Mike Carlson: Can the Chargers make Los Angeles care about football?

The San Diego Chargers have made a bolt for it, joining the Rams in LA

BY Michael Carlson 16:52 Friday 13 January 2017, 16:52 13 Jan 2017

Image: Fans stand around a pile of Chargers memorabilia in front of San Diego Chargers headquarters after the team announced that it will move to Los Angeles Thursday Jan. 12, 2017, in San Diego.(AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

It was not unexpected but it was still a shock. After informing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday, Dean Spanos, owner of the San Diego Chargers, announced the team was now the Los Angeles Chargers.

55 years after they moved from LA - in the second season of the upstart American Football League (AFL), where they wowed the city and America with their powder-blue lightning bolt uniforms and Sid Gillman's wide open passing attack - the Chargers were abandoning their home.

Los Angeles, which had survived nicely, thank you, for some 22 years without an NFL team, acquired their second franchise is as many years. Anyone who looked around the Los Angeles Coliseum at the empty seats for Rams' games this season might well ask why the Southland needs another NFL franchise.

Franchise is the word the NFL uses, and for good reason. The league is a private football corporation, and its owners are, in effect, franchisees (except for the Green Bay Packers, which is owned by the citizens of the city).

Like any businessman who owns a burger franchise, the owner's aim is not to feed the public, but to make money. But unlike most franchised businesses, the way the corporation makes its money is not necessarily by having its franchises sell as many burgers as possible. Those economics are at the heart of the decision to rip the Chargers away from their San Diegan fans.

In America, fans are used to 'franchises' moving. Cities actively seek teams to steal from other cities. Originally, teams moved to reflect demographic changes and improved transportation: the Los Angeles Rams left Cleveland in 1946; they quit LA for St. Louis in 1995 (after the Cardinals, formerly of Chicago, moved to Phoenix) before returning to LA last season.

In the past 40 years, the NFL has seen nine franchise moves, the NBA and NHL seven each. Baseball has had only one, Montreal moving to Washington. But in the modern era, moves come for economic reasons, and in football's case they benefit both the owner and the league.

Dean Spanos got where he is by being his father's son; Alex Spanos bought the team in 1984. For him, the economics of moving are irresistible. It doesn't matter if your fans fill the stadium regularly, or whether your team wins or loses.

The real money is in the kind of stadium those fans fill: one that has plenty of room for luxury boxes whose leases are sold at a premium, one that has plenty of parking and concessions that can demand top-dollar, and one that is new, so that rather than sell the seats, the owner can sell licenses to buy the seats, generating an immediate and huge profit.

When the 49ers quit San Francisco for Santa Clara, the license fees alone netted them $530 million. Throw in the new luxury boxes, and the team's value (according to Forbes) jumped from $1.7 billion to $2.6 billion.

Levi's Stadium is home to the San Francisco 49ers. Picture by: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP/Press Association Images

Spanos was willing to build a new stadium in San Diego that might bring him those benefits, he just was not willing to pay for it. His proposed stadium would have cost $1.2 billion; the NFL was willing to put up $300 million out of its own funds, because it realises trying to sell the public the idea of paying out tax dollars in a time of recession to benefit a billionaire owner is a tough sell.

In 2015, San Diego held a referendum on its public contribution. Spanos spent $10 million on a publicity campaign for a yes vote; the no campaign spent $200,000 and got 57% of the vote.

Spanos had already been threatening to move to Los Angeles into a stadium they would share with the Raiders -  born in Oakland, they moved to LA, then back to Oakland. But the deal the NFL accepted was Rams' owner Stan Kroenke's. The Arsenal owner is building a $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood, without a penny of public funding.

The Chargers will become his tenants when the facility opens in 2019, just as the Jets are the Giants' renters in the New Jersey Meadowlands, and pay only $1 a year for the privilege. When you look at the cost of the stadium, consider that the value of Kroenke's team doubled, literally, with the move to LA. And consider too that when the NFL looked at bids for a new stadium in LA, they were considering bids for one that would commit to hosting two teams.

Image: Tom Sutton pulls his Volkswagen "Bolt Bug" out of the San Diego Chargers headquarters driveway after the team announced that it will move to Los Angeles Thursday Jan. 12, 2017, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

This is the more important part of the financial equation. Because football is not paid for by the fans who pass through metaphorical turnstiles. The Rams will play three years in the historic but creaky and luxury-less Coliseum, located in the kind of neighbourhood many Angelinos never knowingly visit.

But modern stadia are combinations of malls and sound stages, on which the profits are generated via television. With two teams in LA, the NFL is guaranteed a home game for 16 of the season's 17 weeks in the nation's second-largest television market. It's no coincidence that a list of the country's top 100 TV markets is actually included in the annual NFL media guide. A rising tide lifts all boats, and the effect of the TV audience in LA is far bigger than that of St Louis and San Diego put together.

So the Chargers will play two seasons in the so-called Stub Hub Centre, a 30,000 seat stadium at California State University-Dominquez Hills, actually that much closer to San Diego for the die-hard fans who want to make the trip.

But LA is a tough town. Baseball's Dodgers have tradition, at least in Los Angeles terms (they were grabbed from Brooklyn back in the 1950s). Basketball's Lakers are Showtime. The basketball Clippers, baseball's Angels (who try desperately to avoid being called 'Anaheim'), and the two hockey teams all struggle for attention. LA has two major college football teams, who still have a 'smart' following in USC and UCLA.

The Rams were the NFL's glamour team in the early '50s, with Elroy 'Crazy legs' Hirsch, Norm Van Brocklin, and Bob Waterfield, who was married to the actress Jane Russell. They were big in the '60s, with their Fearsome Foursome, and in the '70s under George Allen, but by the time they moved to St Louis, they were no longer fashionable. The Chargers were born in 1960, when the AFL sprang up to challenge the NFL. They were owned by Barron Hilton, Paris' great-uncle. Legend says Barron chose the Chargers nickname from a public contest because he owned the Diners Club credit card, and thought the name would be good advertising.

The team left Los Angeles after their first year, and in their second year in San Diego (1963) won the AFL title. They haven't won a championship since. Their history boasts stars like Lance Alworth, Keith Lincoln, Junior Seau, Kellen Winslow, Don Fouts, LaDanian Tomlinson, Earl Faison, Chuck Muncie and many more. But they will take those names with them when they move - in the NFL, history is mutable.

The Indianapolis Colts include all the members of the Baltimore Colts; when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore, the Ravens did not get all the history the Browns would otherwise have brought with them.

So save your Junior Seau jersey; the San Diego native who starred for his home town club will still belong to that city, even when the Chargers are playing in the Dominguez Hills or Inglewood.


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