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Photo by Tom Antl | Illustration by Brittany Cheng

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Forget San Diego and L.A., these are the StubHub Chargers

The Chargers, stuck between the city they left and a city that doesn’t want them, are finally where they should be.

T11n pronounces his name “Twin,” because he is a twin, and that’s an important part of his identity. It also means that there could conceivably be two large diehard Chargers fans barreling through this impromptu dance floor setup in the StubHub Center parking lot (and there are space considerations). He’s part of We Charge LA, one of Los Angeles’ largest Chargers fan groups, established long before the team moved. The Chargers may have an identity crisis, but T11n’s got an answer for that.

“Southern California, Boy,” he tells me. “Make sure you use that slogan, kid.” T11n explains what he means by doing some call-and-response with a nearby fan.

“What do we rep? 619, right?”

619 baby, one hundred.

“I'm 323, right?”

Yeah, that's all day.

“So what is it? Southern California. Southern California dog. Fuck LA Chargers. Fuck San Diego Chargers. Southern California Chargers, that's what the fuck the team name should be.”

A row of tailgates called Thunder Alley has fans from all over Southern California, many from San Diego, and it feels like a block party. But Thunder Alley used to be much bigger, according to Jeff Dotseth, a former pre- and post-game host on the Chargers’ flagship network. “Even on the worst days in San Diego, tailgate city would be six of these, and now it's one.”

Relocation has been costly to the fanbase. Shawn Walchef, a barbecue restaurant owner in San Diego, was near the forefront of the Save Our Bolts movement to keep the team. Most of the people who had joined him then have moved on now that the team is in L.A.

“Maybe 20 percent remains of the Save Our Bolts group. And that's pretty much the fanbase, too,” Walchef says. “I have friends, they're no longer Chargers fans. They gave me their shit. We're a Charger bar, we have Charger gear, memorabilia. People are like, 'Well, aren't you going to take down all your Charger gear?' Absolutely not.”

Walchef and Dotseth both commute up from San Diego to see the team. Walchef is a diehard among diehards — he was inducted into the Pro Football Ultimate Fan Association this year. They’re part of the winnowed but rock-solid core that still believes in the Chargers despite so many good reasons not to. The Chargers left San Diego with a whimper after accepting a deal that left neither fans, nor players, nor ownership completely happy. Walchef’s estimation is consistent: Every person I speak to says that somewhere between 70-80 percent of San Diego fans no longer support the team. The organization, meanwhile, arrived in L.A. to apathy and almost no fanfare after the Rams beat them to the market.

In many ways, the Chargers deserve this. They’ve had to strain to fill the StubHub Center, their 27,000-seat temporary home, which normally serves as the home to the MLS franchise LA Galaxy. It’s the very picture of the Chargers’ decades of uneven success and the tense relationship between fans and ownership. They are a cheap ticket in a small venue that is maybe 85 percent full and half-filled — at least — with fans of the other team.

For a team that’s no longer San Diego and not yet Los Angeles, these can’t be the Southern California Chargers, all due respect to T11n. These are the StubHub Chargers, a team borne by the players and the fans who stayed, and only them, in this space, for as long as it lasts. As ownership bides its time waiting for a new stadium, and now that so many supporters have left, the Chargers’ endless journey to find themselves continues in a strange place.

“And that's unfortunate,” Dotseth says. “When I walk through this, I see a lot of people trying to put on a brave face, but I see a lot of people who are really heartbroken that it's not the normal routine.”

Photo by Tom Antl

The Chargers had an identity crisis from the start.

No one can quite pin down exactly where the team name came from, but a tale goes that the team’s then-owner, Barron Hilton, of Hilton Hotels lineage, held a naming contest, opened a letter that suggested “Chargers,” and didn’t bother reading another. The name reminded him of the bugle calls at USC games imploring fans to yell, “Charge!” — or perhaps he liked the affiliation with the Carte Blanche credit card he was releasing at the time; it’s unclear.

