For a number of years now, I have pedaled eastward from my house near Morley Field with the goal of eventually depositing myself on a stool at True North Tavern, on 30th Street just south of University Avenue. This is a ritual I observe on Sunday mornings in the fall, one that centers on consuming NFL football. I order wings, have a beer or two, and proceed to march through the requisite (often moronic) NFL fan emotions. Rage, elation, dejection, confusion — I feel them all depending on how the Philadelphia Eagles are performing.
I often see my buddy Adolfo at the bar. He is a fixture there on these NFL Sundays. If you think you can scream at a TV when your team is playing poorly, you have not met Adolfo. His yells tend to slice through the other patrons’ conversations like a machete splitting a cantaloupe. Despite the near-complete predictability of the San Diego Chargers tanking on a given fall Sunday, Adolfo could not remain calm and contained.
But his days of over-caring appear to be over. In his eyes, team owner Dean Spanos’s act of moving the team from San Diego to Los Angeles was nothing short of an epic betrayal. To Adolfo, it was a stab in the back and a maneuver that has most likely soured his admiration for the franchise permanently.
“It was the fact that they actually never ever truly intended to stay here,” Adolfo explained to me. “The whole time, all these two years. Measure C: ‘Oh, we’re not going. We’re actually gonna come back for a year and really make it work in San Diego!’ This and that…it was bull crap. He’s been wanting to move to L.A. for, like, 10 or 15 years.
"The minute that the city put it to Dean that he was gonna have to throw in a little of his own money as well, he just tuned out. He tried everything to ultimately get to L.A. When he got an opportunity to go up there, rent-free, on the coattails of [Rams owner] Stan Kroenke, that was even better for him.”
Adolfo continued, “I don’t think it was any one thing that angered me. It was just the whole long, drawn-out process. Honestly, I’ve been following the stadium thing ever since 2000. For 15-plus years, just following the story, knowing all the ins and outs of it. To just, at the end, just really realize, Oh, he never really intended to stay here the whole time. It was just a charade. It was a bunch of bull crap. That’s what did me in.”
Adolfo has not only dropped off of the Chargers bandwagon, but also the entire National Football League wagon. He is particularly disgusted by the way the league is treating former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick due to the controversy surrounding his refusal to stand for the National Anthem during a series of games in 2016. He feels that Kaepernick is a “good dude” who can’t find a gig because he took a stand (by kneeling) for something that actually matters. He then compared Kaepernick’s situation to that of Joe Mixon, who was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals in the second round of this year’s NFL draft. There is video of Mixon punching a woman in the face and knocking her unconscious in July 2014. At the time, he was a running back for the Oklahoma Sooners. Adolfo’s frustration centers on Kaepernick getting seemingly blackballed by the entire NFL for taking a moral stand while a talented young player who punched women in the face is welcomed with open arms by the league.
“In general, with the NFL, I’m sort of done with it, I guess,” Adolfo explained. “I guess I will be going to the bars to watch most of the games, but I won’t be getting Sunday Ticket anymore. I will not buy any jerseys for me. I won’t buy any NFL gear for me. I won’t go to games unless my wife wants to go. Her NFL fandom I will support — for her.”
He concluded: “The NFL just doesn’t give a shit about you. NFL equals ‘No Fan Love.’ It’s such a corporate thing. I’m disillusioned with the NFL and how it really does its business versus the way they tell you that it does its business. I’m just fed up with the hypocrisy.”
So that’s one example of an individual who can be firmly placed in the “former” fan camp. Adolfo’s anti-Chargers slant certainly seemed to be the general vibe of the Chargers fans in San Diego shortly after the team announced that they would be leaving.
Though certain past losing seasons would have justified it for some, there hadn’t been a mass-burning of Chargers jerseys, merchandise, and memorabilia in front of the team’s offices in Murphy Canyon until January 2017, when the move was made official. To say the fans were unusually upset would be an understatement. But rewind to 2016, when the Chargers already seemed to have one foot out the door and were on their way to Los Angeles. The team had wiped any mention of “San Diego” off their official website before the NFL owners decided that the Rams would be getting the golden ticket to play in L.A. The Chargers were sent back to San Diego with their tail between their legs after striking out (at least the first time) with their L.A. fling.
And yet the fans still took them back. Will lightning strike twice in this department? Are local Chargers fans hopping back on the team’s bandwagon?
“My personal feeling on it is that I was, obviously, like a lot of us, against Spanos and his decision to go to L.A.,” True North manager (and still Chargers fan) David Villanueva Cabal explained. “But now that time has gone by, we still need a team to root for. Me, as a San Diego fan, all I’ve ever known is to root for the Chargers.”
True North is unique in that Chargers games are shown on one of two extra-large TVs, with the audio from the game playing in the bar as well. Even though there is currently bad blood in town regarding the Chargers, the establishment is sticking with showcasing their games as if they are still the hometown squad.
“We’re die-hard Chargers fans,” Cabal said. “We have to root for them, regardless of the city. We still represent San Diego as proudly as we do. That’s my take on it.”
The Los Angeles Chargers traveled to Colorado to face the Denver Broncos on a Monday night for their 2017 season opener. There were two games on this evening, and True North enjoyed a moderate crowd of 100–120 souls. I’ve seen Sundays with three times that many. One immediate observation was how few patrons came in sporting Chargers T-shirts and jerseys. Cabal, who primarily works nights, noticed a “significant drop” during the off-season when it came to customers wearing Chargers gear in the bar. From the looks of game one, it appears that this trend may be continuing into the regular season.
The Broncos started out strong in this game, and held a comfortable lead of 24-7 at the beginning of the fourth quarter. But then the Chargers started to mount one hell of a comeback. Quarterback Philip Rivers connected with Keenan Allen and Travis Benjamin for two late-game, unanswered touchdowns. All of the sudden, the Chargers were very much alive.
And so were their followers at True North. During half-time, Chargers fan Kenny Bolson explained to me how he had initially ditched the Chargers after they announced the move to L.A. but then returned to the fold while watching the team play during pre-season. He viewed the starters that he had once loved playing hard and found it impossible not to root for them. About 45 minutes later, the viewers in the main room of the bar seemed suddenly to snap out of the same funk he was in a couple months back. The sight of the familiar players in those familiar jerseys storming back against a familiar foe seemed to heal all wounds. The people were back onboard!
The fan numbers may not have even come close to generating the same sort of audible mass-roar that Chargers performances in the past would have elicited, but the room was certainly hyped. The biggest cheer of the night came after rookie kicker Younghoo Koo drilled a 44-yard field goal to send the game into overtime…or so everyone thought. In reality, the crafty Broncos coach, Vance Joseph, called timeout right before Koo had kicked the ball. Koo would have to re-kick, but everyone knows that “icing the kicker” is a desperation coaching maneuver that never works. The ball was snapped, Koo gave it the boot, and everything looked great for about five feet at which point the ball was partially blocked. It fluttered and wobbled to the left of the goal posts like a shot goose. The energy in the room dissipated. The moans began. What’s that old Bon Jovi lyric? “It’s all the same/ Only the names will change.” New city. Same old Chargers.
An interesting take-away from watching the game at True North is that old fans might be reluctant to wear Chargers gear. At sports bars, fans usually wear their teams’ colors — not only T-shirts but official game jerseys, which aren’t cheap. The powder-blue number 99 jersey of star second-year defensive end Joey Bosa sells for $150 on NFLshop.com. Cabal recognizes the reality that some fans who have jumped off the Chargers bandwagon might be upset with more than just the team and the NFL — they may be angry at fans who stay loyal to the brand. This could result in unrest at his bar on Sunday afternoons.
“I am concerned about a negative response, but, for the love of the sport, NFL…football…you’ve gotta get past this. We just have to move on from what happened. Like I said, we’re all Bolts fans,” he said.
