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The Chargers’ attendance problem in Los Angeles, explained

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The team’s temporary home stadium has seen quite a few opposing fanbases take it over since it moved to L.A.

Green Bay Packers v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The Los Angeles Chargers don’t currently play in a traditional football stadium. Since the franchise moved to LA from San Diego in 2017, the team has been playing its home games in Dignity Health Sports Park, located in Carson, California, just roughly 16 miles south of downtown LA.

The stadium the Chargers play in now is primarily meant to host soccer games. Until the Chargers’ new LA Stadium in Hollywood Park is finished being built (estimated by mid-summer 2020), the team is temporarily playing in a 30,000-seat stadium it currently shares with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy. It’s pretty small compared to other NFL stadiums, most of which are at least double the capacity:

NFL: Houston Texans at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

The reason the Chargers are playing there? That’s because when the team relocated from San Diego, the Dignity Health Sports Park — formerly known as StubHub Center — offered to host the Chargers before their new venue opened:

“The experience for our fans at StubHub Center will be fun and entertaining, and every seat will feel close to the action,” Chargers president of business operations A.G. Spanos said in 2017. “This is a unique opportunity to see NFL action in such an intimate setting. The new stadium at Hollywood Park will be a tremendous stage, and we can’t wait to play there, but right now it’s about introducing ourselves and getting to know new fans and partners in a special, one-of-a-kind setting.”

However, the Chargers moving to a new city and playing in a soccer stadium has resulted in a real lack of a homefield advantage — so much so that there’s even a possibility the team could be relocated to London.

The Chargers’ temporary venue has seen many opposing fanbases take over a home game.

Not every Chargers home game results in a majority of the other team’s fans showing up, but it happens often. This was evident as early as the Chargers’ LA debut.

2017

The Chargers played their first game in LA against Miami in Week 2 of the 2017 season. Longtime Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers talked about the opposing fans’ presence in the stadium after the Dolphins won, 19-17, when LA missed a last-second field goal:

“Obviously the loudest roar came at the end after the missed field goal, to where you really got to see how many Dolphins fans there were,” Rivers told ESPN. “I heard the roar before I saw the official’s signal.”

The same thing happened throughout the season.

After the Chiefs beat the Chargers in Week 3, the entire stadium erupted in a “Chiefs! Chiefs! Chiefs!” chant:

In Week 4, the Eagles asked for crowd noise in StubHub Center late in the game, and got it from the slew of Philly fans who made the trip out West:

“When we came out, it was like a home game,’’ Eagles offensive lineman Jason Peters said after the game. “A lot of fans here supporting us, and it helped us.’’

The Chargers’ first home win in 2017 came in October over the Broncos — in front of a pretty heavy Denver crowd.

2018

This trend continued throughout the Chargers’ second season in LA. Kansas City fans occupied the stadium for a second consecutive time in 2018, followed by 49ers fans a couple weeks later.

Before the next home game against the Raiders, the Chargers piped in crowd noise at practice to prepare for a large turnout of nearby Oakland fans.

2019

Broncos fans packed the stadium during a Week 5 game in 2019. Take a look at how much orange there is:

NFL: Denver Broncos at Los Angeles Chargers Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

During a 2019 Sunday Night Football matchup against Pittsburgh in Week 6, Dignity Health Sports Park looked more like a home game at Heinz Field:

The stadium even played the song “Renegade” by Styx, which is frequently heard at Steelers home games. Via the Los Angeles Times:

“It was crazy,” running back Melvin Gordon said. “They started playing their theme music. I don’t know what we were doing — that little soundtrack, what they do on their home games. I don’t know why we played that.“

“I don’t know what that was. Don’t do that at our own stadium … It already felt like it was their stadium … I don’t understand that.”

Said offensive lineman Forrest Lamp: “We’re used to not having any fans here. It does suck, though, when they’re playing their music in the fourth quarter. We’re the ones at home. I don’t know who’s in charge of that but they probably should be fired.”

Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said after the game that the stadium felt like playing in Pittsburgh:

Packers fans also showed up strong during a Week 9 matchup:

Fans even referred to the Chargers’ stadium as “Lambeau Field West,” and tickets were going for around $300 a pop because of the stadium’s size and Packers fans traveling well.

It’s not all that surprising that Packers, Eagles, and Steelers fans came out in full force — they make up three of the largest NFL fanbases (based on a study published in June 2019). But two of the lower-ranked brands, the Chiefs and Dolphins, still were able to take it over.

Opposing fans taking over the Chargers’ stadium isn’t just exclusive to LA, either.

The Chargers experienced a lack of a homefield advantage while they were still in San Diego, too. Chiefs fans (yet again) swarmed Qualcomm Stadium in January 2017:

The Steelers did the same in 2015.

