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The Football Team Without a Home

The Los Angeles Chargers are playing in a tiny soccer stadium in a city that doesn’t seem to want them. There’s no way they’ll be able to fill a full-size arena, but they’re already on the books to be shared residents with the Rams in 2020. Somehow, the best solution might be to just stay where they are.

A photo collage including Los Angeles Chargers Philip Rivers and Joey Bosa Getty Images/Ringer illustration

There was a moment in the first half of Sunday’s Browns-Chargers game when the home team gave out the new U2 album to a section of fans. (Yes, there’s a new U2 album.) The symbolism was so on-the-nose it barely seemed real. After spending years as the most popular musical act on the planet, the band became a punch line when they forced their way onto your iPhone. No one wanted them, but they gave consumers no choice. And now the team nobody asked for in the country’s most popular sport was giving out their new album.

I went to a Chargers game. This is my story.

Their games feel less like a sporting event and more like a meetup of all the people who knew the Chargers had moved to Los Angeles. Few things seem impermanent as they happen, but the Chargers playing three seasons in a 27,000-seat soccer stadium is destined for a “Today I Learned” thread on Reddit two decades from now. I will explain this trip to my grandkids, who will experience a secondary wave of confusion after getting past their initial confusion over the fact there used to be something other than esports.

An NFL team playing in a soccer stadium sounds like a gimmick, but it’s not that. George Foreman once boxed five fighters in an hour—that’s a gimmick. This is more of a misadventure, an earnest idea quickly gone south. Norman Mailer described Los Angeles as a “constellation of plastic”—meaning, everything is manufactured. That gets less true as the city as a whole grows, but in this very specific case of a football team, there’s not much of an argument.

On the day I attended and sat in the stands, 25,000 fans showed up—and a solid chunk of them, say 40 percent, was there to watch the Cleveland Browns. There were splashes of empty seats throughout the stadium. If the Chargers cannot fill a 27,000-seat stadium to the brim, how the hell will they fill the 70,000-seater they have coming in 2020? The Chargers fans who were there were louder than you’d think, and this is not meant to besmirch them. StubHub is actually a remarkable place to see an NFL game, in the same way it’d be cool to see the Clippers play at your local YMCA. But “cool” isn’t anywhere near enough to salvage this entire experiment.

In the NFL, December is when questions get answered around the league. The regular season winds down and things become finite. Seahawks fans want to know how good their team can be despite key injuries to the secondary. Packers fans want to know when Aaron Rodgers is coming back. Bears fans are wondering why John Fox is still the coach. The Chargers are tied for first place in the AFC West, but the only thing I could think of was: What is the point of any of this?

Despite having a large fan base in San Diego that, at the very least, was aware the team played in the city, the Chargers left to chase L.A. revenues. After the initial relocation vote in 2016, local media reported that the Spanos family, which owns the team, was upset about the outcome—which allowed the Rams to move immediately, but forced the Chargers to take another year to decide. Maybe moving with the Rams would’ve helped narrow the gap in fans, but at the moment, things do not look good. Upon the franchise moving at the beginning of the year, ESPN reported the NFL was “besides itself” about how badly the team handled the move and executives speculated that Spanos would soon want to return to San Diego, however remote that possibility was and still is. On cue, the Spanos family was reportedly shocked at the lack of fans at StubHub earlier this year.

There were plenty of warning signs: Some previous Chargers attempts to get into the Los Angeles market had floundered. The Los Angeles Times counted 24 fans at a training camp practice when the Chargers visited Carson in 2003. “We have 13 million people living in the area,” the Times joked. “But I had no idea the Chargers had that many fans here.” Essentially, the Chargers knew what they were getting themselves into and did it anyway. This is the franchise equivalent of telling yourself you’re not going to lock your keys in your car and then immediately doing it anyway. To make matters even worse, since arriving in Los Angeles, the franchise’s television ratings have not been good, either.

There’s a lot of consternation about what the future of sports looks like and the conversation usually centers on boring changes. Will the sport be streamed on Facebook? Will the helmets look different? Will there be teams in Europe? Those things might be true, but the real future of sports is the process that led the Chargers into this debacle: irrational ideas engineered by people in boardrooms that make little sense on the surface and no sense upon execution.

Los Angeles bears little resemblance to what you see in the movies—namely because the movies often feature characters who appear in two separate parts of the city in the same week. In real life, this does not happen.

