San Diego Los Angeles Chargers have now played three straight games at Jack Murphy Qualcomm the StubHub Center, and the attendance reviews have been utterly mocked. Not only has the 27,000 arena struggled to fill up, but it has been filled with plenty of Dolphins, Chiefs and Eagles fans. (While the Eagles fanbase in particular was impressive with its showing, just wait until the Broncos and Raiders come to town.)
This has led many in the media to question what on earth the NFL was thinking in allowing the Chargers to move, just one year after the Rams made their return to Los Angeles after a 21 year hiatus in St. Louis. In order to answer that question, it’s important to step back many years before Dean Spanos made his fateful decision to depart San Diego, and observe many decisions the NFL and its teams made to make this possible.
While the story begins, of course, when the Rams and Raiders simultaneously left Los Angeles in 1995, the city’s status as NFL-less really comes into heavy play in 1999, when the NFL chose Houston over Los Angeles for its 32nd (and final in the foreseeable future) franchise. With the NFL back in Houston, as well as other previously deserted cities like St. Louis, Baltimore and Cleveland, Los Angeles remained the only city without a seat in the relocation musical chairs game.
Between 1999 and the Rams’ return in 2016, the NFL’s owners masterfully used the threat of relocation to Los Angeles as leverage, either explicit or implicit, to convince government officials and taxpayers to subsidize palatial stadium improvements to billionaires. Since the Houston Texans first began play, a quarter of the league got brand new stadiums, and several other teams, including the Saints, Chiefs and Dolphins, got major renovations.
When a city’s citizens get treated in this manner, they’ll adjust to this reality. During the NFL’s absence in Los Angeles, plenty of fans of the league continued to watch the sport on TV, always the dominating way that the NFL is viewed and makes money. But with no home team to root for, a funny thing happened: Angelenos simply rooted for any of the 32 NFL teams–often the most successful franchises that were aired with regularity thanks to the non-existence of local team TV conflicts. So when one sees StubHub filled with numerous visiting team fans, those are the teenagers and young adults during the 21 year Los Angeles–a full generation of time–that have grown up and have the opportunity to finally see their team locally. And the NFL has no one but themselves to blame for that arrangement if they don’t like it.
The NFL could have easily kept the empty Los Angeles status quo going for another generation, or however long they could get away with hoodwinking politicians and voters to subsidize billionaires. But that changed when they welcomed in one man to be among its 32 owners: Stan Kroenke.
Unlike the rest of the owners, who were content to play the Los Angeles leverage game, Kroenke had his ambition dead set on Los Angeles at all costs. A wealthy man in his own right, and backed up further by Wal-Mart inheritance wealth through marriage, Kroenke was willing to buck the trend, and build a stadium in Los Angeles with private money. While it’s not entirely true that the stadium is being built without public assistance, relative to stadium funding standards in the NFL it’s still a remarkable venture.
At this point, the NFL could have easily let Kroenke have his way and settled the Los Angeles question without controversy. But then came the Chargers and the Raiders, two franchises with owners “desperate” for their own new shiny stadiums. They were so “desperate” that they proposed the unthinkable: two AFC West rivals uniting in an effort to compete with Kroenke for the rights to Los Angeles.
This competition tore apart the NFL owners like few other challenges it had ever faced. As neither Kroenke nor Spanos and Mark Davis had enough votes to move to Los Angeles on their own, an ugly compromise was forged. Kroenke would be allowed to build his stadium and move the Rams to Los Angeles, but would have to agree to welcome a second team. It gave the Chargers the first option, in a one year window, to move to Los Angeles. If Spanos declined that option, the Raiders would get the second one year option afterward.
The order of those options messed things up further. It was undeniable that the Raiders had a much larger fanbase in Los Angeles than the Chargers, coming from their 13 season residence there in the not so distant past. But the owners did not want the Raiders to return due to the “reputation” of the Raiders’ fanbase. While that reputation is fair to criticize from the standpoint of, say, a Broncos fan, from a business standpoint, as the NFL owners are first and foremost, it made no sense at all. Like them or loathe them, Raiders Nation is high in quantity, and certainly larger than the Chargers’ fanbase outside of San Diego.
This order also caused Spanos to feel trapped and vulnerable. He could stay in San Diego, and have his foothold in Southern California attacked on two fronts by the Rams and Raiders, or he could move to Los Angeles and at least shut the Raiders themselves out (even if he can’t shut out their fans at the gates). It should have been quite obvious what decision he would make. So while Spanos is getting the lion’s share of criticism for what we’re seeing at StubHub, and perhaps rightly so, make no mistake: the NFL and its other owners are highly complicit in setting up the situation that caused Spanos to make this move.
So that’s the long past, and what’s done is done. There will be no mea culpa issued to have the Chargers move back to San Diego any time soon, as the other owners enjoy the relocation fees they have obtained from their move. There is only the future for the Chargers to aim for. What could it hold for them? The mocking over getting overrun by visiting fans in a tiny stadium will likely continue for three seasons. At least they’ll have a shiny new palace to play in come the 2020s, but that may not deliver them a fanbase so much as it may just deliver fans who are there more for the experience of KroenkeLand than to actually support the home team.
There’s only one cure for the Chargers in their Los Angeles form: winning. And one fluke season of success won’t do it–they need many successive seasons of winning, and they need to win more than the Rams do. But that kind of winning is not something that the Chargers franchise has produced evidence to be able to sustain. The first quarter of the 2017 season is no exception; despite inexplicable conjecture from some that the Chargers would be a trendy playoff contender, they are staring at an 0-4 start while their rivals, who have all proven to be superior to them, are at no worse than .500. They also have the oldest quarterback in the division with no identifiable successor yet on the roster.
Therefore, as bad as things have looked for the Los Angeles Chargers in one month, it could get much worse before it gets better.