium celebrating a miss.

Twenty days later, a Chargers’ home loss to the Eagles tied for only the fifth-most-watched NFL game in the Los Angeles market that week, one spot behind an innocuous Dolphins-Saints clash that kicked off from London at 6:30 a.m. PT. Eagles fans drowned out Chargers supporters in the stadium during that game, leading Philadelphia players to signal to the crowd to make more noise whenever the “home team” had the ball.

“It really feels like 16 away games,” Chargers defensive end Chris McCain said. “Every game you see a lot of different opposing jerseys. You love it because you can make them quiet. That’s a great feeling if it’s home or away.”

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Around 50 Chargers fans made the trek from San Diego to L.A. to watch their team beat the Denver Broncos. (Yahoo Sports)

Even though Chargers players have done an admirable job not complaining about the lack of fan support so far this season, the importance of creating a meaningful home-field advantage is not lost on members of the team’s front office.

They’re doing everything possible to be active in the community in hopes that it will help the Chargers gain relevance in Los Angeles and shed the label of outsiders.

On Aug. 6, the Charger Girls visited Runyon Canyon Park to pass out caps and water bottles. Nine days later, the team offered free Chargers-themed tattoos to 50 fans who showed up at a famous West Hollywood tattoo parlor. Last month, 450 underprivileged kids from Carson visited the Chargers’ facility and received a new backpack and pair of shoes to wear on the first day of school.

The Chargers haven’t marketed much in San Diego since their “Fight for LA” campaign probably wouldn’t go over well there, but the team has not totally abandoned its former city. It continues to serve as a youth and high school football sponsor in San Diego and in January the Chargers will organize an annual San Diego County all-star football game known as the Spanos Classic.

Despite some asinine chatter that the Chargers could move back to San Diego if they can’t grow their fan base fast enough, the franchise is actually deepening its Los Angeles roots. The Chargers have invested tens of millions into upgrading StubHub Center and in their temporary headquarters in Costa Mesa (30 miles south of Carson), all while shopping for land to purchase in Los Angeles to serve as the site of the team’s permanent facility.

Of course, sometimes the best approach to capturing new fans is the simplest one: Winning more games.

The Chargers’ 0-4 start to the season was especially frustrating since two missed field goals were all that separated them from being 2-2. Since then, the Chargers have steadied themselves and jumped back into playoff contention by reeling off three straight victories culminating in last Sunday’s 21-0 shutout of Denver.

At the beginning of Sunday’s game, the sea of orange-clad Broncos fans behind the north end zone roared with delight after their team made a crucial goal-line stand. By the final minute, most of the fans left in the stands were wearing blue.

“The whole talk was there was going to be more orange than blue in the stands,” Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa said. “To see them all filing out at the end was a pretty good feeling.”

Among the Chargers’ diehards on the bus, there was excitement over the victory but disagreement over its potential impact on the team’s fortunes in a new market.

Said Ellingson, “They can build a new fan base in L.A., but they’ll have to win.”

Countered Williams, “I don’t think L.A. will ever embrace the Chargers the way San Diego did.”

Over time, it will become clear who is right. Either Chargers fans will remain an endangered species, or they’ll come roaring back from the brink of extinction.

Eric Adelson contributed to this story.

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