As a Brit, the first football I was introduced to was, you know, the one that you actually use your feet for. 'Soccer' was my first sporting love, and I was kicking a soccer ball around as soon as I could walk. It's comparable to a religion in Britain - in fact, I may need to sleep on someone's couch for a while because just calling it 'soccer' is a crime punishable by banishment.
I didn't actually start following the NFL closely until 2013. There was a steep learning curve, sure. One of the things that struck me as odd was the notion of a team 'moving' somewhere else. How can a team just decide to pack their bags and leave? It turns out that franchise relocation is a very viable solution to a problem that doesn't really exist. Even worse - it's acceptable. Unless you're a fan of the team threatening to move hundreds - or thousands - of miles away, oh well. It's the owner's team, not the city's. They can do what they want.
That's not the case in soccer. You know why soccer fans don't accept relocation? Because it's not a topic that ever comes up in the first place. The concept of just moving a team to a newer, bigger market is completely alien.
As far as I'm aware, only once in modern history has an important soccer team relocated when Wimbledon moved 80 miles away to Milton Keynes in 2004. I'll try to summarize that story as succinctly as I can.
Wimbledon was a reasonably successful English soccer side, who had made it to the highest division in English soccer - surprisingly, as they had been in the fourth division not long beforehand. Their stadium was still the same as it had been when the team was much less successful, which meant that it wasn't suitable for the standard of soccer the team was playing. They were forced to look for a new stadium in 1990 when the Taylor Report was published after the Hillsborough Disaster, which declared stadiums like Wimbledon unfit for use.
After discussions with the local council stalled (sound familiar?), Wimbledon's owner decided to look into the possibility of moving the team elsewhere. Dublin - in Ireland - was explored as an option but met with extreme backlash from everyone concerned. Even when Wimbledon's owner essentially bribed the Irish Soccer Association with money and new facilities, the Dublin plan was firmly rejected. Whilst this was going on, however, a new 30,000 seater stadium had been planned in Milton Keynes. For the first time, though, this wasn't a stadium for an existing team. The men behind the new stadium were hoping that, rather than investing in a local team, they could bring a team to them, and thus help their plan to develop a stadium get passed.
Wimbledon FC was sold to new owners - owners who had no interest in soccer. They announced plans to investigate relocating to Milton Keynes, and moving into the new 30,000 seater stadium built without a team. After nearly two years of a heavy legal battle, the move was eventually sanctioned. Wimbledon was moving to Milton Keynes in an unprecedented move in English soccer. Never before had a team been stripped away from their home, and moved to a completely different location purely because there seemed to be a bigger market available.
The move might have been legal, but that doesn't mean people accepted it. Wimbledon FC fans refused to continue supporting their team - after all, it was their team based in their home. When they moved, that ceased to be the case. Wimbledon FC - or, as they were now known, MK Dons - were dead to them. Instead, the fans formed a new team, known as AFC Wimbledon - who had to start from scratch, playing soccer seven levels below the division that the MK Dons were in.
Despite the vast difference in quality between the two teams, the difference in fan support was clear. MK Dons had an average attendance of less than 3,000 whilst the club were waiting to officially move to Milton Keynes - most of whom weren't even their fans, but fans of the opposing team who had traveled to watch. AFC Wimbledon, however - playing at a level so much weaker (the best way I can describe it would be to compare a good college football team to a random high school team) were averaging attendances of over 3,700.
Things didn't go very well for Milton Keynes once the move was complete, either. They finished bottom of their division in their first season in Milton Keynes, with barely 2,000 home fans in their 30,000 seater stadium in some games. AFC Wimbledon, on the other hand, were extremely successful. So successful, in fact, that at the start of the new soccer season, they'd climbed all the way up the soccer ladder, and were now back where they deserved to be - in the same division as Milton Keynes.
Wondering how Milton Keynes are viewed in the soccer world? Here is a collection of tweets from random soccer fans:
Good luck to the real Wimbledon today against the franchise from MK. #AFansClub— Alan (@Guinness_Alan) December 10, 2016
Hope Wimbledon hammer MK franchise today— Jimboburrell (@GULLITFANCFC) December 10, 2016
Seeing MK Dons fans at Strood, how anyone can support that scum franchise is beyond me— sam (@samfrancisss) December 17, 2016
As the title of this article states, soccer despises relocating teams. To date, Milton Keynes are the only major ones in the sport, and it's no surprise that they're amongst the most hated teams in all of soccer (despite being mostly irrelevant), whilst AFC Wimbledon is viewed as the heroes - the fans who fought back against their owners and won.
So why is the NFL not like soccer?
Sure, the NFL only has 32 teams whereas anyone can make a soccer club, in any place. But why does that mean that ripping a team away from their city is not only accepted but considered the right thing to do?
The San Diego Chargers have virtually no history in Los Angeles - but Los Angeles is a big market. It doesn't matter that fans are the lifeblood of the NFL. Fuck the fans in San Diego. There are new fans to be made in LA, right?
For Dean Spanos, relocating to LA might be the right business move - but this is about so much more than business. This is about the identity of a city. This is about a game that unites people together. This is about every child growing up, taken to their first NFL game with their parents, and falling in love with the team - their team.
Dean Spanos might own the Chargers in name, but the franchise would be absolutely nothing without the fans who pour their life and soul into supporting the team through the good times and the bad.
Or should that be poured?
It seems pretty certain that the Chargers are going to be playing in Los Angeles sooner rather than later. After all, the Chargers have tried so hard to explore every possible avenue in San Diego. They even gave the city a chance to vote on a proposal that meant paying absolutely nothing and getting to keep the team! The city voted against them. Well, guess that proves they don't want the Chargers here. Time to move to Los Angeles.
Dean Spanos has treated the Chargers - and their fans - like something he found on the bottom of his shoe. He's a villain to the city, and won't be welcome back in San Diego any time soon. But - at the end of the day - Spanos is simply taking advantage of a system that is there to take advantage of.
If you run a team in a sport that freely encourages ignoring your fans to chase the profits, why - as a businessman first and foremost - would you do anything else? Especially if the team is just something handed down from daddy, and your only real asset.
Don't come away from this article thinking that I support Dean Spanos. I don't. I despise him. He can try to push as much propaganda as he wants, but he gave as much effort in keeping the Chargers in San Diego as Mike McCoy did in trying to beat the Raiders. He saw the dollar signs flash in his eyes, and that was it. Bye bye, San Diego. At the end of the day, however, the reason the Chargers are moving to Los Angeles is that the system is flawed.
Fuck you, National Football League. You're a billion dollar enterprise, but one that's worth absolutely nothing without fans. That's not fans in terms of loyalty, though. The truth is, every single one of us is viewed by the NFL as a sum of money, rather than a person. If your city doesn't have enough money, that's too bad. Somewhere else will.
Every single one of you has a story about why you became a fan of the Chargers. Most of the answers will be along the same lines, though. Why wouldn't you be a fan of them? They are your team. They were. Not anymore.
Go ahead, NFL. Go ahead and chase the money. Stab your old fans in the back and trample on their dead bodies. They're no use to you anymore. One day, relocation may become a thing of the past in the NFL. All it would take is enough of a fan backlash. After all, that's what happened in soccer.
Unfortunately, that day isn't coming any time soon. San Diego is dead to the NFL.
Just like the NFL is dead to much of San Diego.
I repeat: Fuck you, NFL. Fuck you.