From reality TV to community action: Chargers work to find a foothold in L.A.
LOS ANGELES — Standing on the floor of the Inglewood Stadium, the two Spanos brothers looked around in wonderment at what will be the Los Angeles Chargers‘ new home in two short years.
“As we come here now, you can actually see the shape of the stadium,” said John Spanos, president of football operations for the Chargers. “Looking around you can picture all of the seats.
“The more and more tangible it becomes, the more exciting it gets.”
Inglewood Stadium is more than halfway complete, and Sunday its future residents — the Chargers and the Los Angeles Rams — will meet in a regular-season game for the first time since the two teams relocated to L.A.
The Chargers have found more steady footing in their second year after relocating from San Diego but know they still have work to do in establishing a fan base, especially with another team in town. Year 1 was filled with turmoil, including an 0-4 start and opposing fans taking over their temporary home, the StubHub Center.
“Obviously, we want the stadium filled with Chargers fans,” said A.G. Spanos, president of football operations for the Chargers. “We’re still new to Los Angeles and the challenge is the same; we’re still earning every fan’s respect, and we’ve got to start by putting a good product on the field and making it a great experience.”
Building in the community
On Sept. 24, 2017, six Chargers sat or knelt during the national anthem in solidarity with hundreds of players across the league, silently protesting as a response to President Donald Trump’s criticism of players taking a stand against racial injustice.
Afterward, the team wanted to do more.
In search of solutions to social injustice issues, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn and a group of players that included Russell Okung met on Tuesdays with representatives of the Los Angeles Police Department to talk about how the organization could make an impact.
The result? The Chargers implemented a social justice initiative in partnership with the city of Los Angeles, along with local boys and girls clubs in L.A.
Lynn didn’t stop there. In June, he could be seen deftly weaving his way around a field of football activities in dress shoes, with a group of kids in tow, during a community event at Lou Costello Recreation Center. The event kicked off the Chargers’ partnership with the City of Los Angeles and its Summer Night Lights program. The program helps keep city parks open late at night to create a safer environment for kids in the inner city.
Los Angeles Chargers Head Coach Anthony Lynn and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti pose with children attending the opening of this year’s Summer Night Lights program at Lou Costello Recreation Center. Entering its second decade, the program is dedicated to… pic.twitter.com/e0aJc2HrSH
— Eric Williams (@eric_d_williams) June 28, 2018
A lifelong Rams fans, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti was a little sheepish to embrace what he considered to be another city’s team when the Chargers relocating from San Diego.
However, Garcetti said the Chargers have become good partners with the city in support of a youth program geared toward underserved communities. He said the team is already building a base of fans in L.A.
“The Spanos family from the beginning sat down and said we want to be a part of this community, we want to be engaged in this community and we want to help this community,” Garcetti said. “And that really speaks to the heart of who the Chargers are. We’re so pleased that they are here.”
The Chargers made a three-year, $1.2 million investment in the Summer Night Lights program.
“From a marketing standpoint it makes good sense because it’s our truth,” said Jeffrey Pollack, chief marketing and strategy officer. “There’s nothing fabricated about the work we do in the community. It’s part of our DNA, it’s part of who we are and what the Spanos family is about in many ways.
“I always believe the best marketing is based in the truth. And just as the fight for L.A. has been a call into ourselves to do what we do, which is roll up our sleeves and get a job done, the work that we do in the community is also about what we do naturally and authentically, and what the team has done for decades.”
The Chargers also made a six-figure investment in the Boys and Girls Clubs’ STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program. These programs are part of the team’s effort to engage fans at a grassroots level to help grow support for the team in Los Angeles.
“My grandfather, he’s really the one that kind of sets the culture for our organization,” John Spanos said. “And from Day 1 when he purchased the team, family and community are things he always put a high importance on.
“He’s passed that on from generation to generation in our family, and he’s instilled it in our organization.”
Asked how his team could make some headway in carving out a fan base in the competitive L.A. market, Lynn offered a knowing smile.