Down the hill from True North, Ian Linekin, a managing partner at McGregor’s Grill and Ale House on San Diego Mission Road, just across Interstate 15 from Qualcomm Stadium in Mission Valley, offered his perspective on the issue: “I’m not afraid to show the game,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of the Chargers, but if there’s someone who wants to watch the Chargers… I think maybe they’re the ones who should be afraid to see what happens.”
True North’s Cabal feels that the Chargers fandom in San Diego will bounce back via a “solid group that are gonna be loyal Bolts fans” that will get the dissenters to rethink their position. He realizes it could take a while but thinks the feeling of forgiveness will spread. He will do his part to spread the love and encourage haters to return to the fold.
Cabal and Linekin are expecting big business via large turnouts on Sundays this season. In fact, the departure of the Chargers may help local sports bars in this regard: as former Chargers fans pick up new teams to cheer for, they likely won’t be able to catch their games every Sunday at home on CBS or Fox. So it’s off to the sports bar.
“We’ve always done well on Sundays, but we’ve always had a very diverse crowd of people,” Linekin said. “It’s San Diego, my friend. I think I’m the only person I know who was born here. You’ve got people from all over the country, and we have a big enough facility — 5000 square feet of viewing area and almost 30 televisions. We’re able to take care of just about everybody.”
Linekin definitely has his opinions regarding the stadium issues. “The Chargers left town; the NFL didn’t shut down,” he explained. “Quite frankly, I’m relieved that they finally came to a decision. Let’s do something with Qualcomm. These last two years with them dicking with the city has been a little more than most people can bear. For them to presume that a business will not survive without them in town is ludicrous. Anybody who has a business plan put together that relies on the Chargers playing eight to ten games a season shouldn’t be in business.... In May, I’m still paying my bills. My employees are happy. I’ve got a full bar out front. The Chargers are the losers here.”
Another local in sync with the Chargers-are-losers theory is Sean Farrell, a 36-year-old North County resident who runs the “You Know You’re A Chargers Fan When…” fan page on Facebook. Farrell works in marketing and social media, so when he started the page in 2009, he had a bit of a leg up on his competition. His page currently has over 57,000 likes on Facebook. That high number earned him access to the supreme hierarchy of the Chargers as they made an (apparent) attempt to stay in this city one last time with Prop C.
“I got invited to Chargers Park and met with Dean [Spanos] and [Mark] Fabiani,” Farrell said. “From the first meeting when I sat down with the Spanos family — it was Dean, Fabiani, Fred [Maas], and Alex Spanos — and they just didn’t seem very passionate at all. They were just going through these motions. It just felt like they had this whole plan to spark us hardcore fans who were activists and motivate the masses in San Diego and say, ‘Hey, look, we’re trying to stay,’ but all the while, they knew they were just gonna go up to L.A.”
He continued: “It was this big, blown-out initiative to build a new convention center. There were just so many hoops to jump through that they knew it would never pass. I felt like we were dragged through the mud here. The average fan might not see it, but as someone who was so close to it, I could see right through it.”
The entire ordeal left a bad taste in Farrell’s mouth and gave birth to keen anti-Spanos sentiment within him. It left the fan site in a state of flux as well. “It’s hard to figure out what to do with the page,” he explained. “Should I follow the team on the field or continue to criticize the move? I just kind of do whatever I feel like that day and leave it at that.” His page has lost about 4000 fans since the Chargers announced their move, a number that he says is “nowhere near the amount of fans the official Chargers page has lost.”
As far as the fans remaining on his page are concerned, he estimates that less than 10 percent still support the team. He did add that this minority is “pretty vocal about it.” Browsing the comments on his page supports this claim. Farrell’s fan site has transformed into the frontlines for the ideological war between current and former Chargers fans.