A Charger was never specifically a horse or a lightning bolt, which is what was drawn on the team’s first official shield. There’s no particular reason why the team came to be colloquially known as the “Bolts.” “Thunder Alley” is only tangentially related to a name that is itself tangentially related to whatever a “Charger” actually is. To make the situation muddier, a lot of Chargers fans outside StubHub Center wear Lucha masks.

Stadiums have been the crucible for the Chargers’ troubles. Team owner Dean Spanos fought with the city of San Diego for roughly 15 years to get a new stadium built to replace Qualcomm Stadium. Among dozens of proposals, none were ever good enough for San Diego nor the Chargers, and eventually a long game of chicken led us to where we are now: For three years, the Chargers will play in the smallest NFL stadium since the Oakland Raiders moved out of 22,000-person Frank Youell Field in 1965.

It’s strange to think that the Chargers’ old home, Qualcomm, was once regarded as an architectural marvel. The stadium ran the gamut of bad sports stadium features: obstructed seats, bare concrete, and home team locker rooms that were worse than most of the visitors’ quarters in the NFL. However, it was also considered a shining example of brutalist architecture, a structure that conveys both strength and functionality. When it was opened in 1967, it was cutting-edge, a forerunner of the trend of multi-purpose stadiums that could accommodate both football and baseball.

Qualcomm — initially called San Diego Stadium, then lovingly dubbed Jack Murphy Stadium after the longtime San Diego Union Tribune columnist — had the largest parking lot in the NFL, which gave it an unrivaled tailgate scene, one that begat Thunder Alley. And when the place rocked, its efficient, vertical design made sure that it ROCKED. After the first game ever played there, commissioner Pete Rozelle said, “It might be the best stadium I’ve ever seen.”

There’s an easy metaphor to make here about how time makes all things obsolete, and how a deteriorating stadium mirrored the team’s own struggles. But what the team has become — 4-12 in 2015, 5-11 in 2016, and 0-4 through four weeks — has a lot more to do with Spanos. After taking over as owner for his father in 1994, the same year the Chargers made their only Super Bowl, the team quickly declined.

Photo by Tom Antl

The Chargers wouldn’t record a double digit-win season again until 2004. After a franchise-record 14 wins in 2006, Spanos fired head coach Marty Schottenheimer because of a quick playoff exit and rumored insubordination. Another decade of squandered rosters under Norv Turner and Mike McCoy have culminated in the Chargers having won just nine of their last 37 games. Since 2010, they’ve made the playoffs just once.

Spanos might have been a sympathetic figure, but he withdrew from the public eye as the team struggled and the prospects of a new stadium sank to nothing. In his place, he propped up a PR consultant, and then fans withdrew as well.

Home games came to be dominated by opposing crowds. The last game ever played at Qualcomm was an awkward and somber loss in which the team was booed. A year before, when the team was still facing relocation, the players lingered on the field, celebrated a 30-14 win with fans, and reflected on what San Diego had meant to them.

Quarterback Philip Rivers gave an impassioned farewell to San Diego at the end of the 2015 season, then couldn’t muster up the energy to do it again in 2016, admitting that the farewell had “come and gone” by that point. The weariness of the final year was mutually felt.

Two years ago, I talked to Chargers, Raiders, and Rams fans about their feelings toward their favorite teams as they threatened to move. One of those fans was Andy Glickman, a former TV writer who lived in L.A., and yet swore he would stop rooting for the Chargers if they moved out of San Diego. He followed through on the threat, and more. Now he is often actively rooting against the team.

“Maybe I was so disgruntled, even as a fan, that the groundwork was laid for being a hater,” Glickman said. “As everything kind of went on — they drafted Mike Williams, and then he got hurt, and then I laughed.”

Robert Carlson still roots for the Chargers, though he lives in the San Diego area. He worked at a healthcare company that was on the same street as the Chargers’ practice facility. It wasn’t an easy decision to stay a fan, however, and most of his friends gave them up. His father is so mad at Spanos that his relationship with his son has become strained.

“It was one of the things that we bonded over. Now it's not there as much, and it's sad,” Carlson said. “He just gets so angry and negative towards them, I can't have a conversation with him about it. It just brings me down. It stinks because I used to hang out with him every week.”