The city’s sprawl is one of the obstacles the Chargers face. Driving to Carson from most parts of Los Angeles is less like a normal drive and more like an Oregon Trail simulation: You have very little chance of getting where you need to go. But I hopped in my car and drove down anyway. With only 25,000 fans attending the game, parking wasn’t terrible. On the walk in, I heard fans asking about where the tailgating was. (Apparently it’s in one lot, far away from the lot we parked in, and it’s both expensive to access and completely full anyway). I also observed a phenomenon I’d seen before only at Tampa Bay Rays games—groups of people in neutral jerseys, fans who were there to see football but were open about their allegiance to a different team. I saw Vikings jerseys, Patriots jerseys, and Raiders jerseys. The stadium looked like this at kickoff:

At kickoff, Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner appeared on the Jumbotron and told on-field interviewer LaDainian Tomlinson (what the hell, right?) that it was his bachelor party. He joked that there aren’t many people who can say they celebrated their bachelor party in front of 30,000 people. Of course, Turner can’t say that, either.

My fiancée, who once referred to a game program as a “playbill,” is not much of a sports fan. But her lack of familiarity often leads to valid observations. For instance, last year she noted that she had never, in our six years of dating, seen the Orlando Magic play well. Upon walking into the stands Sunday, she joked that the atmosphere seemed like a very big high school game. She was barely joking—Texas high school football stadiums are only marginally smaller.

The one thing you learn in the stands is that like politics, all sports is local. Despite the NFL being a national behemoth, when you’re in Green Bay, everyone is wearing hunting gear, and it screams Wisconsin. At Cardinals games in Phoenix, everyone has a great tan. But there was no identity in Carson. Since Carson is south of Los Angeles, there was some South Bay vibe—that is to say, a lot of sandals and Pennywise songs. But overall, the dominant flavor seemed to be “people who purchased tickets to an NFL game.”

There’s a strange gloom that hangs over the Chargers’ stadium because there's typically a critical mass of visiting fans. When something bad happens to the Chargers and the visitors cheer, the Chargers fans boo in retaliation. This makes the mistakes seem so much worse. When kicker Travis Coons knocked a field goal off the upright to miss in the first half, Browns fans rejoiced and Chargers fans booed, but it soundly simply like Chargers fans were booing Coons mercilessly.

On Sunday, Browns fans proved to be more entertaining and organic than the Chargers fans. They at least had a sense of humor. One guy in my section had—I kid you not—a Timofey Mozgov Browns jersey.

With Browns fans doing a lot of the stand-filling, one shudders to think what will happen when the Chargers play a team from a city that doesn’t have a lot of transplants in L.A. That question will not be answered this year. The remainder of the home schedule features Washington and Oakland, and both of those fan bases can fill the building. Next year, though, the team will host the Bengals, Ravens, Cardinals, and a top AFC South finisher such as the Jaguars or Titans. An empty football stadium isn’t unusual around the NFL, but an empty 27,000-seat soccer stadium would be new territory.

We’re less than a full season in, but it’s already hard to see a successful future for the Chargers in Los Angeles. In fact, it’s even harder to picture them existing in a football-only stadium. So maybe the only way the Chargers can make this work is to be counterintuitive: never leave the StubHub Center. Become the accessible, small-stadium team, play there for a decade, and establish that identity. There’s something charming about playing an NFL game in front of a Ring of Honor sign dedicated to Cobi Jones. They can’t do that, of course; they’ve already agreed to share the Rams’ stadium in Inglewood that’s coming in three years. Their long-term destiny, then, seems to be like that of German soccer club 1860 Munich, who shared a 75,000-seat ground with the more popular Bayern Munich and whose disparity in popularity in the same stadium was glaring. They finally moved out this season, and their new stadium seats 12,500.

On Sunday, I kept thinking about a conversation I’d had a few years ago when reporting a story about how the in-home experience in the NFL had outflanked the in-stadium one. Essentially, there’s no reason to go to games anymore with RedZone, Sunday Ticket, Twitter, and a string of other on-demand amenities found within a few steps of your couch. An NFL executive told me the league still needed seats filled because nowadays stadiums are glorified TV studios—filled seats look good on television, and television and revenue is what matters.

The future of sports is bad ideas. The time humans spend watching TV is falling and with it comes a decline in the amount of people consuming sports, which still rely on traditional TV. No league relies more on traditional network TV than the NFL. It’s going to get harder for the NFL to double its revenue in the next decade, which is its goal. That means more experimentation, more chasing revenue. More situations like this: The Chargers are in Los Angeles, and they’ve saddled the city with unwanted football and U2 albums.