Chargers Blackout: San Diego, Fans, and the Media

Well, the previously unthinkable has happened. Unable to sell the remaining 8,000 tickets for this weekend, the matchup between the Jacksonville Jaguars and San Diego Chargers will be blacked out in virtually all of Southern California. In recent year, blackouts themselves have been alien to Charger fans—the team has sold out 48 straight home games and has not experienced a blackout since November 7th, 2004, a game against the (then horrible) New Orleans Saints. What we have been treated to is numerous blackout scares and warnings, where we were told in ominous tones that a blackout was "imminent". This has lead to numerous sports talk show hosts and fans from other teams to question the dedication and loyalty of Charger fans. So why are the Chargers having trouble selling out their stadium and keeping the games on local TV?

The Economy

Yes, we’ve all heard about how terrible the economy is. What you may not know is how much worse it is in California than the rest of the country. Just as an example, the national unemployment rate is in the 9-10% range. In California, it’s up over 12%. The increased jobless rate, combined with a cost of living that’s among the highest in the nation, means that Californians are strapped for cash. Now on to ticket prices. Check out this survey, a study conducted by Team Marketing Report, a sports marketing journal. The Chargers rank in the top ten in the NFL in both ticket prices and Fan Cost Index. A simple survey of prices on Ticketmaster bears this out. The cheapest tickets left available to this Sunday’s game against Jacksonville have a $54.00 face value. That’s for Upper View End Zone. How about Jacksonville, the team the Chargers are playing? For their next home game against the Philadelphia Eagles, the cheapest seats left available have a $40.00 face value. The team the Chargers just played, the Kansas City Chiefs, have $30.00 face value tickets left for their next home game against the San Francisco 49ers.

NFL tickets are EXPENSIVE. Let’s say you want to go to a Chargers game with your friend, relative, or significant other. For the cheapest seats available, that would be $108.00 alone for tickets (plus various fees if you aren’t buying them directly from the box office at Qualcomm, like most aren’t). Then there’s parking at the stadium, which goes for $25 per car. So for two people to attend a game, without buying food, drinks, or souvenirs, the cost is already over $130. Throw that other stuff in, and you could be looking at over $200 to watch a football game. Yikes.

The fact of the matter is lots of us can’t afford to spend money on stuff like this. Maybe you have a nice job with lots of spending money and have had season tickets going on 10 years now. That’s great. I wish I was you. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t. Personally, I’m a 20-something who just finished law school, and am now trying to find a legal job in a market that’s shrunk rapidly the last 5 years. I love my Chargers, but my family and I don’t have the money to spend on stuff like that. I have a hunch that many, many Southern Californians are in similar circumstances. We love our sports teams, but don’t have the resources to go to games live. It sucks, but it does not mean we are any less of fans for it.

Opponent

No one likes to admit it, but the fact of the matter is that lots of fans of the away team show up at games. People like to rip on San Diego in particular for this, but it happens everywhere. That’s why in baseball, NL teams love it when they get home games against teams like the Yankees and Red Sox. They’re guaranteed sell outs. Those teams have massive national fanbases that travel well. In the case of the Chargers, the Jacksonville Jaguars just aren’t a big draw. They don’t have a large national fanbase, and they aren’t close by so it’s harder and more expensive for their fans to travel from Florida to San Diego. Fewer visiting fans means fewer tickets sold, period. We’d all love it if only home team fans were at our stadiums, but that’s just not the case anywhere in the country.

This is even more true in San Diego. Cities like Chicago, Boston, Detroit, etc. have a population that's largely people who have been born and raised there, and identify with the local team. That's not the case in San Diego. A significant part of the population is not native--rather, they're people who have moved into the area because of work, retirement, or some other reason. A lot of these people are fans of other teams. They aren't necessarily going to go to a Charger game just to watch the Chargers. They'll go to the game if their team is in town, or if it's a marquee matchup. Most of these people won't be paying to go watch the Jacksonville Jaguars.

There’s another effect that opponent has on attendance, besides just number of visiting fans: draw. As a sports fan, when I’m going to a game I want to pick whichever one is going to give me the most bang for my buck. In baseball, that means I want to go when my team’s best pitcher is starting, or our hated divisional rival is in town. In football, I want to pick a game that is going to offer the most excitement. When I look at the Chargers’ home slate this year, two games stand out to me: the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos. If I’m an old-timer and remember the days when the Raiders were good, I circle Raider week on the calendar as well. Everything else is "meh". If I am going to fork over the aforementioned $200+ to go to a game, I don’t want to see the Jacksonville Jaguars. I’m sorry Jacksonville fans, it’s nothing against your team, but I’m saving my money for the Pats and Broncos. Other fans feel the same way. In 2009, when the Chargers hosted the Broncos, Raiders, and even the Eagles, there were no blackout warnings. The opponent was one that drew a crowd. If the tickets were cheaper, or the economy was better, it would be a lot easier for fans to spend their money on games like this one. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Stadium

Stadium size affects attendance. Seems like common sense, right? The more seats you have, the harder it is to sell out. Qualcomm Stadium has about 71,000 seats. Let’s look at the seating capacity at the home venues of some other contending teams in the NFL.