That the Chargers left San Diego specifically for Los Angeles may be the team’s most spiteful act of all. In his statement announcing his decision to relocate the franchise, Spanos used more words to praise L.A. than to say goodbye to San Diego and its fans. The Chargers made a Fight for L.A. ad to court Angelenos, an endeavor that has only seemed to be successful at alienating San Diego. Whatever the Chargers are, it isn’t the diverse group of smiling regular folks seen in the ad saying things like, “Fight for Burbank.”

“If you're from Philadelphia and I move the Eagles, and I call them the Boston Eagles, you're not going to like that,” Glickman said. “Philadelphia to Boston is what, 90 miles? [Editor’s note: It’s actually about 300 miles]. That's even closer than San Diego to L.A. You wouldn't even think of doing that.

“If you're trying to court San Diego fans, then don't fucking call them the Los Angeles Chargers.”

Photo by Tom Antl

The experience at StubHub Center is, truthfully, really good. The small concourse means you can get in the stadium, get food, and go to your seats quickly. The tickets were relatively cheap for “nosebleed” seats that won’t make your nose bleed at all. Every seat leans out over the action on the field, and the worst seat might be considered mediocre at another NFL venue, but I doubt it’d even be that bad.

The PA announcer warns you before kickoff that the cannon that shoots off after every Chargers score is very loud, but — oh boy — will it scare the shit out of you when the team kicks a short field goal you were only peripherally paying attention to. StubHub can get loud, and — though, yes, as many if not more Chiefs fans showed up for the Week 3 matchup in Carson — the Chargers fans that showed up make it sound as raucous as a stadium four times its size before the opening kick.

Their excitement dies down as the Chiefs scoot out to a 14-0 lead, but that’s to be expected. No one is under any delusions that the Chargers aren’t a bad team right now. When Rivers throws two interceptions before completing his first pass, everyone acknowledges, rightfully, that he’s playing like crap. But Chargers fans are proud of their crappy team, buster. And frankly, they’re tired of how the media have portrayed the crowds at StubHub by tweeting photos of empty seats before kickoff (they’re right, those photos are unfair).

“I was watching Inside the NFL, and they were like, 'Oh it only holds 27,000, the players are used to playing in front of 70,000,’” Brett Atkins tells me. “And I'm like, You sonovabitches, you haven't even been here yet. Why don't you come down here and experience it before you start trashing it.”

Sandy and Brett Atkins
Photo by Tom Antl

Atkins and his wife, Sandy, bought season tickets. Brett became a fan because he started working in San Diego during the Chargers’ Super Bowl run in 1994. Sandy is actually a lifelong Raiders fan, but she wears a Chargers jersey nonetheless, and she cherishes her chances to study a number of NFL teams.

“Wearing a Chargers jersey as a lifelong Raiders fan, isn’t that sacrilegious?” I ask.


“Yes,” Brett says.

“I'm a football fan,” Sandy says. “I like all of the teams. I thought the Seahawks played awesome in the preseason, and so did the Chargers. They're really good, close games. When are you going to get this chance to be so close up?”

It’s hard to coax the same vitriol for Qualcomm out of fans that media and ownership seemed to have. Shittiness can even elicit something like pride as long as it’s shared shittiness. Solidarity is forged out of trying circumstances. Nick Frost and Jeff Blauer went to Chargers games for years despite how angry the team made them, if only because they were together. They brought their sons to the Chiefs game.

“Here's my son who was conceived in old Jack Murphy stadium,” Blauer says, pointing to Kyle Blauer, who had walked up to the conversation from the other side of their car.


“You didn't know that?”

“It was in a porta-potty,” Frost says.

They can’t deny that the Chargers have a better home right now. Frost took his father to the Week 2 home opener against the Dolphins and says that his old man was blown away.

“My dad — who had pretty good seats, he had press level seats when he was in San Diego — he sat down and went, 'man,'“ Frost says. “You're just right there. It's intimate. If we can get people to get out of their seats and cheer a little bit more, we'll be good.”