“If you wondered what a Chargers home football game would look like in Los Angeles, you got a perfect preview Monday,” Orange County Register columnist Steve Fryer wrote. “Qualcomm Stadium was at least 60 percent filled by Pittsburgh Steelers fans. It would be closer to 90 percent Steelers fans if that game had been in L.A.”

The lack of strong fan support paired with the team’s inability to get a new stadium in San Diego were just one of the many reasons the franchise moved in 2017.

Part of the problem for the Chargers is that relocating causes a disruption for fans.

The Chargers settled in San Diego from 1961-2016, after spending the 1960 season in Los Angeles. When they moved back to LA after so many years, it resulted in a severely disjointed fanbase, as my colleague Louis Bien described in 2017:

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.”

Attendance has also been an issue for the Los Angeles-based Rams, who are playing at LA Coliseum, home of the USC Trojans. In 2017, a Texas-USC game at the Coliseum had 84,714 people attend, which was higher than Chargers and Rams’ attendances combined!

The Rams’ attendance numbers are getting better, though. Since relocating to LA, the Rams went 24-8 during their first two seasons and made the Super Bowl in 2018. In 2017, the Rams were 26th in average NFL attendance, but jumped to 10th in 2018. The Chargers have ranked dead last, thanks to the size of the stadium they play in. The Rams have sold more personal seat licenses for the new stadium than the Chargers have.

It’s not too surprising that the Rams have had more success than the Chargers when it comes to establishing a fanbase in LA. From 1946-94, the team was based there before moving to St. Louis for 20 years. The Chargers don’t have that kind of history with the city. When two teams are competing for support in the same city, the one that has an existing relationship has an easier time pulling in fans, unsurprisingly.

San Diego and LA are relatively far apart too. Although they’re both in Southern California, there’s 120 miles between those two cities. So when the Chargers left San Diego, a lot of those fans thumb their nose at rooting for an LA team, while LA fans don’t treat the Chargers like one of their own.

The Chargers and Rams’ new stadium is on track to open in 2020.

In April 2019, the stadium’s owner, the Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park, announced that the venue was two-thirds complete. One of the trickiest parts of its construction was the swooping shell surrounding the top that will support the stadium’s roof:

The newly complete shell atop the venue will support the other two components of the stadium’s roof: a cable net system and the clear plastic cover, which will be made of a transparent material called ETFE.

When the stadium opens, a 70,000-square-foot Oculus display will hang from the roof. The dual-sided display will be the first of its kind, according to the Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District.

Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Stadium and Entertainment District at Hollywood Park

It will be a welcomed sight for both teams to have the stadium ready for move-in. It was initially supposed to be ready in time for the 2019 season, but the opening date had to be pushed to 2020 after a rainy year delayed construction. The venue is already slated to hold Super Bowl LVI in 2022.

Whether or not Chargers fans actually show up remains to be seen, though.

There also might not be an easier answer to determine that — winning and a shiny new stadium helps, but it’ll it take time. The new stadium is expected to fit over 70,000 for Chargers’ home games, which is more than double what the team’s current stadium holds. The Chargers went 12-4 last year and toward the end of the season, more fans were starting to attend games. But the consistency on the field and in the stands still isn’t there.

If there are ultimately even bigger opposing fanbases showing up at the new stadium, the team’s struggles relocating to LA might continue.

One idea being floated around is moving the Chargers to London, even though the team has denied it.

Halfway through the 2019 season, The Athletic reported that the possibility of the Chargers relocating to London has been raised by the league:

The Athletic also has learned that, while the team is fully committed to Los Angeles where it will move into the new $4.5 billion stadium with the Rams next year, the Chargers would at least listen if the NFL approached them about London as a possible option.

Finally, The Athletic has learned that NFL owners are concerned enough about the Chargers’ situation in LA, where a crowded sports market and the presence of the more established Rams has resulted in a tepid embracement of the Chargers, that they would provide the necessary support for a relocation to London if the Chargers pursue it.

Chargers owner Dean Spanos pushed back, uh, rather colorfully on the report:

The Chargers also tweeted a denial — with a clip from the movie The Wolf Of Wall Street. The NFL wasn’t far behind with its own denial, claiming the report had “no substance.”

For the past three seasons, the NFL has played four games in London, and the games have seen attendance numbers in the 80,000s for the last few years. While logistically it would be difficult, getting an NFL team in London has always been an end goal for the league.

For now, that’s a long way from happening — if it ever does — especially given the Chargers’ 20-year lease it has in LA. Still, SB Nation’s Chargers blog Bolts From The Blue recognizes why the possibility makes sense. If the team still struggles to find its identity in LA down the road, moving it to London might not be such a long shot.