Chargers struggling for relevance in crowded L.A. sports scene

Profile Picture: Jeremy Balan

August 21st, 2019

During the 2018 season, Los Angeles had two of the best football teams in the NFL.

For a metropolitan area that went without an NFL franchise for two decades, and didn't exactly express an undying desire to get onelet alone twoback, it was an odd atmosphere.

It's a stereotype that sports fans in Los Angeles have short attention spans, but there's never any question about the teams that have deep roots in the City of Angelsif you're good, you won't be wanting for support. Everyone loves winners, but L.A. seems to love them a little bit more, especially if there's star power attached.

But for these two NFL teams, the difference in buzz and perception was palpable.

It took a little while, but the Rams became a shiny, exciting new attraction on the L.A. sports landscape in 2018, while it felt like the Chargers were still fighting just to get folks to stop the frequent verbal slip-up"the San Dieg... er, I mean, Los Angeles Chargers."
The most visible example has been the Chargers' struggle to fill the 27,000-seat Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. The Los Angeles Rams don't fill the massive, iconic Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, either, but its capacity almost triples the Carson facility, which was built to put on soccer matches, not NFL football games.

Those metrics and optics will change, however, when both teams move into the yet-to-be-named Los Angeles Stadium on the ruins of Hollywood Park in Inglewood, which from all accounts and renderings will be a modern cathedral of sport.

The stadium will sell itself for several years. People may not worship the teams at this particular cathedral just yet, but they will come to see the spectacle. Even at a place like Chargers training camp in Costa Mesa, Californiawhere VIPs and fans are pursued for season-ticket salesthe stadium is sold more than the team.

To be clear, that's an observation and not a judgement, and the strategy could be deft, considering local fan interest in the Chargers. Television ratings in the Los Angeles market have also been poor for the Chargers, in comparison to other games on the schedule featuring teams not based in L.A.

But why is that so, and what can the Chargers do to get out of second- or third-tier status in the sports landscape of Los Angeles? There's a lot to unpack.

Who really came back home?

Both the Chargers and Rams have roots in Los Angeles, but one set goes significantly deeper.

The Chargers played their inaugural season in L.A. in 1960, but moved to San Diego a year later. The Rams were founded in Cleveland in 1936 and moved west in 1946, 11 years before the Dodgers, and stayed until 1995 (although their last 15 years were spent in Orange County, still in the metropolitan area), when the franchise was moved to St. Louis.

Rams fans in Los Angeles haven't been as steadfast as those of the Oakland Raiders, who also left in L.A. 1995 (that's another story), but those who maintained fandom certainly helped upon the franchise's return. However, nothing helped like winning.

"Even the Rams had to win before people got really excited about it," said Southern California News Group columnist Mark Whicker, who has covered sports in Southern California since 1987. "But your dad or uncle might have been a Rams fan. They had a heritage here."

Even though the wounds from 1995 have mostly been forgotten, the Rams were welcomed back. It felt right because they were taken away. The Chargers felt like a tack-on and were met with a shrug.

But even after a trip to the Super Bowl, the Rams have a long way to go to reach the fervor associated with entrenched brands like the Dodgers and Lakers. The shine of a new stadium will only last so long if wins and titles don't come with it.

It will be even harder for the Chargers, who enter 2018 off a terrific season of their own. The Dodgers are by far the best team in the National League, and both the Lakers and Clippers loaded up on free agent talent in the offseason. It's hard to imagine the Chargers gaining in status in a city already bursting with pro-sports star power.

"Attention span is tough," Whicker said. "The Dodgers will be playing into October, the Lakers will start around that time, too ... It's hard to get on the front page unless you do something."

The importance of 2019 on the field

Doing "something" this season will be crucial for the Chargers in their last season in Carson. Momentum is a key, and as hard as it will be to gain traction with success on the field, a step back in competition with a new stadium awaiting will be counterproductive.

Quarterback Philip Rivers is 37, and although his style of play might indicate he can play into his 40s, that's far from guaranteed. Another Rivers-guided run into the playoffs would undoubtedly create more buzz to set up the Chargers for the future, but if the team limps into the new stadium off a disappointing season and Rivers only hangs around for a few more years, the future is even more uncertain. Star quarterbacks are essential to success and don't exactly grow on trees.

"The plan has to be to have a big year, build a bit of a base and move into that place," Whicker said. "This is the year for them to win (the AFC West)."

Rivers is also one of the last links left to San Diego, where he played from 2004-2016 and was the team's most loved and marketable star.

America's Finest City might still be the main source of interest in the Chargers, though (either through fandom or schadenfreude), and the ill will created likely isn't going away any time soon.

San Diego scorned

Jay Posner is quite tired of hearing the complaints.

The San Diego Union-Tribune sports editor has been hearing them since the Chargers leftthe paper shouldn't be covering the team, it shouldn't be giving owner Dean Spanos the publicity and nobody cares about the team any more, anyway.

But they do care.

"I'm surprised even now there's such vitriol over our decision to cover the team, and we pick up most of our coverage from the L.A. Times," Posner said. "We found, through the first two seasons (in Los Angeles), that stories about the Chargers get read more than stories about other teams ... From what I've seen, through our reading numbers and TV ratings, people still care about the Chargers.

"I understand some people are hate-watching, but..."

No matter what way it's sliced or spun, the Chargers' exit from San Diego was an ugly divorce, and it's not unreasonable to consider that has had an impact in Los Angeles, with just 120 miles separating the two largest cities in California.

"People in L.A. didn't like the move of the Chargers, eitherthere was some backlash," Posner said.

Time heals all wounds, they say, but maybe not for everyone.

"I think some people will hold onto it for as long as they live," Posner said. "It will fade for other people, and I'm sure some people are still rooting for the team, which might have something to do with Rivers, who was here for so long ... But there's much more to a city like this than an NFL team or a baseball team. We'll be fine."

So, what will it take?

What would Chargers brass consider a "win" in the L.A. marketboth in the short and long term? That's not clear.

Chargers officials declined to share their marketing goals or strategies for this article, but stressed the Rams and Chargers are "very much partners here in Los Angeles," both in community outreach and in business.

The Chargers also pointed out positives in season-ticket sales, record training-camp attendance this year and a recent draft party on the Santa Monica Pier.

It's hard to screw up a tradition of winning, though, so that's the best formula for the Chargers' success in Los Angeles. But will they ever truly capture the heart of maybe the ficklest sports market in the country? We won't be taking any action on that. Those odds are off the board.

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