Editor’s Note: One year ago, Kyle Welch wrote about what a possible relocation of the Chargers would mean to San Diego. With the news of that relocation, we revisit.
After toying around the idea for the last decade or so, the NFL owners will convene on Tuesday to decide which combinations of teams and stadiums to put in Los Angeles, California. Though no one really knows what’s going to happen or how. There are two proposed stadiums, three teams asking to be allowed to move, lots of unknowns, and billions of dollars at stake. One stadium proposal is being touted as “NFL Disney World” and the other actually involves a Disney Chairman and C.E.O., and the most probable outcome anyone can discern as of Monday involves a shotgun marriage officiated by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.1
The problem with placing a team in Los Angeles — the sprawling Southern California mess of freeways and strip malls that doubles as the second largest market in the United States — is that a team will not be created to fill the void of untapped market potential in L.A. Rather, a team will be moved to Los Angeles; taken from a place currently hosting the team; un-located from its current location and re-located to its new destination in LA.
The problem with places (often, anyway), is that people live in them. People that already pay for tickets to see these teams, and already buy merchandise with team colors and logos and player names, and already devote dozens of hours for years watching these teams and hundreds more hoping that these teams will succeed on their city’s behalf. While many residents of these cities don’t give a hoot about professional sports and live complete lives without gamedays and “next season”s, many others — citizens of the potentially “unlocated,” if you will — develop emotional attachments to these incorporated entities and would be hurt by their departure. Such unfounded loyalty is probably stupid and naive, but it’s a stupidity and naivete upon which the NFL’s built an empire.
The candidate cities to have a team wrested from their hands are St. Louis (now-home of the Rams), Oakland (current residence of the Raiders), and San Diego (present domicile of the Chargers). All of them unquestionably have thousands of fans who, if not adore at least support their teams as some sort of birthright or civic duty. One or two of these cities will lose their football team. And it will suck.
We know it will suck because it has happened before to dozens of American professional sports teams in dozens of cities, and I know this because I am a Cleveland Browns fan, and it wasn’t that long ago that my hometown team was lost. (Well, it wasn’t “lost” — I know where it went.) A younger version of me had a front row seat to the Browns departure from Cleveland, and now, twenty-one years later, I may have a front row seat to the Chargers departure from San Diego.
Six-year-old me didn’t have many problems in 1995. I liked playing baseball and coloring and playing Sonic the Hedgehog on Sega Genesis (I don’t think I ever did beat Dr. Robotnik in the last level). My pet peeves were bedtime and parents and my little sister. I was becoming vaguely aware that girls were different than boys and there was something I liked about that, but it was still largely a mystery (that wouldn’t change, actually). So six-year-old me had it pretty good and didn’t know a damn thing about stadium leases or market potential or the allocation of public funds or the sin tax, and I was okay with that.
But I did know some things about sports. I liked sports and I liked the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Browns because they played sports (again, which I liked) and they were close and my dad liked them and I could go to their games and watch them on television.
Later in 1995, Art Modell announced that the Cleveland Browns would be moving to Baltimore the following season. I don’t remember the press conference or any salient detail of any play the Browns had that season. But I do remember the last Browns game in Municipal Stadium.
It was December 17, 1995, against the Cincinnati Bengals. I sat on my family’s living room floor, watching the game on a big old box of a television from Montgomery Ward made when TVs doubled as pieces of furniture. I remember the bleachers being yanked out by fans, and the signs about how the team shouldn’t leave, and the evening news after the game. I distinctly remember trying to wrap my tiny head around the fact that the Browns were leaving — like, gone. Like, they weren’t going to play in Cleveland any more. The Browns would cease to exist.
There would be no more Browns games. I remember being sad, and not because there wouldn’t be any more Browns games (again, I didn’t even comprehend the fundamental concept). But I was sad because everyone else was sad. The evening news broadcasters and the fans walking out of Municipal Stadium and my family — everyone was sad. And that made me indescribably sad, even though I really had no idea what the hell was happening.
So the Browns left. Over the next few years, my love of sports grew fonder and my understanding of concepts like death and taxes became slightly more intelligible. I rooted for the Cleveland Indians and Cleveland Cavaliers because they were still there, and I rooted for the Jacksonville Jaguars because I thought their uniforms were cool and the Green Packers because I liked Brett Favre and I was a front-running little shit. There are pictures of me wearing a Green Bay Packers toboggan cap and a big, puffy Starter jacket for the then-defunct Cleveland Browns — my head stuck in the present, and my torso torn between the past and the future. In 1999, the Browns returned and I rooted for them because it was my birthright and civic duty and things were the same as before but they were also different.
Now it’s 2016, and things are the same as they were in 1995 and 1999. The Browns exist, I root for the Browns, the Browns are bad. But things are also different. I don’t live in Northeast Ohio, and I know way too damn much about stadium leases and market potential and the allocation of public funds and the sin tax. Now I live in San Diego, and owner Dean Spano is trying to skip town with the Chargers just like Art Modell did with the Browns in 1995, and the fans are largely powerless to stop it. It’s been strange and depressing, like watching a sad movie based on your own life.
It’s tricky knowing what to do with a local team when you move somewhere. Before moving to San Diego, I had no feelings or opinions on the Chargers — positive or negative. I regarded them with intense neutrality. On second thought, I did like of one of their shades of blue. But that’s about it. The Chargers were otherwise no more to me than another team in the AFC with whom I had no gripes.
Upon moving to San Diego, I found Chargers fans to be agreeable enough. I found them amusing, harmless, cute even2 — but they’re one of the least universally obnoxious fan bases I’ve encountered (I’m looking at you, Patriots fans).
If there was a continuum for overall attitude toward a team, with 0 being utter revulsion, and 100 being unconditional love, I’d be at a 91 for the Browns (falling short of 100 because of my lack of physical proximity, my moral opposition to taking anything too seriously, my lack of merchandise purchases in the last calendar year, my refusal to paint my face, my inability to be totally insane, and the fact that I suspect I secretly hate them), and I’d be at a 53 for the Chargers. I gave the Chargers my apathetic approval, and Chargers fans didn’t dump a beer on my head every time I wore Browns gear in public. It seemed like a fair truce to me. I also felt I’d be an ungrateful guest and kind of a dick to root against the local team.
In fact, Cleveland and San Diego fans ought to identify with one another more than one would guess. An obvious starting point is that both the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers have had detestable owners who wanted to move their team for their financial benefit, using a crummy stadium as an excuse. But that’s just the start. Both the Browns and Chargers had exciting teams with beloved quarterbacks in the 1980s (Bernie Kosar and Dan Fouts) that were never able to go all the way — the two teams combined to lose half of the AFC Championship games in the 1980s.3 They miraculously avoided one another in the playoffs through the decade, meaning America was robbed of a real showdown of misfortune and angst.
Marty Schottenheimer teased and tortured both fan bases with tastes of success — Marty took the Browns to the playoffs four times and two conference championship games in the 1980s, and won 12 and 14 games with the Chargers in the mid-2000s only to lose in the playoffs. Brian Sipe — the only Brown to win league MVP in the modern era — is a San Diego native, San Diego State graduate, and current resident of San Diego. Both teams had a Kellen Winslow, though the Charger version had a much better career. Though the Browns and Chargers have been around for most of the NFL’s modern era (the Browns have played 47 seasons, the Chargers 46 uninterrupted ones), they have one Super Bowl appearance between them — and the Chargers didn’t even show up for that. Both fan bases saw their baseball teams rise to prominence in the 1990s, losing three-of-four post-strike World Series between them. Cleveland and San Diego both hate the Yankees.
While regular readers of this website are familiar with Cleveland’s title drought (after all, the site’s name implores readers to keep waiting). But the city with the second longest active streak of title-less seasons? San Diego. I’ve spent all my life in the vicinity of the two most championship-deprived cities in the country! If I live within commuting distance of your stadium, you’re in for a world of sports-related suffering.
So there should be a sort of kinship between Browns and Chargers fans — a bond of shared misery. Though my support for the Chargers is of the most unenthusiastic variety, my opposition to them leaving is vocal. I like San Diego. I live there. It has good burritos.
San Diego will still be a nice city if the Chargers leave, but it will be diminished, however little. It will be less important, less fun, less relevant. It will be lesser. No one wishes that of a place where they live.
The NFL will be diminished, too. Just like the idea of an NBA without the Seattle Supersonics or an NFL without the Cleveland Browns seem absurd, the idea of an NFL without the San Diego Chargers seems stupid. What’s the fun in an NFL without the San Diego Chargers?
I think the common notions from outsiders watching the Los Angeles/NFL drama unfold from afar is that the Chargers don’t mean much to the city of San Diego because it’s nice and no one cares, and if they did care then the team wouldn’t be moving to begin with. Sure, the Chargers probably don’t mean as much to San Diego as the Browns meant or mean to Cleveland. I think that’s an inherent fact about warm weather cities and vacation destinations and places with a limited amount of blue collar jobs and places where you can go surfing instead of watching the second half.
But San Diego is a football town. The biggest social events in my neighborhood are NFL football Sundays, and when I ride past windows on my bike on Sunday nights the homes invariably have Sunday Night Football on the television. Even though support for the Chargers is diluted by transplant assholes like myself, San Diego loves the Chargers.
Read Lee Jenkins’ piece on the Chargers last game at Qualcomm Stadium this season and allow him and Philip Rivers (of all people) to dispel the notion that the Chargers don’t matter to San Diego.
Laughter turned to tears. Soon, there will be nowhere to tell the stories, to put the pictures, to wear the Kassim Osgood jerseys. The agony of losing a game — a pain with which Charger backers are intimately familiar — does not prepare anybody for the torture of losing a team. As Rivers pulled on his cowboy boots late Sunday, he asked about that night in ’95 when the Chargers vanquished the Steelers, and 80,000 people welcomed them back to Qualcomm. He wondered how everybody fit inside. “I think of the kids who came here with their dads, and now want to take their own kids, but might never get the chance,” he said, eyes red, voice heavy. “I feel sorry for them.”
And for what? So a billionaire can move the team to Los Angeles to increase the value of his franchise? So that Roger Goodell (who’s never shown poor judgment before!) can make returning the NFL to Los Angeles a part of his “legacy”? So that old rich dudes have something to do on Sundays?
Because for whatever the Chargers mean to San Diego, they mean infinitely less to Los Angeles. No one in the league outside St. Louis, San Diego, or Oakland is protesting how the L.A. situation is being handled, because it’s not their team — not this time. It’s the same thinking that allowed people to sit on their hands when the Browns left. In short, I already lived through my own heartache and identity crisis when the Browns left Cleveland, and I’d rather not live through the heartache and identity crisis of a million of my neighbors, coworkers, and friends.
Like Philip Rivers, I feel sorry for kids who won’t get the chance to go to Chargers games with their dads. I feel sorry because, for a few years in the 1990s, I was that kid.
- According to the L.A. Times: “On the brink of a vote that could return the NFL to Los Angeles, a consensus is building within the league for the St. Louis Rams and San Diego Chargers to share a stadium in Inglewood. … There’s a sense that most owners know the point where they want to get — the Chargers and Rams in Inglewood — but aren’t sure of the best way to get there.” [↩]
- They do think it’s “freezing” when it’s 60 degrees, after all. [↩]
- The Chargers in 1980 and 1981, and the Browns in 1986, 1987, and 1989. [↩]