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Does Football Belong in a Soccer Stadium?

With a season of games in the StubHub Center set to kick off this weekend, the Los Angeles Chargers are about to find out

Football goal posts on a soccer field Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The StubHub Center in Carson, California, is built like a stretched-out horseshoe. On its north end, the awning that covers the stands opens up, and there is a long corridor underneath a grass berm that is now filled with added bleachers. Fans walk through this space throughout the game, but they also stand and look because it’s hard not to. This spot provides a surreal view of an NFL field, through a pair of uprights that appears to be within your grasp.

“It’s like you’re watching it on a big screen at home,” Celia Toledo, a StubHub guest services representative, says as she stares through the bright yellow poles. “My first football game was in Denver, and I was given tickets right at the 50-yard line. But standing here, I feel like ... I mean, I don’t know, could you ask to be any closer?”

As the first half of the Chargers’ opening preseason game against the Seahawks winds down, Seattle stops Los Angeles on third down, right on the edge of field goal range. As head coach Anthony Lynn ponders his decision, a man sitting in a club box behind the team’s sideline provides some help: “Kick the field goal!”

Friends around him laugh. Fans below him chuckle. Lynn, meanwhile, sends out then-kicker and former MLS keeper Josh Lambo to try a 53-yarder. The kick goes in and the half ends. While Lynn might not have exactly heeded the supporter’s advice, here’s the thing: He probably heard him.

On Sunday, the Chargers will play their home opener against the Dolphins in their temporary home, a home that is remarkably different than all of its counterparts. The typical NFL stadium holds an average of nearly 72,000 seats, but at the StubHub Center, the smallest stadium that an NFL team has played a full season in since 1956, there will be only 27,000 seats, and not a single bad one.

“I think this has a chance to be a heck of an atmosphere,” Rivers told me. “And we’re going to make sure we do our part.”

All around the world, soccer stadiums have been built as altars to the most exciting play in sports: a goal. Compared with a touchdown, a basket, or a run, the scarcity of a goal imbues it with more meaning than any of its cross-sport counterparts. Inside a soccer stadium, especially those in the United States that are designed with the stands closer to the field, the more intimate environment is perfect for the sound that accompanies the build-up and the satisfaction once the ball hits the back of the net.

In football, the desire for more seats, more fans, and more money continues to expand the size of new stadiums like the Atlanta Falcons’ Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which can hold up to 71,000 people, or even the Rams’ and Chargers’ forthcoming Inglewood stadium, which can expand to up to 100,000 seats. The scale of these places is far too vast to capture that same unified and dense emotion that places like StubHub can offer.

“When there’s people around you, there’s scientific proof that most athletes tend to do better. In most soccer stadiums, things like noise and atmosphere come through stronger,” says Jeremy Jamieson, a professor at the University of Rochester who has done extensive studies into home-field advantage and its effect on competitors. “That causes stress responses in the athlete. Stress is not just bad; it depends on how it manifests itself. A lot of the time, it yields better performance.”

Jamieson’s studies show that across different sports, soccer is where this home-field advantage makes the most difference. In a study in 2011, Freakonomics partners Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt also found soccer to be far and away the sport most impacted by home-field advantage.

Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

“Soccer stadiums tend to be more raucous, they lend themselves to very dense crowds, there's a lot of noise, there's chants, there's people more specifically wearing their team's colors. There's a very different feel than you get in other stadiums, and other sports too,” Jamieson says. The closest thing we have to that kind of atmosphere in the states is football games, Jamieson says, but even then, the studies show that the home-field advantage in basketball and hockey is more evident than in football because the arenas are self-contained and the fans are closer to the action.

“Crowd size is only important in small crowds,” says Mark Allen, a psychology professor and researcher at the University of Wollongong in Australia. “Once the crowd increases, crowd density becomes the critical factor. For example, 10,000 fans in a 10,000-seat stadium will lead to a greater home advantage than 10,000 fans in a 50,000-seat stadium.”

This is why the Chargers, who opted to play at StubHub over Angel Stadium and Dodger Stadium (with the Rose Bowl denying NFL suitors), are hoping to find something special. That crowd density will, on paper, be much easier to attain at StubHub than at the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Rams play, or any other big NFL stadium. And maybe that different experience proves a fertile breeding ground for a team in search of a new fan base—or for an opposing fan base.

“That’s all part of it,” Mark Tamar, the Chargers’ vice president of fan experience, says, referring to the outsize effect visiting fans can have in a smaller stadium. “In the long run, if you have an exciting game where people are into it, that means a better experience for everyone. We’ll have a lot more noise, a lot more intensity in the stands. That’s a good thing.”

