Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Hope For San Diego -- The Thoughts of a Disgruntled Chargers Fan

I’ve had enough.

This is the first thought that comes to mind whenever I think about the NFL’s race to Los Angeles. A city that allowed two NFL squads to leave for much smaller markets is attempting to lure three teams into the nation’s second largest city, promising a plethora of riches and prestige. On paper, it makes perfect sense for the NFL to move into LA – it has a surrounding population of eight million, rich with wealthy people with tons of disposable income. Perhaps big-time celebrities would be a fixture at the 50-yard line, film executives will shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for luxury seats. 

The owner or owners of the Los Angeles football teams will pass go millions of times, picking up an embarrassment of riches each time. However, the NFL wants to fill the void in Los Angeles with my team, the San Diego Chargers. It is a thought that brings sadness and anger into my thoughts.
For me, the Chargers represent the best times of my childhood. Sundays represented hanging out with my dad and watching Junior Seau run all over the field, blowing up running backs. Stan Humphries battled through concussion hell and Natrone Means giving athletic hope to a chubby slowpoke. Honestly, I can’t think about the Chargers without reminiscing on the best moments of my youth. I fell in love with the sport when the Chargers defied the odds and made it to Super Bowl 29. Sure, they were pummeled by a dominant San Francisco squad, but I knew then that I’d always root for the home team.

Yes, the Chargers have historically been terrible. After a playoff appearance in 1995, the team went nine years without making the playoffs. Ryan Leaf brought promise for a few weeks, we saw dilapidated veterans like Jim Harbaugh, Jim Everett and Doug Flutie attempt to inject some credibility into a losing franchise. We saw Junior Seau’s prime wasted, Rodney Harrison leave for greener pastures and a 1-15 season in which the team really didn’t deserve to win once. No one would have blamed any Charger fan for bailing on the organization and cheering for a better team. I kept hope. Hope that my team would build something great. It happened.

The Chargers draft in 2001 brought us LaDainian Tomlinson and Drew Brees -- two future Hall-of-Famers taken in the same draft. I mean, how often to teams select two players of their caliber in the same draft? Unreal, right?

Well, Brees’ best days took place in New Orleans, but San Diego built a ridiculously talented team. Eventually, Philip Rivers took over when Brees left down, but that ’06 Chargers squad may have been the most talented team of the last 20 years. The complete ineptitude of the Chargers’ organization kept the Chargers from winning a title. As Norv Turner sapped all the discipline and toughness from the roster and A.J. Smith’s luck in the draft dried up, I stayed a fan. Gut-wrenching, horrible defeats snatched from the jaws of glory and happiness. Whatever, I knew the Chargers will get it right someday. Or not.

The San Diego Chargers play in the dilapidated eyesore otherwise known as Qualcomm Stadium. It’s ugly, old and it is outdated. It badly needs replacement but San Diego has not been able to make any progress in getting a replacement built. Taxpayers are gun shy about forking over a billion dollars to a billionaire with a silver spoon hanging out of his mouth. The ownership group looks around and sees palaces built around the NFR with minimal investment on the part of the ownership. Everyone wants to reach into the pockets of the public and squeeze out a few bucks.  Proposal after proposal failed. Chula Vista, National City, Oceanside, and hell even an idea to build near Orange County never came to fruition. Something had to give.

Over the last few years, Chargers owner Dean Spanos had a grandiose idea: move to Los Angeles and become the king of Southern California sports. Los Angeles is one of the most populated and fascinating cities in the United States, full of money and a desire for an NFL team. Los Angeles boasts the Dodgers, Lakers, Clippers, Kings, plus UCLA and USC. If you count the teams based in Orange County, the marketplace has six professional sports team, not including the aforementioned college squads. Any business man would want to conquer this untapped gold mine and become the most valuable sports franchise in the nation’s second largest city. To be the NFL team in Los Angeles could be worth billions.

Enter the St. Louis Rams, owned by mega-billionaire Stan Kroenke. Not only is Kroenke exponentially more wealthy than Mr. Spanos, but his wife is a Walton. Yes, those Waltons -- she has Wal-Mart money and is actually wealthier than her husband. Combined, they are worth $11 billion or so, while most of Spanos’ worth is tied into the value of the Chargers. Kroenke had the wealth to purchase the land and move the Rams to Inglewood, without public money. Spanos, sensing his diabolical plan about to crumble cried foul. The Rams to Los Angeles would ruin him. The Chargers depend on Los Angeles clientele to keep their little business afloat. Ok, then.

Spanos continually pleaded that 25% of the Chargers season ticket base comes from the Los Angeles market. Spanos has made this claim many times in the media, yet has never produced any evidence that his claim is true.  The Rams or any other team moving to Los Angeles would potentially remove 12-15,000 paying customers from Qualcomm Stadium and ultimately millions in revenue from the Chargers’ pockets. Dean Spanos insisted that the Chargers HAD to move, to protect their business. Sorry, San Diego but a team in Los Angeles would crumble the Spanos’ family fortune.

Spanos then decides that the Chargers should purchase potentially toxic land on a landfill in Carson and partner up with the hated Oakland Raiders and get a stadium built. The Raiders play in Stadium which makes a toilet like Qualcomm Stadium look like a palace in Dubai. Both owners would sucker Los Angeles into building a stadium and each owner could fill their pockets.

On the surface, I don’t blame Dean Spanos for wanting to move the Chargers. Heck, if you could take a four bedroom home in Fargo and move it into La Jolla and keep the profits, you would too. That nice $200,000 house in Fargo is worth $2.3 million in La Jolla. It’s just good business. A move to Los Angeles could double the net worth of Dean Spanos and family. These rational and seemingly smart moves are not the reason why Charger fans are angry. It’s the lies and it is the politics.
The Chargers have said, in recent negotiations, that the Chargers don’t have a viable plan. The NFL has said the Chargers plan, which involves $300 million in public money is not good enough. Spanos has walked away from the negotiating table months ago, in hopes of cruising up north. It looked dire and San Diegans were resigned to the fact that our team was going to be ripped away. But alas, a small beacon of hope.

The Rams are definitely moving to Los Angeles while the Chargers have the option to return to San Diego or can basically take some time and decided if becoming the little sister of the Rams is more viable than building a new stadium in San Diego. The NFL also gave the Chargers an extra $100 million to put towards a stadium here, in case Spanos decides to make things work in the city that has been home to the Bolts since 1961.

Many outside San Diego don’t particularly empathize with our plight. The national perception is that San Diego is a beautiful city that has a fair-weather fan base, at best. Every time a Charger game was shown this season, the visiting team outdrew Chargers supporters. A Raiders game at the Q is basically a home game for the silver and black. These things are true. However, those facts should come with an asterisk.

San Diego is a beautiful city. It has perfect weather, glorious beaches, beautiful women and some of the best bars and restaurants in the country. Visiting fans love to make San Diego a destination. I attended Chargers vs. Broncos game a few years ago and I met a nice bunch of Broncos fans. They like to travel to one road game each season and their first pick is always San Diego. It’s beautiful and it’s a reprieve from a cold, snowy winter. If you live in the Midwest or East Coast and see a late November game in San Diego on the schedule, wouldn’t you have a desire to call a travel agent?
San Diego is also a Navy city, meaning that much of our population migrates from other places. 

Without the data in front of me, I would imagine that San Diego would have one of the lowest percentages of indigenous citizens in the NFL. People join the Navy and end up staying here. They aren’t going to abandon the teams of their youth, so they go to the Q dressed in Patriots or Cowboys gear. They may like the Chargers in passing but they surely will not cheer for them over the teams they grew up with.

San Diego does have passionate fans, fans that spend thousands on tickets each year. There are fans that live and die with the boys in blue and gold each Sunday. I am one of them, I know many others. We hurt right now, we feel betrayed and we feel hopeless. We do exist though. Perhaps not in the same numbers as many other franchises but we are here. We want to love our Chargers no matter what. We want our boys to stay in San Diego. Again, there is always hope.
The Los Angeles outcome is a bit of a surprise, but I am not sure how I feel. I assumed the Chargers would finalize some deal on Tuesday to leave my hometown. I figured that I would be a nomadic football fan, looking for a new team to root for, or perhaps finding other ways to fill my dance card on Sunday’s. There is still a chance for new generations to see Chargers football in San Diego and for fans to continue to cheer their beloved squad.

This whole experience has left a very bitter taste in my mouth. I know that sports are built around money and every owner wants to maximize profits. I also recognize a crook when I see one.
Dean Spanos is broke. He may not even have the funds to contribute to a stadium, let alone build one himself. So, instead of contributing to the palace of his dreams, he wants a city to build a state-of-the-art stadium while doubling his net worth and making no investment of his own. It seems almost criminal, yet this is the current landscape of professional sports.

Even if the Chargers stay in San Diego, I am not sure I want to remain a fan. I will always love the heroes I worshiped as a child and as an adult. Philip Rivers, Seau, Antonio Gates, Leslie O’Neal, Tony Martin and LaDainian Tomlinson will never leave my memories. Dennis Gibson batting Neil O’Donnell’s pass at the goal line is still one of the best moments of my life. However, some things are better left in the past. Sometimes the past needs to be abandoned and we need to move on. I think it might be that time. We all deserve better, Charger fans. 

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