For Schulte, who grew up in Georgia and New Mexico, rooting for San Diego’s teams was a way to connect with his family members in Southern California. Rumors about the Chargers’ departure swirled in advance, but Schulte said it felt like “a huge strike to the gut” when he heard the official announcement. “I look forward to the day that I have my own children, and I always thought that I would take [them] to Chargers games just as my father did with me,” Schulte said. “My father passed away, and watching the Chargers with my dad was always an important thing in my life.”
Schulte’s reaction—one of anger, pain, and desolation—is fairly common and predictable, according to experts. In the immediate aftermath of the Chargers’ announcement, fans set memorabilia on fire, shed team apparel, and, of course, tweeted their anguish. “This is what people do,” Eric Simons, the author of The Secret Lives of Sports Fans, told me. “They grieve and they’re angry and they do all the coping mechanisms ... I would expect that the anger lingers for awhile.” Studies also show identifying with a local sports team is correlated with higher levels of psychological well-being. Fans are also more likely to be trusting people, according to a paper published by the North American Journal of Psychology, so, despite warning signs, maybe the Chargers faithful believed their team would stick by them for the long haul.
And yet, perhaps reacting to a football team’s move as if it were a death in the family can seem irrational; after all, the Chargers’ new home is just about two hours north of Qualcomm Stadium, and access to 24-hour sports content is only becoming more prevalent. But Edward Hirt, a social-psychology professor at Indiana University, said the distance itself doesn’t actually matter. Despite the fact that the Chargers are still in Southern California, it’s as if fans are now in a long-distance relationship with a significant other who used to live around the corner, and they may not be particularly likely to follow them to their new home. For his part, Schulte said he wouldn’t be following the Chargers to Los Angeles.
On top of that, Simons noted that engagement with professional athletics is more than a game; it’s also an expression of regional pride. “It’s some sort of, ‘Look, I'm proud of where I live, I like to live here,’” Simons said. “For the rest of the country, [you’re] saying, ‘Hey, San Diego exists.’”
And so, going from a two-team city to a one-team city is, to some extent, a blow for the legitimacy of San Diego as a major metropolitan area—despite the fact that it’s still the eighth-largest city in the United States by population. Los Angeles is already an international juggernaut, and it’s as if the team San Diegans loved for decades stepped on their backs to make it to the big time. “When one of the hallmarks of being seen as a legitimate city—a big metropolis and city—is having major league franchises, if you either have them not stay for political reasons or just because they aren’t getting supported, it does reflect badly on a community,” Hirt said.