During the Chargers’ preseason game against the Seahawks, the Seattle contingent, much like visiting soccer supporters do, packed one end of the stadium, and contributed to the palpable noise throughout the place. Despite the laid-back California-summer atmosphere that permeated the game—from the music to the Bulletproof coffee stand in the concourse—the amplified sound created by the tiny arena forced football to still take center stage. Every single tackle, PA announcement, and cheer boomed throughout the arena, even up to the press box, where it felt as vivid as if you were standing on the sideline.

And if you want, you can be there too. The Chargers have installed three rows of black leather seats on the StubHub grass, right next to the team’s sideline. When asked what the thinking was behind adding those field-side seats, Chargers special adviser Jeffrey Pollack said, “How could you not?”

Rich Gray, along with his wife and two girls, sat on those prized seats during the Chargers’ joint practice with the Rams last month, and he couldn’t believe how different the experience was when compared with watching a game at the Coliseum. Gray, a Rams fan and season-ticket holder of both L.A. teams now, looked at the Chargers seats—$7,000 per—as an “investment.”

“At the Coliseum, we had to leave at halftime last year because there was no water for my girls. We couldn’t stay,” Gray told me. “Here, the concessions are much better, and well, I’m still going to root for my Rams, but I’m loving this experience.”

“It’s all about giving people an experience that they’ve never had before,” Tamar said. “Fans affect how our team plays on the field.”

The Chargers invested over $10 million in order to get StubHub up to NFL standards. They installed brand-new seats, turned bleachers into individual seats, and added extra bleachers to bump up the capacity to 27,000.

From the signage to the gear, the Chargers didn’t bring much of anything from the San Diego game-day experience up to L.A. There was only one exception, and in a smaller stadium like StubHub, it’s the one making the loudest noise: the Chargers’ old cannon, the one that the team has been using since 1961, and that, much like the undulating cheer that resonates with every touchdown, will launch you out of your seat whenever the home team scores.

“When people see this stadium, the experience, and how close it is to the field, man, it’s going to be a packed house,” says Freddy Hernandez, a lifelong Chargers fan who has already bought season tickets in Section 119 and sat as close to the pylon as possible during the practice with the Rams. “It’s going to be insane.”

If you drive on the 91 freeway headed west, less than 10 minutes from the StubHub Center in Carson, you will come across two billboards nearly parallel to each other. On your left side, a dark-blue background is the canvas for Jared Goff, who looks right into your windshield. “Buy Rams Season Tickets Now!” the billboard spells out. On your right side, another billboard is stationed brightly within your view, promoting the L.A. Galaxy’s upcoming game, with a website listed to buy tickets as well. Until you near the StubHub Center, which sits across from California State University, Dominguez Hills, you barely see any Chargers signs or indicators that an NFL team plays here.

“It’s a work in progress,” Tamar says. “Was it overwhelming when we first got here? Yeah. We had to build from scratch.”

The Chargers are still trying to find their footing after spurning San Diego for the more profitable grounds of L.A. It’s already become a rote talking point to say Los Angeles doesn’t need two NFL teams. And every Sunday, many critics will rightfully be ready to pounce at any sign of struggle or disinterest in either L.A. football team.

The Rams, pitted inside the crater that is the Coliseum, have become a regular victim of the “Look how empty this stadium is” photo and were all throughout last season. When the Chargers couldn’t fill StubHub for a preseason game, they were quickly scrutinized and ridiculed. The capacity of the stadium went from being a possible advantage to an indictment of their supposed inability to attract a fan base.

In all likelihood, it doesn’t matter whether you play in a historic behemoth or a sleek, intimate venue that provides a new experience. The way to fill seats is to win, which creates a bit of a dilemma for the Chargers: Filling the StubHub Center might help them win, but they won’t be able to fill it until they … start winning. They haven’t done that much in recent years: just nine victories over the past two seasons, and an 0-1 start to 2017.

“Look, it’s up to the team,” Debbie Kay, a lifelong Chargers fan from Orange County, told me at the Seahawks game. Sitting next to her, and with a direct sight line to the action on the field, her son David called it “the perfect interim stadium instead of the Coliseum, which is too big and not nice.” Debbie continued, “The Rams blew it by playing so poorly last year. If the Chargers win, this stadium, this experience will be a hit.”

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated the maximum capacity of the StubHub Center for NFL games; it is 27,000, not 30,000.