There are more than 19,000 parking spots at Qualcomm Stadium, and on football Sundays, those 122 acres of pavement are drenched in the San Diego sunshine, the smell of carne asada hot off the grill, and the spirit of thousands of football fans waiting for kickoff.
“Going to a Chargers game on a Sunday is a full-day commitment, there’s no question about it,” Matthew Schulte, a lifelong San Diego sports fan, told me. “There are certain sections of the stadium where everyone congregates ... They become friends and family, even if you just share cookouts, barbecues, and beers with them.”
Or at least, they used to.
On January 12, the San Diego Chargers announced their departure to Los Angeles, effective immediately. After 56 years in San Diego, the final Chargers game at Qualcomm Stadium—a 37-27 losing effort against the Kansas City Chiefs—was played on January 1. Next season, the Chargers will join the Rams (who moved from their former home in St. Louis back to Los Angeles at the start of the 2016 season) as the city’s second NFL team. The Chargers will become Los Angeles’s eighth professional team competing in one of America’s four major sports. San Diego’s evolution from a two-team city to a one-team city not only has ramifications for Chargers fans, but also for the San Diego Padres, who are now the only professional game in town.
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.
Because of the connection between the prominence of a city and the ability of teams representing that city to compete on a national level, the Chargers’ move has a profound effect on the psyches of the team’s fans. The San Diego Padres, for their part, are hoping to help them heal their lightning-bolt-shaped wounds. Whether or not the team will be successful is a bit of a gray area, at least in terms of social psychology.
According to Hirt, fans in San Diego might gravitate toward the Padres and rally around the franchise as the last remaining vestige of professional-sports-related city pride. Or, fans may feel dejected and deserted to the point of retreating from athletics altogether. “We keep seeing reminders that the purity that we like about sports is being stripped away,” Hirt said. “[Sports] is a business. It’s really not commitment to people, the fans, and the community.”
The Padres are certainly hoping that isn’t the case. The baseball team is now the only franchise in San Diego, a mantle that executives perceive as “an opportunity and an obligation,” Erik Greupner, the organization’s chief operating officer, told me. “The opportunity that we recognized in the wake of the Chargers decision was to really try to serve as a rallying place ... to celebrate all of the things that are great about San Diego and all of the things we have to look forward to.”
To that end, celebrating San Diego is one way to re-legitimize the city’s prominence in the wake of the Chargers’ departure. Greupner said the Padres have hosted a celebration for community members at PETCO Park, where the Padres play. They’ve also taken on some of the Chargers’ philanthropic initiatives in the city, and they’ve committed millions of dollars to the upkeep of their stadium—a particularly sensitive topic in San Diego considering the widespread frustration over the deterioration of Qualcomm Stadium, which ultimately helped spur the Chargers’ departure.
The Padres are not the first, nor will they be the last, franchise in a major city to watch another team in the area leave, and fan reaction in other places could serve as a blueprint for the Padres. In recent history, the Montreal Expos left the Canadiens behind when they moved to Washington, D.C.; the Seattle SuperSonics abandoned the Mariners and the Seahawks when they packed up for Oklahoma City; and the Atlanta Thrashers backed away from the Falcons, Braves, and Hawks on their way north to Winnipeg.
What’s unique about the situation in San Diego, however, is that the Chargers leaving turns the Padres into Major League Baseball’s only lonely franchise. That is, there is some combination of NFL, NBA, and NHL teams in every other city where professional baseball is played. (Though, with the recent announcements that the Oakland Raiders will eventually move to Las Vegas, and that the Golden State Warriors will relocate across the bay to San Francisco, the Athletics will one day be in the same position.)
One thing that could stand in the Padres’ way is that, frankly, they just aren’t very good. They finished 23 games behind the National League West champion Dodgers in 2016, marking the sixth-straight season that the team lost more games than it won. Hirt noted that competitive teams naturally have more buzz around them—take the Kansas City Royals whose home-game attendance grew by about 38 percent from the 2014 season (when the team reached the World Series) to the 2015 season.
But a solid on-field product is far from the only thing that gets people to the ballpark. “If [fans] like these people, and they really want to support them—the players, the coaches, the ownership of this team—if they feel like they care about San Diego and they care about them, then I think you can get support even if the team right now isn’t that good,” Hirt said. There’s research to back up this hypothesis too: Studies show fans who seek to maximize their sports engagement and be the best supporters possible become more dedicated when their teams face adversity.
On the field, certainly all is not lost for the Padres. Teams that are alone in their cities have had some success, historically. The San Antonio Spurs have made the NBA playoffs 24 of the last 25 seasons; the Green Bay Packers have the most league championships in NFL history; and the Columbus Blue Jackets have already clinched a berth in the NHL playoffs this season. And so, the Padres are in a special position and could conceivably capitalize—or fizzle.
To that extent, convincing San Diego fans that they’re genuinely a team in the city for the long haul could be crucial for the Padres to remain a key part of fans’ identity. “[The Chargers] really shed light on the vulnerability that a team could leave,” Schulte said. “I don’t believe the Padres will leave in my lifetime, but could they’ve left in the past, and how close were they? I’ll never know.”
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