Gillette Stadium, Foxborough: 69,000
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis: 66,000
Heinz Field, Pittsburgh: 65,000
Metrodome, Minneapolis: 64,000

The Chargers have a lot of seats to sell. Significantly more than these other teams. Reportedly, the Chargers were about 7,000 seats short of a sellout. That means they did sell 64,000 tickets to this game, which would be enough to sell out the Metrodome and come damn close in Pittsburgh and Indianapolis, probably close enough to get an extension and sell out the remaining seats.

This brings us to the Chargers’ proposed new stadium. According to plans given to the media, seating capacity at the hypothetical downtown seat will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 62,000. This new venue would be exclusively dedicated to football (Qualcomm never was intended as a pure football site), and be of a size that’s far more conducive to the San Diego market. Whenever blackouts are threatened, it’s always because of less than 10,000 seats remaining. This weekend it’s 7,000. In the past it’s been 2,000 or 3,000. With a new stadium, blackouts would never be an issue.

Fan Loyalty

This is the part that bugs me the most. Whenever the Chargers have issues selling out and blackouts are threatened, sports media types both online and on the radio love to rail about how bad San Diego fans are. They aren’t loyal enough, or they don’t care enough about their team to go to a game. Here’s a nice example from Andrew Sharp at SB Nation:

9. Does San Diego Deserve An NFL Team?

The easy answer here is no way. Not with Los Angeles 45 minutes down the road, and the season opener getting blacked out. I mean, even Jacksonville avoided a blackout for their home opener.

It's a down economy, there's a lot to do in San Diego, blah blah blah. There's no way you can spin this without the city coming off looking pathetic. There aren't 50,000 football fans willing to pay to watch a Super Bowl contender? It's one thing for the Jaguars, Lions, and Raiders to struggle. But the Chargers are good.

So it's sort of an open-and-shut case. San Diego needs to get it together.

That said... If you were looking for the "toughest contender to root for" it'd have to be San Diego, right? Dean Spanos, their owner, apparently has dreams of Los Angeles. Their GM refuses to pay key players on offense, and more important, just seems like an out-and-out prick. They mortgaged their 2010 Draft on Ryan Mathews, who had just 75 yards on Monday night. And their two most prominent players are Shawne Merriman and Philip Rivers.

The same Philip Rivers who had a full-on tantrum on Thursday. What a putz.

So I understand why San Diego might be lukewarm on this bunch. But even so... Imagine living in a city that's too apathetic to supports its football team. Having grown up in D.C., with one of the three best fanbases in football (next to KC and Green Bay), it's hard to imagine. But think of how depressing that'd be. To turn on the TV on a Sunday and watch... What? Replays of some motocross rally on Fox? Re-runs of Becker on CBS? It'd be the worst thing ever.

And San Diego fans deserve it. They have a good team; go to the games. Come on. Maybe they don't deserve to lose their team outright, but they definitely deserve a weekend of Becker and Motocross. Season opener blacked out? In the words of the immortal Bunk Moreland, "This is some shameful shit, Jimmy."

I’m going to ignore the potshots at management and Philip Rivers, and apparent general dislike of the Chargers. That’s not the subject of this article. What I am going to talk about is his disdain towards San Diego sports fans and Charger fans in particular. Guess what Andrew? There are 50,000 football fans in San Diego willing to go to the game. In fact, there’s more than 60,000 of them.

Personally, I don’t see why there’s a need for name calling. It’s hardly pathetic for people in an area that’s been hit harder than most by the down economy to choose to spend their money elsewhere. The fanbase in San Diego isn’t any less loyal or caring than in Washington, DC and Green Bay. Take a walk down the Gaslamp on game day, or even game week, and you’ll see hundreds of fans wearing Charger colors, shirts, and jerseys. Charger bumper stickers and license plate frames adorn cars on the freeway. Fans care. I’m even taking my spare time to write this article. Attendance isn't the only measure of true fandom, and people should stop acting like it is.

Blackouts suck. Fans don’t get to watch their team on TV. Sure, we have the radio, but it isn’t the same. Football is a visual sport, and it’s hard to follow on the radio. Even worse are the silly minutiae of the rules that result in nearly half of California being blacked out from Charger games, despite being hundreds of miles from San Diego. But let’s not go blaming or insulting San Diego fans. Things happen, and you can’t always afford to spend money on entertainment. We all wish we could support our favorite team by attending every home game, but the reality of the situation prevents that from happening sometimes. Instead of pointing fingers, let’s just do whatever we can to support our team, whether it’s by going to a game, wearing a T-shirt, or cheering while listening on the radio. That’s all we can do.

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