Take a post from June 5 in which Farrell criticizes ex-Charger Nick Hardwick for backtracking on a claim that he had “no interest in the Los Angeles Chargers” and wasn’t interested in working with them. At the time this was posted, Hardwick had just accepted a position as color commentator for Chargers game broadcasts. Past and present fans chimed into the debate with equal vigor.
Loyalists on the tame end claimed that Hardwick “had a change of heart” and “like most of us, has a family to care for and bills to pay.” Loyalists on the angrier end attacked the page for voicing anti-Chargers opinions and left comments such as “Page is so trash now...you’re like that crazy ex that won’t move on!” and “Get the f* over it you salty Fs … It’s a fing business ... get over it, they’re in Los Angeles now!!!!”
The ex-fans voiced their displeasure with Hardwick’s decision by painting him as a sell-out and Spanos supporter. “Another former Chargers player sucking on the tit of Dean Spanos. Lol,” read one comment, while another stated “Sell out... Money talks.” Perhaps, “Damn Nick, I really thought you were one of us” is the perfect illustration of the ideological divide. On the one hand, the former fans feel the players and fans should stay loyal to the city (“loyal to the soil” was a catchy phrase I observed while reading through these comments), while the main (and likely final) arguments remaining for loyalists have become “We are Chargers till we die. No matter where they play,” and “I support the players who are stuck in the middle and just trying to do their jobs.”
Fan allegiance to players may be the best hope that Dean Spanos has at retaining a significant number of Chargers fans in San Diego. He seems to realize this as well, and it’s why current and former players showed up at Chargers Day at Del Mar on July 22, minus the current owner. It’s why former all-pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson is back in the Chargers fold as the “Special Assistant to the owner of the team,” with duties such as “community outreach,” as in reaching all the way down to the community of San Diego and trying to convince ex-fans to give this team another shot.
Farrell admitted that he’s still a fan of some of the players and wants to see them succeed, but he “can’t support the family, the owners, the chairman — anybody involved because I just see right through them and see that they’re all about the money.”
Randy Deodat, a longtime fan who is switching his allegiance to the Arizona Cardinals, has similar issues with the Chargers these days. “I still love the players, and I’m a fan of [Philip] Rivers and [Antonio] Gates,” he said. “However, rooting for the team to win a championship for the city of Los Angeles is unsettling. That city has enough championship parades that have gone through their city from all the other professional sports teams that they have. San Diego doesn’t have any of that.”
Both Farrell and Deodat mentioned the Chargers Super Bowl XXIX run (after the 1994-1995 season) as one of their favorite memories involving the team. Farrell gave a detailed account of what it was like to be a kid in San Diego after the Chargers had just earned their ticket to play in the premier sporting event of the year: “I think it was 1994 when we beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh and the whole city, even the suburbs up here in North County, every house had a homemade Chargers sign out front. All the kids around my neighborhood were so excited. We went to Qualcomm Stadium and the whole stadium was full to welcome the team back that night — because we were going to the Super Bowl. I just remember how pumped everybody was. That’s what it’s all about for me. The whole community getting behind something and putting us on the map.”
As powerful as being put on the map was for some, being removed was more powerful for others. This was the case with Chula Vista resident Chris Jung. His wishes for the Chargers in Los Angeles: “I hope they go 0-16 every year, forever.”
One final note, I stopped in at the Sports Fever shop at the Fashion Valley mall. The store is your typical sporting fan’s haunt. Its racks and walls display team jerseys, hats, and T-shirts from all the major sporting leagues. Plenty of Chargers gear was still prominently on display. Employee Nicholas Cardwell informed me that in past years Chargers gear accounted for more than 50 percent of the store’s entire NFL inventory. This year, he said, that would definitely not be the case.
Yet the jerseys still hung there in seeming defiance of the city that, just months prior, had set similar items ablaze — #13 Allen, #17 Rivers, #28 Gordon, #54 Ingram. Will they all gather dust through the fall, or will disgruntled fans once more reconcile with this organization? Who knows? For now, stocking less Chargers gear seems the smart move.