For millions of people, “first home game” is a special memory. It doesn’t matter the sport, the names or the stakes, it just matters that you’re with people you care about and you’re rooting for the home team. Your team. My first such memory was with my mom and sister at a Seattle Mariners game in the Kingdome, early nineties. I remember heckling Jose Canseco for no other reason than he was the best player on the team who didn’t play for Seattle, so that meant he was my enemy. Sure, the Mariners were one of the worst teams in baseball, but who cares, it only mattered that they were the home team in my city. They were my team. That same principle would translate to the Seattle Supersonics and Seahawks. My home teams.
That’s a concept we are beginning to lose.
On Thursday, the Chargers will announce that they are moving to Los Angeles after spending the last 55 years in San Diego. There used to at least be built-in excuses for relocation that distracted us from “follow the money” like the idea that a team was no longer popular in their home city or that they had been too pathetic for too long, but the Chargers had a winning record two seasons ago and they’ve been teetering on competitiveness for much longer. Ownership may try and sell people on a lie that this move is best “for the team,” but they already have a franchise quarterback, an elite rookie defensive end, a promising running back, a Pro Bowl cornerback, and many other good players.
The Chargers were on a path to success whether they played in San Diego or Los Angeles or Pyongyang for all it mattered. They’ll just make more money in Los Angeles, because now they’re selling tickets to fans of the sport, or worse, of the opposition.
We’re witnessing a disturbing trend in the NFL. Over the last 10 years, the NFL International Series began to take home games away from those teams actual homes by placing them in Mexico City and London. This is a great way for the league to market themselves internationally, but does not do much to make those teams that travel popular in other countries. It’s like they’re saying, “This is American football! Do you like it? Well, trust us, if you like the Jaguars, wait until you see the Patriots!” (Next season, New England will play a road game in Mexico City, but it’s the Jags, Raiders, Dolphins, Browns and Rams that will be giving up home games for the International Series in 2017.)
With the Chargers joining the Rams in Los Angeles, it gives a city of roughly 18 million people in the larger metropolitan area two teams that they don’t care about. After relocating from St. Louis in 2016, the Rams were well-noted during the season for being an embarrassment in both home attendance and TV ratings. Despite being in the Coliseum, NFL’s second-largest stadium, and having four million people residing in the city of Los Angeles, the Rams were under 90 percent capacity; just imagine if one-in-200 greater LA residents attended home games, or 0.5 percent, they would have sold out games for the first professional football team in the city in over 20 years. But they couldn’t even pull that off. Ratings even showed that the Rams were doing worse this season in Los Angeles than they were doing in St. Louis, the home that they spurned.
Now the city with two NBA teams, two MLB teams, two NHL teams (giving credit for Anaheim and Orange County to be in Greater Los Angeles), an MLS team and two major Pac-12 colleges, just got a second NFL team that it didn’t need. Why?
For Raiders, Broncos and Chiefs fans, of course.
The NFL didn’t bring the Rams to Los Angeles to work up local interest in the actual team. Just like in London, Mexico City and soon to be brought to an Asian or Canadian market near you, the league brought pro football back to LA to drum up interest in the sport instead of in the home team. We already know that Los Angeles is a city largely made up of transplants who moved there from other places to pursue their dreams in entertainment or just wanted to move out of the rural midwest, and I can say that because I count myself among them.
Trust me when I say that if you’re in LA and want to buy Rams gear, check a clearance rack at a grocery store. If you want to strike up a conversation at a bar with a stranger about “the home team,” then good luck to you, because “home team” means something different to everyone around here. It’s certainly not the Rams. If it’s anyone it’s the Raiders, but they’ll just be the next example of how the NFL is starting to sell every game as an exhibition game: Owner Mark Davis has been hard at work on moving the team to Las Vegas, the ultimate “destination football game” not meant for the people who actually live there.
Not that Las Vegas is a small city, ranking 28th nationally with a permanent population over 600,00, but it’s not massive either. It certainly doesn’t have 1.4 million people like San Diego does. However, Las Vegas’ population fluctuates rapidly due to the consistent influx of tourists, who inherently wouldn’t be there as Raiders fans, but as fans of the team they are playing, or perhaps just want to take in an NFL game in the same way that they might take in a show on the strip.
Yes, that’s the goal isn’t it: To compare professional sports to Cirque Du Soleil and Britney Spears?
Not to say that the Chargers were doing themselves any favors this season, ranking dead last in attendance by basically any metric you could find, but it’s hard to blame them. Much like what Seattle residents experienced the year before the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City, fans knew they were simply buying into a “dead man walking” if they bought tickets. There was no saving any of these franchises. Local loyalty was trumped by ownership agendas long before any official announcements were made. The Chargers ranked 19th in total home attendance in 2015, ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, and just 500 total tickets below the home sales for the New England Patriots.
It took just one season to rip that all away, because at a certain point creating memories didn’t matter anymore. Creating a bigger market is the new precedent.
You can call them the Los Angeles Chargers if you want to, but a more accurate description for the Rams and Chargers franchises might be “The LA Tickets.” Maybe it’s not catchy, but it doesn’t have to be; it’s football and you’re buying it.
At least, the NFL hopes you will soon.