SAN DIEGO — San Diego pro football fans still can’t quite believe they lost their NFL team.
It’s been two years since their Chargers relocated to Los Angeles after 56 years in San Diego.
But now they have this – the San Diego Fleet, a new professional team in the Alliance of American Football that made its hometown debut Sunday at the Chargers’ old stadium.
And for at least a fleeting moment, it seemed like old times. The Fleet won, coming from behind in the second half to beat the Atlanta Legends, 24-12. Their new fans roared in the rain. They even saved a special chant at the end for Dean Spanos, the Chargers owner who decided to ditch them for greener pastures two hours up the road.
“Spanos sucks,” they chanted with less than a minute left in the game. “Spanos sucks.”
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Such was the scene here on the second weekend of play for the AAF. As the eight-team league continues to debut in new cities, here are five observations about the local game-day experience after a cold and wet night in Southern California:
►The fans are grateful, even though there weren’t many by college or NFL standards. The announced attendance at SDCCU Stadium was 20,019 – a number that appeared to be around double the actual crowd size. Even so, tailgate tents dotted the parking lot outside more than two hours before the game. Some just wanted another football fix after the end of the NFL season.
“We want football year-round,” said Steve Douglass, who was tailgating before the game. “We don’t want to watch golf.”
Others just missed pro football, period. Douglass’ father-in-law, Frank Chavez, said he missed the magic of old Chargers games and this was his chance to relive it as a former Chargers season-ticket holder.
He previously paid $95 per game for Chargers tickets but decided to upgrade to $125 club seats for the Fleet. “Next week this will all be full,” he said, pointing to the parking lot and noting that the weather kept many at home.
Those who showed up got loud when Fleet running back Ja’Quan Gardner scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to lock up the win. Fleet head coach Mike Martz said he could hear the pandemonium even though his headset covers his ears and blocks out most outside noise.
“It was a great fan base today,” said Gardner, who played college football at Humboldt State. “We knew they were excited to have football back over here.”
►There are no star players, yet. For $35, Fleet fans can buy a special T-shirt at the team store in the stadium. It’s an “Admiral Nelson” T-shirt, featuring a caricature of Philip Nelson.
Who’s Philip Nelson?
That’s what new Fleet fans have asked lately. Nelson was the team’s backup quarterback last week but became the starter on Sunday after last week’s starter was benched for ineffective play. Before Sunday, Nelson hadn’t played regularly since college, at East Carolina, in 2016.
But the league wants and needs stars to boost interest. Hence the $35 T-shirt with his likeness. Nelson completed 14 of 30 passes for 142 yards and no touchdowns with one interception.
►The players are humbled and not coddled. Standing next to his locker after the game, Fleet defensive end Damontre Moore politely spoke with a small group of reporters for several minutes as he dressed. Then he made a special request to a reporter for USA TODAY Sports. He said he hoped the reporter would keep covering the league and to “give us some love.”
Like other players in this league, Moore once played in front of big crowds in college (Texas A&M) and in the NFL. Getting attention from fans and media there easily could be taken for granted.
Not here. Players make a non-guaranteed minimum of $250,000 over three years, and many are living with roommates at a local Residence Inn. Moore opted to live with roommates at a local apartment.
There are no “cold tubs” or “hot tubs,” Moore said, referring to the amenities of the NFL. But he’s not complaining. He recorded a partial sack after recording five solo tackles in his first game. Now 26, he’s grateful to have a platform like this league to earn his way back to where he was. Last year, he was working 11-hour shifts at a Home Depot in Texas before being signed by the Oakland Raiders. The team released him late last year.
►Taxpayers aren’t being squeezed here. To play in this city-owned stadium, which opened in 1967, the league agreed to pay the city of San Diego an estimated $185,000 per game, including $25,000 in rent. This amount is designed to cover all the costs of staging these games and to keep the city from having to subsidize it.
By contrast, the Chargers had a much different arrangement. The city paid them more than $1 million in 2015 alone because of rent credits. The Chargers also basically threatened to move to L.A. if San Diego voters increased a local hotel tax to help pay for a new $1.8 billion stadium for the Chargers downtown. After voters rejected that in November 2016, the Chargers left.
The NFL’s popularity gives it this leverage – enough to blackmail cities and squeeze taxpayers to get the best deal it can. That’s not the case with a new league such as the AAF.
►The stadium prices are still like the NFL’s. It might feel like minor-league football, but stadium shops are still priced for the NFL. Hot dogs here cost $6. A 16-ounce Bud Light costs $10. Both prices are fairly high even by NFL standards, according to Team Marketing Report, which collects NFL concession prices. Parking was $20, which is low by NFL standards, but seemed a bit much for an AAF game with a huge parking lot.
This isn’t the league acting greedy, however. The city owns the property and has contractors to handle parking and concessions. The league only gets 10 percent of net parking revenue in excess of the first $150,000.
Despite the cost, the tailgaters made a strong showing despite the weather, just like old times.
“A lot of us here are old Chargers fans,” said Emmanuel Frijas, a former Chargers season-ticket holder who was tailgating in the parking lot. “We want to celebrate something. (The Fleet) is something to take a look at. We’ll see.”
Follow sports reporter Schrotenboer on Twitter @Schrotenboer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org