From left to right, Nick Frost, Alex Frost, Jeff Blauer, Kyler Blauer
Photo by Tom Antl

That intimacy is intentional. Soccer stadiums put fans closer to the action by design. Bruce Miller — a senior architect for Populous, a Kansas City design firm that has worked with MLS on six stadiums — explained to me that NFL stadiums need deep sidelines for dozens of players, officials and cameramen to stand and walk, so their first rows tend to be set back and up high. Soccer players, on the other hand, sit when they’re not playing, so the first row of fans can come up almost to the pitch.

“Soccer is really an incredible experience because of the fans,” Miller says. “They drive the energy in the building. They create a lot of noise. There isn't a lot of pumped in music going on because the fans are literally chanting and singing and playing drums the entire 90 minutes.”

The fans power the stadium in soccer stadiums, essentially, and they could power football stadiums if StubHub is an indication. For the start of the second half, I sneak down to the first row of the north end zone where Walchef, Dotseth, and many of the same people I had met earlier in Thunder Alley are sitting. From there, I was practically eye level with the players when they lined up on the field, and a shout away — maybe 10 feet — from back of the end zone.

Early in the fourth quarter, as the Chiefs were backed against us facing first-and-10 in a 17-10 game, the crowd was as loud as it had been at any point since kickoff. Linebacker Jahleel Addae pointed right at us — Walchef, Dotseth, Boltman, NFL Road Warrior, and me, half-assedly maintaining professional decorum — and waved his arms to implore us as we made eye contact and obliged.

Then Kareem Hunt ripped off a 20-yard gain to give the Chiefs a first down at the 26-yard line. To reiterate: The Chargers aren’t very good. But for a few moments, that was very easy to ignore, presuming it mattered in the first place. Down at the bottom, I saw fans and athletes commune without middlemen, in a space that they defined themselves.

Photo by Tom Antl

Frost says he’ll have season tickets for as long as the team is at StubHub. After that, he’s unsure whether he’ll be able to afford seats when the the Chargers move into Los Angeles Stadium with the Rams.

“I figure for three years, we're going to have a great time, and after that we're probably done,” Frost says, then points at a palm tree next to his car. But this tree is ours. We own this spot.”

Los Angeles Stadium won’t just be a place to watch football. It’ll be part of a “sports and entertainment district” on top of the old Hollywood Park Racetrack that has been compared to an NFL version of Disney World. Around the stadium there will be a 300-room hotel, a 6,000-seat performance center, 1.5 million square feet of retail and office space, 2,500 homes, and 25 acres of parks, all on a 300-acre plot. It is by far the most expensive sports development project ever — one that, even when adjusted for inflation, could have bought Lambeau Field’s original construction costs 566 times over.

We know what the future holds. Al Michaels will fawn over the facility at some point early in the 2020 season, and then it will be fawned over again — probably by an in-his-prime Tony Romo — when it hosts Super Bowl LVI. Beyond that, you probably won’t notice that the Rams and Chargers are playing in perhaps the greatest sports arena ever built. You’ll be watching on TV, and that experience has remained largely unchanged for almost 80 years — 11 guys in one set of jerseys squaring off against 11 other guys in another set of jerseys on top of a flat green expanse.

Photo by Tom Antl

You almost certainly won’t be getting in Los Angeles Stadium. The price of tickets to an NFL game has increased by nearly 50 percent in the last 10 years, according to Statista — from $62.38 in 2006 to $92.98 in 2016 — with newer stadiums generally commanding higher prices. Last year, you could see the 2-14 49ers in two-year-old Levi’s Stadium for $139 a ticket, or the 12-4 Chiefs in 34-year-old Arrowhead Stadium for $128.

Or better, you could stay home for nothing. Los Angeles Stadium will be conveniently located 20 minutes from LAX and feature 260 suites decked in the latest in executive couture. It isn’t being built for Rams and Chargers fans. It is a $2.66 billion bug lamp for suckers.