“There’s one thing that will create more fans, and we all know what that is,” Lynn said, a nod to the need for the Chargers to put forth a winning product. “Let’s keep it real now, but this doesn’t hurt, though.”
Raising their profile
Along with the team’s effort to get more involved in the community, the Chargers have tried to raise their profile by creating Backstage: Chargers, a behind-the-scenes look at the team put together in a similar manner to HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series.
“Spectrum reaches a core L.A. sports demo, and that’s an audience we want to be talking to,” Pollack said. “And this partnership allows us to do that in a new way. To be on the same station with the Lakers and the Dodgers with our content we think is a good thing.
“The message here is we believe the Chargers are a team worth getting to know; we are creating an on-ramp for new fans in the Los Angeles market that goes beyond what happens on game day through the national telecast. It goes beyond the events that we have in the community. So this is about adding to that wheelhouse a new point of access.”
NFL agent and Los Angeles native Lee Steinberg says it’s working.
Steinberg, who grew up a Rams fan and whose clients include Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, said he has noticed a difference year-over-year. Steinberg attended two Chargers’ games at the StubHub Center since the team’s move to Los Angeles, including this year’s season opener against the Chiefs.
“Last year simply the physical demands of moving a team were really difficult, but I think they had a good training camp and were able to bring a lot of fans,” Steinberg said. “The fact of the matter is this is a massive market and they were helped by the way they played last season. A team is much better off if they are going to lose, to lose at the start and have a fast finish.
“So they ended the season on a very positive note. But if you’re watching a variety of different media, there’s more Chargers’ programming on, there’s more Chargers’ advertising and more promotional material, so yes they are making progress.”
Can L.A. be at two-team city?
Chargers defensive tackle Brandon Mebane notes they still have a long way to go. An L.A. native who attended Crenshaw High, Mebane said most of residents from his neighborhood remain Oakland Raiders‘ fans.
“Any time you move from one city to a different city, it’s a process — whether you have a lot of tradition or a small tradition,” Mebane said. “Pretty much everybody I grew up with are Raiders fans or Cowboys fans. People that approach you, they’ll support you because they know somebody that plays for an L.A. team. So that’s a good thing, that’s a start.”
Count Marc Ganis as a skeptic. A sports business consultant who closely works with the league on relocation issues, Ganis believes and still maintains that L.A. is a one-team NFL market.
However, Ganis acknowledged that things are trending in the right direction for the Chargers, and expectations are improving as they try to establish themselves in L.A.
“One thing which is obvious to those on the inside but may not be as much to those on the outside is how comfortable both teams are becoming in the L.A. market, and how the starting to carve out separate markets for each, as opposed to cannibalizing the same market,” Ganis said. “There does seem to be a distinction in the market place that’s developing on its own, similar to New York where the overlap between the Jets and the Giants is quite limited, more limited than people might think.”
Ganis believes the best option would have been for the Chargers to remain in San Diego, the Raiders to stay in Oakland and for the Rams to be the only team in Los Angeles.
However, Ganis offered a quick response on the possibility of the Chargers moving back to San Diego.
“That ship has sailed,” he said.
Instead, the Chargers are looking at how to make it work in Los Angeles for the long haul.
“The flywheel is starting to spin a little more and a little faster,” Pollack sad. “This year we can really focus on football, and we can really focus on the work we do in the community.
“We can focus on this incredible project that will be our home in 2020. And we can focus on the fan experience, which is where the focus should be.”
So what does Sunday’s game with the Rams mean in terms of establishing a foothold in the L.A. market?
“Make no mistake about it, we still want to feel like we own the California market,” Chargers tight end Antonio Gates said. “That’s just natural. The rivalry thing hasn’t got there yet, we haven’t played them enough. But we’re all in California.
“It’s like the Clippers and the Lakers, or the Angels and the Dodgers — you want people to embrace you as, ‘OK, that’s the best team in L.A.'”