CARSON, Calif. -- In theory, an NFL team playing in the intimate confines of a soccer stadium should be an experience like no other. Even the least popular NFL team has a fan base that vastly outpaces what the MLS can even dream of (with the possible exceptions of Seattle and Atlanta, maybe Portland, maybe Toronto). NFL games are typically played in vast, cookie-cutter edifices of corporate welfare, with pumped-in crowd noise and attendees numbed by countess television timeouts, while the best seats are scooped up years earlier by personal seat licenses, much of those held by team sponsors who don't even use them. There are exceptions (the Packers, Browns and Seahawks come to mind), but on the whole, attending a game at an NFL stadium is an impersonal, transactional experience.
But take the same dulled 35,000 people and pack as many as you can into an MLS stadium, with its tight concourses and snug sightlines, and you can make some noise -- especially in an MLS stadium that already has an existing fan base and a history of excellence. And, theoretically speaking at least, when a team is making its debut in a new city, the second-largest city in the country, and is ready to roar to welcome their new charges, that building should be on fire. That building should be ready to rock off its hinges.
At StubHub Center in Carson, Calif., on Sunday, the Los Angeles Chargers -- who will be playing there until their new mall complex in Ingelwood is supposedly completed in 2020 -- did not take advantage of this unique opportunity to play top-level professional football in a stadium that holds as many people as Rupp Arena.
Much has been made already about the miniscule number of fans who came to the game, how they couldn't even sell out a stadium that sold out an MLS game against NYCFC just last month. But the reality is much worse than that. Because having attended that game Sunday, I couldn't help but observe that at least a third, maybe 40 percent, of the fans there were Miami Dolphins fans. The noise when Jay Cutler completed a pass was nearly as loud as when Philip Rivers completed one; the sound that came up when Chargers kicker Younghoe Koo missed a field goal that would have won the game for Los Angeles was as celebratory as it was dejected. And none of these sounds were very loud. The problem isn't that the Chargers can't sell out their tiny soccer stadium in their first game after moving from San Diego. The problem is that they wouldn't have come close if they hadn't been playing an opponent with one of the more dedicated fan bases in the NFL.
In this wy, the StubHub Center might fill the following role over the next four years: It's the stadium where opposing fans can come in, take the place over and have a party in the California sun. The Chargers have home games remaining with Kansas City, Philadelphia, Denver, Buffalo, Cleveland, Washington and Oakland. Every single one of those games, with the exception of maybe Cleveland, might end up being a sellout. But not for the reasons the Chargers would like. LA will end up being the minority fan base in their own tiny building.
Part of the problem has to be the rushed nature of this whole move. The Chargers sort of backed into the Inglewood stadium deal, and no one seems to have done any planning whatsoever for the next four years. Almost all merchandise available inside StubHub Center simply said "Chargers," rather than "Los Angeles Chargers," a flabbergasting mistake that led to almost every store being empty. I found a couple of T-shirts and a hoodie that said "Los Angeles Chargers," but they looked almost airbrushed, as if someone had taken an old San Diego Chargers sweatshirt and hastily spackled a "Los Angeles" on there. Part of the reason for this is that the Chargers don't have a proper logo yet, at least not a Los Angeles incarnation of it. You may remember the mockery that rained down upon the Chargers when they released their initial logo.
They discarded that one and still haven't replaced it. They've added an "LA" to their existing shield logo, which was what they showed on the video boards during the game.
LA Chargers logo at new practice field ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/bXfWtV1z43- Beto Durán (@DuranSports) August 24, 2017
But you couldn't find any merchandise with that on it. You could find a bunch of Junior Seau jerseys, if you wanted to carry that story on your back all day.
During Chargers games, perhaps inevitably, there are a lot of corporate kiosks in the open concourse areas, for condos, for PSLs at the new stadium, for various NFL sponsors eager to enter the Los Angeles market, at last. Perhaps most bizarrely, one kiosk, for Welk Resorts, was actually attempting to sell timeshares … in San Diego. I couldn't figure out if this was trolling, nostalgia, simple idiocy or some combination of the three. The kiosk was manned by three bored twentysomethings, checking their phones, occasionally looking up when they heard an unusual noise, maybe a fox in the distance, or a ferret.
This is all a bit of a shame, because StubHub Center is a fascinating place to watch a football game. There are no bad sightlines, and you're so much closer to the field that you ever are any any other NFL stadium, or most college football stadiums for that matter.
There are metal bleachers installed on the north side of the stadium, under the largest videoboard, that are connected by staircase to an excellent smattering of food trucks and beer vendors. You can imagine, in a scenario far more perfect than the current one, it becoming a common social area, where fans can stream in and out and mingle, watching the game from a vantage point that's basically unprecedented in professional sports. Look at this angle, where I took an Instagram photo yesterday.
I was in an open space, right under the scoreboard, with a cheap California beer, and if I wanted another one, all I had to do was turn around and grab one. That's probably the worst seat in that entire stadium right there, and I still felt directly on top of the players, with all the convenience I could want within arms reach. And there was no concession line. If you do not care about the quality of football -- and the Chargers aren't half bad, even if they keep finding ways to lose games they seemingly have in hand -- it's a terrific place to watch the game. Carson is a lot closer to Los Angeles proper than you might think, too. If you cheer for a team that is playing the Chargers on the road any time in the next three years, this place should immediately shoot to the top of your road trip list.
It also would have been a good intro for the Chargers... IF. If the Chargers had the Los Angeles fan base they someday hope to have, if there were a plan in place to get one, if you could buy a freaking Los Angeles Chargers hat or something, you could see this being a lovely, unique, endearing temporary home for the new team, much more personal and intimate than what the Rams have going at the Coliseum. But right now, the Chargers and the NFL look well on their way to squandering that opportunity. Maybe they'll figure it out, they'll see what this place could be and embrace it, do something fun with it. But the way it goes for the Chargers and the NFL, by the time they get a chance to take advantage of what StubHub Center could offer them, by the time they realize what a blast this place could be … they'll leave. And they'll have to start over. Again.
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