For the Rams and Chargers, that may be just fine. They’re at one end of a transaction and that’s that. Dotseth argues that the NFL outgrew San Diego, and it’s hard to disagree: “We were not, as a community, ready to put down $25,000 for a personal seat license. We were not ready to pay $75 for parking. We wanted everything to stay 1983, and it wasn't going to do that.”

The next question is whether the NFL may be outgrowing the NFL. The Chargers and Rams have faced the most ridicule of any two teams this season for their stadium and attendance problems, but even the 49ers, owners of a state-of-the-art facility, can’t put people in the stands. The team screwed up in so many ways. To name three: It was built an hour of traffic-hell outside San Francisco; the turf was one of the worst in the league; and the designers never considered that fans might not want to sit under searing sunlight for four hours.

For decades now, NFL owners have behaved as if they were impervious to market shifts and largely stopped focusing on football as their product after they negotiated revenue sharing and a fat TV deal. The Levi’s Stadium fiasco illustrates that there is ceiling to how much fans will put up with, however — it took a while, but we found it — and it should make the league think about what the future is.

If the 49ers and their five Super Bowl titles can’t fill a brand-new, cathedral stadium, then what chance will the Rams and Chargers and their combined one championship have in a new market? And if more people aren’t showing up at games, then what will the effect be on TV viewers when the stands are empty and games even sound like no one cares?

Photo by Tom Antl

It’s time to consider what the StubHub Chargers have to say about all this. For the next three seasons, they are a fresh petri dish, an experiment in what the NFL could be if it thought about fans first. They are starting from scratch, with nothing to build a fanbase with except a beleaguered history, a cool lightning bolt logo, and the most unique stadium in the league.

The StubHub Chargers are in a place where no NFL franchise really wants to see themselves, but for the time being they are also one of the most precious things in sports: an honest-to-god underdog, a team that can say “nobody believes in us” and mean it. They are playing in Jerryworld’s diametric opposite, somehow both a product of the NFL’s empire and an affront to it.

With roughly five minutes left, the Chargers with the ball and still down 7 to the Chiefs, Dotseth turns to Walchef and says, “Hey Shawn, we’ve got Philip Rivers, five minutes, two timeouts. What more do you want?”

Someone behind him says, “If only Ken Whisenhunt was back on the sideline.”

“Give me Norv,” someone else says.

“Ryan Leaf.”

“Billy Joe Toliver.”

“Ooh, that’s a good one,” Dotseth says. Meanwhile, the Chargers get two first downs on penalties, the first when Rivers underthrows yet another pass down the sideline to draw pass interference.

I really want this weird Stubhub Experiment to work. In my mind, the Chargers are a team with squatters’ rights. They have the freedom of no equity. They abide by that set of no-rules that seems to only apply to people with nothing. And if only they could play this right, they would empower their fanbase and build a new generation of fan — because who hasn’t felt beat down and hard-lucked and hungry?

Miller, a Chiefs fan, tells me the next day he couldn’t tell the game was being played in a dinky stadium in an L.A. suburb. “If you hadn't reminded me, I would not have known it was a venue with 20,000 seats vs. 60,000,” he says. “On television it looked and felt loud, intense.”

So it seemed in-person, too, until the Chargers inevitably punted on fourth-and-21. A pair of good runs by Hunt gave the Chiefs third-and-1 when the Chargers finally took their second timeout. Chargers fans largely didn’t stay to see if they would get the stop. At the two-minute warning, after the Chiefs converted, StubHub was mostly empty, and maybe 80 percent of those left were fans of the away team.

Walchef tells me then that he never leaves a game early. He says he has seen too many weird Chargers games to possibly get up before the final whistle. And almost on cue, Hunt breaks off a 69-yard touchdown run through the biggest running lane of the day.

Walchef laughs and looks straight ahead. I ask what his expectations are now for the team, and he says “nothing.” When he opened his restaurant he stopped betting on football and the Chargers.

“Since then my relationship with the team has changed. I get the opportunity to hang out with Jeff and his kids. I get to hang out with my friends. I’ve stopped focusing on whether they win or they lose.

“But hopefully the team does start winning. And I hope when they do it’s in this stadium.”


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