StubHub Center is an apt name for the modest soccer stadium-turned NFL foster home for the Los Angeles Chargers. The tiny 27,000-seat stadium, named for a ticket-resale behemoth, has struggled to fill up for the country’s most popular sport.
In the Chargers’ first season back in L.A. after 56 years in San Diego, seats are noticeably empty at kickoff for home games. Many other seats are often filled by boisterous traveling fans of visitors like the Kansas City Chiefs. After a recent game against the Philadelphia Eagles, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said it didn’t feel like a home game.
Chargers fans knew that starting over in L.A. wasn’t going to be easy. “We’ve been moved from a city in San Diego that appreciated the team and the players,” said Chad Smith, a Chargers fan at a recent game here.
The Chargers aren’t alone in facing questions about their fan support. All four of California’s teams are struggling with identity crises.
While the Chargers struggle in the L.A. suburb of Carson, where they are domiciled until a permanent home is completed in 2020, the Los Angeles Rams, in their second season back in Southern California, have seen home attendance fall by more than 20,000 per game since last season.
In the Bay Area, the San Francisco 49ers offer fans the chance to wait in traffic, sit in uncomfortably hot seats and watch one of the worst teams around. The state’s most promising team on the field, the Oakland Raiders, is leaving soon after more than a half century in California for a glamorous new home in Las Vegas.
“It doesn’t exactly seem like the Golden State for the NFL right now,” said Andy Dolich, a former executive with teams such as the 49ers and Oakland A’s.
If that’s true, it’s a problem for the country’s most popular sport when it faces headwinds in the country’s most populous state. L.A. in particular has been the area where the league saw the biggest room for growth going forward.
But in the early parts of this football season, startling pictures featuring swaths of empty seats have generated attention during and after Chargers, Rams and 49ers home games. The teams argue that the unflattering images aren’t fully representative of reality.
For example, the Chargers say the crowds at kickoff don’t reflect the ultimate size of the crowds, and the fans may just be on the concourses. “It is a very L.A. thing—arriving late has always been part of the culture here,” said Mark Tamar, the team’s vice president of fan experience.
Although the StubHub Center can hold 27,000, the Chargers said they consider anything above 25,300 a sellout because they don’t count some unused seats—such as complimentary tickets for players and staff and unsold ones set aside for the Americans with Disabilities Act—against attendance.
There was a time when raising doubts about professional football here would be unthinkable. For much of the last half century or so, California has been a football paradise.
The Chargers were an AFL powerhouse that became one of the NFL’s most iconic teams with their powder-blue jerseys. The 49ers spent two decades in the 1980s and 1990s as the league’s model franchise. And the Raiders—with legendary coach John Madden, late owner Al Davis and notoriously fanatical supporters dressed in silver and black—are as much part of football lore as pigskin and the forward pass.
The same isn’t exactly true today. The 49ers have ceded Bay Area primacy to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. The average ticket price on the secondary market for 49ers home games has dropped 32.5% since they moved to Levi’s Stadium in 2014, according to Jesse Lawrence, founder of TicketIQ, a search engine that aggregates ticket listings.
Since last year, Rams’ prices have dropped 10%. On the other end of the spectrum, because the StubHub Center is so small, Chargers tickets on the secondary market cost 70% more than they did a year ago when the team played in San Diego.
While the Chargers and Rams face the challenge of breaking into a new city, the entrenched 49ers’ questions are different. Their stadium, which opened in 2014, has been criticized for its location in Santa Clara, which can be a nightmare for fans to reach, and its design, which leaves fans on the sunny side of the stadium with extremely hot seats.
All of this to watch a team that is 2-19 since the start of the 2016 season. The 49ers have been working with an architecture firm for more than a year to study potential improvements to Levi’s Stadium, which includes options to give fans relief from the heat.
The Chargers and Rams, on the other hand, still have a few years until they move into the $2.6 billion home they plan to share in Inglewood, Calif., where the NFL hopes to take hold with a premier venue in one of the country’s biggest markets.
Los Angeles has always been somewhat of an enigma for the NFL. The league became richer than ever over the past two decades without a team in the country’s second-biggest city.
Then after 21 years in St. Louis, the Rams repatriated to L.A. last season. The early returns were positive. Playing in the city’s famous Coliseum, they averaged 84,457 fans in their first season. But they also went 4-12.
This year, attendance has cratered. Through the Rams’ first three home games, they have averaged just 59,162 fans per game—which leaves a vast emptiness in the NFL’s largest stadium, which can hold more than 93,000.
The Rams say the attendance decrease is in part by design. Before the season, they say, they aimed to sell fewer tickets and improve the in-game experience by engaging fans more intimately. One thing in their favor: the on-field product has for the moment turned positive. The Rams are 3-2 with an emerging quarterback in Jared Goff and promising young coach, Sean McVay.
“It’s fairly clear the opportunity we have in Los Angeles is unique,” said Jamie Reigle, the Rams’ new executive vice president of business operations, who came over after a decade with Manchester United. “That being said, there are some challenges in the market.”
As Los Angeles sports fans mulled if they were ready to accept one NFL team, the Chargers quickly packed up, moved north and gave the city a second. Some fans in San Diego were upset because they thought the city offered the team enough money for a new stadium there, and others were simply puzzled.
Indeed, the welcome for the Chargers has been short of a group hug. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, a Rams fan, said in a recent radio interview that the city will “embrace any team that comes” and is “certainly happy to have the Chargers.” But he added that L.A. “could have been happy with just [the Rams] too.”
All of this has prompted questions about whether the team would actually consider moving back to San Diego. For now, that has been quashed, with the team noting they have already committed tens of millions to their facilities in the L.A. area. “There are no discussions of returning to San Diego from the league or at the club,” NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said last week.
Still, Victor Lopez, owner of El Pollo Grill near San Diego, hopes the team does just that.
His restaurant is giving away free tacos every time the Chargers lose. Just walk in and say “Spanos Taco”--a reference to the owners who moved the team away—and voilà. The Chargers are 1-4 so far this season.
Lopez says he has given away more than a few thousand tacos already. “By far the most successful promotion I’ve ever had,” he said.
Write to Andrew Beaton at email@example.com