SAN DIEGO — Chargers fans knew for several years that this dreaded day could be coming, that their beloved NFL team might move up the freeway to tap the perceived riches of Los Angeles.
That didn’t make it any easier Thursday, when the San Diego Chargers ceased to exist after 56 seasons.
They’re now the Los Angeles Chargers, set to join the recently relocated Rams to give the nation’s second-largest media market two NFL teams for the first time since 1994.
Team chairman Dean Spanos, who tried to move to LA a year earlier, announced the move to his employees at a morning meeting at Chargers Park. At the same time, the team posted a letter on its Twitter account, which was rebranded as the Los Angeles Chargers.
Just like that, decades worth of Sunday afternoons spent cheering original AFL stars Lance Alworth and Keith Lincoln; Air Coryell guys like Dan Fouts, Kellen Winslow and Charlie Joiner; and on through to Junior Seau and LaDainian Tomlinson, became even more distant — and now bittersweet — memories.
The Chargers were born in Los Angeles in 1960 and were moved to San Diego the following year by Barron Hilton. They gave San Diego a unique identity, with the distinctive lightning bolt logo on their helmets and powder blue jerseys. Alworth, known as "Bambi," and Keith Lincoln, the "Moose of the Palouse," helped deliver the 1963 AFL title, the city’s only major championship.
In a statement, Spanos lauded the passion of the fans. "But today, we turn the page and begin an exciting new era as the Los Angeles Chargers," he said.
In return, fans lashed out at the family that bought the team in 1984.
As Spanos was driven to the airport to fly to Los Angeles to meet with civic officials, Chuck Homenick got close to the SUV and yelled an obscenity.
Homenick said Spanos’ decision was "pretty horrible. Born and raised here in San Diego and been going to these games, and just can’t believe they’re leaving," Homenick said. "I knew the decision was coming up soon and I was hoping they were going to stay. Business decision, but when it comes to money vs. fan support and loyalty, they’re not going to have much fan support up in L.A."
Joseph MacRae held a sign that read, "Alex Spanos would never leave SD! You failed us Dean." Chargers owner Alex Spanos turned over control to son Dean years ago.
"It’s really a dark day in San Diego sports history," said MacRae, 30, who wore a Chargers jacket. He said he’d been going to Chargers games since he was 7. "That’s what it was all about, September through December, football on Sundays."
Throughout the day, more fans gathered at Chargers Park. Many tossed jerseys, hats and shirts onto a growing pile in the parking lot. Someone tossed a helmet onto the pile and began smashing it with a piece of wood.
While many fans still supported the team despite several seasons of lacklustre performances, they were angry at Spanos for his scorched-earth tactics the last two years.
The move had been in the works for years, as a long, bitter saga failed to result in a replacement for aging Qualcomm Stadium.
The Chargers’ decision to move comes less than three months after San Diego voters resoundingly rejected team-sponsored Measure C asking for $1.15 billion in increased hotel occupancy taxes to help fund a $1.8 billion downtown stadium and convention centre annex.
The Chargers privately admitted they believed Measure C wouldn’t pass. Spanos had spent 2015 trying to get approval for a stadium in Carson near Los Angeles that the Chargers would share with the rival Oakland Raiders. That plan was voted down by fellow owners, but the Chargers were then granted the option to move to LA.
Civic leaders were angry at Spanos.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the Chargers could have worked out their differences on financing a new stadium but the team insisted on more taxpayer money than the city could ever agree to spend.
"In sports, teams win and individuals lose. The Chargers were ultimately never willing to work with us as a team so we could achieve shared success," Faulconer said. "Dean Spanos made a bad decision, and he will regret it. San Diego didn’t lose the Chargers. The Chargers just lost San Diego."
San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts said the Chargers quickly dismissed proposals by local leaders for a new stadium at the team’s existing site and launched a "quixotic quest" for a downtown stadium without any public input. He said voters wisely rejected the Chargers’ plans.
"We have a lot of great memories but, when it comes to the public treasury, there are limits to what you’re willing to do to keep something like this here," Roberts said.
"I can’t sugarcoat this. This is a very disappointing day for us. It’s a day in infamy in sports history here in San Diego," said Roberts, who turned emotional at times and compared Spanos to Donald Sterling, who moved the NBA’s Clippers from San Diego to Los Angeles in 1984.
Even San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman expressed sympathy for Chargers fans. "I am truly sorry, and you do not deserve this," he said.
"We had countless good-faith discussions (with the Chargers). Unfortunately, we didn’t have a good-faith partner," he said.
SDSU also plays football at Qualcomm Stadium. The school is interested in expanding onto the Qualcomm Stadium site, including a new stadium that could be shared with an MLS team.
Other pro sports teams piled on about a new logo the Chargers unveiled Thursday, an interlocking LA similar to the Dodgers logo.
It’s unclear if the team will keep that logo, but the Dallas Stars and Tampa Bay Lightning were among teams poking fun at the logo change on Twitter.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement that the Chargers worked "tirelessly" to try to find a stadium solution. "That work — and the years of effort that preceded it — reflects our strongly held belief we always should do everything we can to keep a franchise in its community. That’s why we have a deliberate and thoughtful process for making these decisions," Goodell said.
"Relocation is painful for teams and communities. It is especially painful for fans, and the fans in San Diego have given the Chargers strong and loyal support for more than 50 years, which makes it even more disappointing that we could not solve the stadium issue. As difficult as the news is for Charger fans, I know Dean Spanos and his family did everything they could to try to find a viable solution in San Diego."
The Chargers will become a tenant in the stadium being built in Inglewood for the Rams. Before then, the Chargers will make their temporary home at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson.