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The Chargers Are a Case Study in Whether an NFL Team Can Survive Without Fans

No one cares about the new Los Angeles football team. What if that’s part of the league’s plan?

Los Angeles Chargers player in an empty stadium with a censor box over his eyes USA Today/Ringer illustration

Did the Chargers move to Los Angeles or to hell? That question may seem harsh, but what else can we call a place where every game is a road game and every result is a loss?

Excruciating defeats are not new for this franchise. The San Diego Chargers were snakebit, too, losing eight one-possession games during the 2016 season. The Los Angeles Chargers have learned the venomous snake that bit them in San Diego is apparently native to all of Southern California: The team is 0-4 this season with three losses coming by three points or fewer. Four NFL teams with worse point differentials than the Chargers have won a game this fall. The Titans have won two.

While the Chargers’ losses are heartbreaking, though, their games at the StubHub Center are soul-sucking. The weekly images of that half-empty stadium—and I assure you, it is half empty, not half full—have become more than just a running punch line about an unpopular team. They’re a symbol of the league’s most cynical test.

By swapping human fans in San Diego for profitable empty seats in Los Angeles, the Chargers have become a case study in whether a professional sports team can survive without fans.

We knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of fans at the Chargers’ temporary home stadium, but that was by design: It was built for Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Galaxy, and its capacity of 27,000 is the smallest of any NFL venue since the Packers moved from Green Bay’s City Stadium to Lambeau Field in 1957. Yet the Chargers are not only playing in Derek Zoolander’s NFL Stadium For Ants; they’re also regularly failing to fill it.

Beyond that, the fans who have shown up to these games have done so largely to support the teams that the Chargers are playing. The presence of opposing fans was notable right from the jump, with quarterback Philip Rivers claiming that the loudest cheers during the team’s home opener against the Dolphins came at the moment when Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo missed a 44-yard field goal to seal a 19-17 loss.

This was the franchise’s first game playing host in America’s second-most populated city. And most of the fans in attendance sounded like they were rooting for a team from the other side of the country.

But things got worse. It might have been tough to distinguish whether more fans at the StubHub Center were wearing Chargers blue or Dolphins teal on September 17, but there was no mistaking the sea of red when the Chiefs came through the following Sunday.

The scene was similar when the Eagles visited in Week 4.

This is the Chargers’ new reality: road games in front of hostile crowds, and home games in front of smaller hostile crowds. But here’s the most damning statistic of all: Last Sunday the Los Angeles television market broadcast an unprecedented six NFL games. Of those, the Chargers-Eagles game finished fifth in the ratings, squeaking in ahead of a Dolphins-Saints matchup that aired at 6:30 a.m. local time. More Angelenos were interested in tuning into a contest that pitted teams with no relation to the area that kicked off at the crack of dawn than a 1 p.m. game featuring the city’s new home team. Three times as many people chose to watch the Raiders, who used to play in Los Angeles, in the same 1 p.m. time slot. It’s not just that nobody is going to Chargers games. Nobody cares at all.

When Chargers owner Dean Spanos decided to move the team from San Diego, he had to know that fan support would drop. The franchise’s arrival in L.A. was preceded by the Rams’ relocation to the city in 2016, and surely he saw that the Rams also played to less-than-capacity crowds at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. But at least some people were interested in the Rams: The franchise had fans left over from the team’s previous stint in L.A. from 1946-1994 and likely won over any neutral fans looking for a team simply by virtue of arriving first. The Chargers knowingly entered a city whose lukewarm interest in the NFL had already been soaked up.

However, Spanos also knew that moving the team to Los Angeles would vastly increase the Chargers’ worth. This was an investment: The team will pay a $645 million relocation fee over the next 10 years, but that should be offset by a massive increase in value. According to Forbes’s valuations, the Rams more than doubled their worth from $1.4 billion to $2.9 billion by moving to L.A. While the Chargers’ gains are yet to be realized, they should make back the relocation fee and then some.

The NFL has developed a world in which the presence of fans at a game is only loosely linked to profit. Most of the NFL’s money comes from TV viewership—and, thanks to fantasy football and gambling, a lot of that TV viewership doesn’t come from people who are genuinely fans of one of the teams playing. Much of the money that individual franchises make is also secured well before a fan sets foot in a stadium.

Take the 49ers, for example, who play in a billion-dollar stadium everybody hates that’s located an hour away from San Francisco. (Oh, sorry, were we supposed to include traffic? Then it’s two hours away from San Francisco.) Nobody goes to their games, and yet every one is a sellout. Official stats suggest that the stadium has been over capacity this season, averaging 70,178 per game in a stadium that seats 68,500. Unofficially, however, Levi’s Stadium is far from sold out.

Like every NFL team, the 49ers sell tens of thousands of personal seat licenses, which are essentially contracts that allow fans—or, let’s be honest, secondary-market ticket brokers—to purchase season tickets. A fan loses a PSL if he or she ever decides to stop buying season tickets. It doesn’t matter who buys these, and it doesn’t matter if they show up. Yes, if a fan comes to the game, the team can charge for parking, concessions, and souvenirs. But fan attendance at a game provides a tertiary revenue stream behind the TV money and twice-sold seats. And the 49ers’ value has soared thanks to their expensive, mostly empty stadium. In 2013 they were worth $1.2 billion. They’ve done little but lose games since, and now are worth over $3 billion.

Not a lot of fans came to the Chargers’ first three games, but all three were sellouts. I wouldn’t be surprised if every Chargers game this season is a sellout. And those tickets are the most expensive in the NFL, by a long shot. We’re laughing at empty seats, but the franchise is likely making money.

In three years, the team will move to its new enormous shared stadium with the Rams, which is set to have 70,000 seats and feature more luxury boxes than any NFL stadium besides the Cowboys’ spaceship. This is textbook execution of a business model that makes billions of dollars and little sense.

What if it works? What if the Chargers never develop an enduring fan base, but still prove profitable? What if brokers can break even by selling pricey tickets to out-of-towners? What if corporations in Los Angeles are willing to purchase expensive luxury boxes for not just one, but two NFL teams? What if the hyper-expensive ticket prices negate the lack of revenue from concessions? What if an NFL team that lacks fans isn’t the premise of a Ponzi scheme, but rather a functional way to generate revenue?

We’ve long known that team owners will prey on our love. We invest our feelings into their teams. We turn sports into a proxy for all the emotions that we can’t unleash in our daily lives. And then the owners tell us that our love is not good enough unless it is coupled with money. They find the price we’ll pay to maintain this crucial part of our identity and routinely raise it by threatening to leave for fans with deeper pockets.

But the Chargers didn’t exchange their existing fans for wealthier ones. They traded San Diego’s love and support for a heaping pile of cash.

We desperately want this endeavor to fail. Two weeks ago a reporter said that the league might consider sending the team back to San Diego, and the story turned into a full-blown rumor that the Chargers-in-L.A. experiment could be ending. The NFL has now flatly denied that rumor, but we hoped that it was real. Part of this was because we wanted to laugh at billionaires immediately realizing that their dumb decision had backfired. And part of it was because we find the notion that a team catering to nobody could be part of the plan hard to stomach.

We’ve long presumed that fans are the lifeblood of a team. But fans can be pesky, yelling, booing, and calling into radio shows to demand changes that team owners don’t want to make. If a franchise proves profitable without having a sizable fan base, it’d represent a way for owners to cash in without dealing with the endearingly human problems that fans frequently cause.

And so the Chargers are the NFL’s post-fan experiment. What’s happening in Los Angeles is more than just an opportunity to make jokes about a consistently empty stadium. It’s a battle for the soul of sports.