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You Deserve Better, San Diego

Dec. 28, 2015
Dec. 28, 2015

Table of Contents
Dec. 28, 2015

INBOX
THE COMEBACK
The Lives They Led
  • From the Giant who became a broadcasting mainstay to the Moses who led Philadelphia to the promised land, from Tark the Shark to Mr. Cub to the Snake, indelible figures across a wide range of sports passed away in 2015

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You Deserve Better, San Diego

MY FIRST Chargers game was on Sept. 21, 1986, and their 18-point lead had been cut to four with two minutes left. I was nine, standing above the west end zone at Jack Murphy Stadium with my dad and my foam finger, and Redskins receiver Gary Clark was improvising routes because he couldn't hear the play calls. Despite the din, Washington marched 69 yards in 44 seconds, and Clark split two defenders for the game-winning TD. "I feel sorry for San Diego," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said.

This is an article from the Dec. 28, 2015 issue

My last Chargers game, if the owner has his way, was Sunday. Quarterback Philip Rivers choked up in the huddle. Safety Eric Weddle cried on the field. The Bolts beat the Dolphins 30--14, and "Stay ... just a little bit longer" blared from the loudspeakers. Some players lingered with fans until 6 p.m. "We're 4--10," Rivers kept telling himself, "and they act like it's the playoffs." It was a beautiful funeral.

On Jan. 13 in Houston, NFL owners will vote on two stadium proposals for the Los Angeles market: One would send the Rams to Inglewood; the other would dispatch the Chargers and the Raiders to Carson. The vote has paralyzed three constituencies, but I'm raising an old foam finger for the city that supported its team through a half-century without a championship, that drew 150,000 people to a Super Bowl parade after a loss, that protested when the organization opened the parking lot five hours before kickoff instead of seven.

My hometown is not Green Bay or Dallas, but it doesn't need to tarp the upper deck, either. This season the Chargers rank 18th in home attendance, the Raiders 30th and the Rams 32nd. Last season they ranked 16th in local TV ratings, the Rams 27th and the Raiders 32nd. When the Bolts were good, from 2004 through '09, they sold out every home game and drew 10,000 people to rallies after big road wins. Since the Spanos family bought the franchise in 1984, the Chargers have advanced past the divisional round twice. They fired a coach (Marty Schottenheimer) who went 14--2 and kept one (Mike Riley) who went 1--15. They drafted Ryan Leaf and said goodbye to Drew Brees. But the community never turned. The team's blood drive broke the world record for the largest single-day, single-location donation. The football camps once lured 14,000 kids. The city government agreed for nearly a decade to buy every unsold ticket.

Of course, pep rallies and blood drives don't build stadiums, and owner Dean Spanos swears he tried for 15 years to negotiate a deal in San Diego. But ownership never submitted a formal plan. In fairness, the city of San Diego was on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-2000s, and six mayors later Chargers stadium strategist Mark Fabiani is keeping that outdated image alive. "At one time half the council went to jail," Texans owner Bob McNair said last week. "It's hard to negotiate when you've got to go to the jail." Billionaires must need fact-checkers too: One San Diego city council member spent 15 months in prison seven years after he resigned.

In August mayor Kevin Faulconer announced a proposal that called for the city and the county to pay $350 million toward a $1.1 billion stadium in Mission Valley, the team's preferred site when the saga began. "Dean kept telling me, 'If I get full support from the city council and the county commission, we're going in,'" says former Chargers COO Jim Steeg, part of the mayor's stadium advisory committee. "Now he had full support to get it done. I thought it was there to do. The Chargers didn't engage."

The Spanos family wants to be in Carson, where they also have history. In 2003 the Chargers signed a five-year contract to hold training camp at the Home Depot Center there. Their first practice drew two dozen spectators, and the team fled after the second year.

Qualcomm Stadium is often inundated with opposing fans, predictable given San Diego's transplant population and tourist appeal, but the same dynamic awaits the Chargers in L.A., with even more out-of-towners. This is not the Nets crossing the Hudson River. It is the Eagles moving to New York City. "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," Rivers said Sunday night, eyes red, voice heavy. "I feel sorry for them."

How beloved are the Chargers in San Diego? "We're 4--10," Rivers said after what may be the team's final game there, "and [the fans] act like it's the playoffs."

Will Los Angeles support an NFL team? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SI_LeeJenkins

PHOTOANN JOHANSSON FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDILLUSTRATION