California’s Breakup With the NFL
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 backin 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.