In retrospect, I think I knew this is how it would end up once the Chargers moved to Los Angeles.
Ultimately, what may be most surprising was that it took so long, and the series of events which coincided to help ease me into the hardest sports fan decision I've ever had to make.
It's one thing to just not root for any team. It's a whole other thing to decide you're ready to start that journey over again with a new team.
For me, that team is now the Miami Dolphins, and this post explains in some small part how I came to that seemingly bizarre decision.
How Fandom Has Changed in The Modern Era
This is kind of a roundabout way to get started, so I'll open with this minor bit of theorizing about modern sports fandom. Most of it is obvious, but I figure I'll lay it out anyway.
One part of the whole hometown rooting interest which persevered for decades was that sports media was truly local in focus, and faced little-to-no competition from the outside. The obvious outliers to this were the New York sports teams, which were able to develop national rooting interests because most national media was based in New York. Further, if someone outside of New York was likely to pick up one outside source of media, it was likely to be the New York Times.
Local newspapers and early local television had total control of the dissemination of news from the team, because they cultivated relationships with players and coaches who needed them just as much to sell themselves. Teams cultivated relationships with local media, because it was the best (i.e. free) form of advertising and building a link with their community. On the flip side, the team was able to benefit from the monopoly like media presence. If you grew up in San Diego during the 1960s and 1970s, you were highly likely to be a Chargers fan, simply because that was the team on TV most often, and that who you got the most news about.
NFL television broadcasts began to change this in the 1960s. Because of the emphasis on both showing local teams in local markets, but also enforcing blackout rules designed to force fans to attend local games, home teams still had near total control over their local markets. But, thanks to blackouts and Monday Night Football, national fanbases began developing for teams which were dominant in the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly, the Green Bay Packers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Next up, you had the advent of cable, with an emphasis on ESPN. For the 1st time ever, if you were a fan of the San Diego Chargers, but living on the East Coast, it was possible (through shows like SportsCenter and NFL Primetime) to actively follow the team from your hometown by seeing the highlights from EACH game. Not only did you get highlights, but in most cases there was at least cursory analysis. In other words, there was context provided to what you were watching which told you how your team was performing not just this week, but overall relative to the rest of the league.
Like I said, there was a genuine upshot as a fan, but for the first time, there was a significant downside to individual teams...
You were no longer the only game in town, and you couldn't just count on your mere presence to guarantee a fanbase. You had to start winning games.
This became exponentially more true with the introduction of the internet, along with innovations such as NFL Sunday Ticket and NFL RedZone.
The local market monopolies were finished. Individual fans could truly engage with sports leagues on a product/consumer level. Fans can choose teams from any location for any reason, and be just as informed and devoted a fan as someone from the team's home city. You see this borne out with a lot of people who don't live in San Diego who have remained Chargers fans following their relocation to Los Angeles.
In a sense, it doesn't matter where the team plays.
The downside is obvious. With the ability to choose fandom, teams have to win to guarantee fans.
For teams which aren't consistently winning, the next most important thing is treating the fans you do have like valued customers. Relationships with the media, treatment of current and former players, charity work in the community, uniform changes, stadium deals, all take on magnified importance in the quest to draw new business and maintain existing business
For all those reasons, I made the decision when the Chargers left San Diego that I would no longer support the franchise I had grown up loving.
I Made Some Refreshments, Dan!
Having said a moment ago that I grew up a Chargers fan, the next statement might seem incongruous.
Dan Marino was my favorite player growing up.
If you consider most of my elementary and junior high years, the Chargers were coming off the heyday of Air Coryell, and sliding into a protracted rut of misery which lasted from 1983 until 1992.
Watching Dan Marino and the Dolphins offense reminded me of watching Air Coryell.
Furthermore, I'll go ahead and say it - Dan Marino is the best pure passer I've ever seen play football.
Aaron Rodgers comes close, but there was simply nothing like it if you watched any of the half-dozen games or so each year when Marino was dialed in. No player ever seemed more unstoppable at his best (for example, the 1st half of the AFC Divisional Playoff in San Diego in January of 1995). If you caught Marino in one of those games, your only hope was to win a shootout.
Going further, Marino was also one of the very best at pulling off late game heroics. As a casual fan from a distance, these four in particular stand out - the season opener at Cleveland in 1992, the season opener versus New England in 1994, at home against Atlanta in 1995, and the Wild-Card win in Seattle in January of 2000.
As a result, because the Dolphins and Marino were entertaining (if not always good), they were on national TV with regularity. Oddly enough (as I alluded to above), many of the more memorable games I remember watching in San Diego happened to involve the Dolphins...
- There was my birthday in 1991, where I saw the Chargers beat the Dolphins 38-30.
- The playoff game I mentioned above, which resulted in a 22-21 Chargers win.
- A Sunday night game in 1995, which the Dolphins won 24-14.
- The home finale in 2015 (and the spiritual end of the Chargers in San Diego), with a 30-14 Chargers win.
When I played pickup games of football with my friends, I was decidedly un-athletic which left me an awkward fit, especially when playing defense. With a few exceptions - I was tallest among my friends, had a strong arm, and a quick release.
-jump forward many years-
All the relocation business had not only let me feeling like a fan without a team, but I had almost forgotten what I loved about football. In what must be a stunning coincidence, NFL Network's latest episode of the hagiographic series "A Football Life" just happened to be about Dan Marino. Accordingly, I set the DVR and watched on Friday evening...
While watching, the most wonderful thing happened. I forgot about relocations, piss-poor owners, stadium controversies, and was able to remember - in that amazing mythical slow-motion sun dappled way NFL Films does so well - what I loved about watching football. I was able to "just be a fan" again, and remember without compromise or complication what "just being a fan" felt like.
In a word, it was wonderful.
Letting Go of the Past.
This leads into Sunday's game between the Chargers and Dolphins at the StubHub Center in Carson. I had assiduously avoided watching the Chargers season opener against the Denver Broncos for a few different reasons.
I didn't have it in me to actively root for the Broncos, a team I have spent most of Sports Life disliking actively, if not with the vitriol I've reserved for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders.
I worried about seeing players I've loved watching over the years like Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, players I've met (and taken pictures with) like Joey Bosa and Hunter Henry and worried about being sucked back into old habits - like eating an entire box of Cheez Its in one sitting without considering I no longer have a teenager's metabolism.
Stupidly, I also wanted to believe I was past it all, as though avoiding something is ever the same as confronting it - and yet I couldn't help snarking about the Chargers' loss to Denver on Twitter, even though I'd only watched the highlights and based my impression of the game on the reactions of others.
I learned one important thing in all of this - I'm not built for hate watching.
If I was ever going to be able to consistently watch the NFL (generally), and see the Chargers as "just another team" (specifically), I needed to be able to see them as an opponent with some other motivation besides hate-watching.
As minutes counted down on Sunday morning, I thought a lot about how much I enjoyed watching that episode of A Football Life. I thought about that 1984 Marino throwback jersey in the garage, and the autographed Marino jersey currently without a place to be displayed at my house.
Everything was perfect. For the 1st time since the Chargers left San Diego, I was ready to be a fan again. And so, just before kickoff, I posted this on Facebook...
The first quarter of the game was decidedly awkward... rooting for a team with Jay Cutler at QB against the team with Philip Rivers at QB only added to the surrealism of the whole thing.
But it got better as they game went along. The Chargers, starting out as the Los Angeles team I hated because of ownership moving them from San Diego, became an LA team I didn't give a damn about. They became the Dolphins opponent. They started to become... just another team.
There was the twinge of nostalgia when future Hall-of-Famer Antonio Gates scored his NFL record 112th receiving touchdown - I was at the final Chargers game in San Diego when he tied the record - and I remembered many of the great moments he provided when the team was in San Diego.
I won't deny the tremendous feeling of schadenfreude when Chargers' PK Younghoe Koo missed a game winning 44 yard FG attempt with less than 10 seconds to play.
More importantly, I felt a whole other range of emotions I hadn't felt for more than a few years...
- I remembered how it felt to just cheer, without the baggage of San Diego vs Los Angeles, stadium crises, attendance trolling, or anything else which has accompanied the Chargers the last few years.
- I remembered how it felt to cheer when the team you root for steals a win.
- I remembered how it felt to be a fan without the conflicting emotions about the ownership, and the feeling of complicity by financially supporting their incompetence.
I want to make clear, I'm under no illusions. The NFL is a deeply compromised product, at the very least as it regards player safety, personal conduct, and (honestly) quality of play. The Dolphins are a deeply flawed team which will need every break to make another playoff run this year. The Dolphins haven't been consistently competitive for almost 20 years. I do like Adam Gase as a Head Coach, and (as someone who loves offense) I love watching his teams play offense.
Not coincidentally, I respect how after Miami and the State of Florida said no, owner Stephen Ross put his own money into a major renovation of the stadium where the Dolphins play (Joe Robbie Stadium also happened to be the 1st privately funded modern NFL stadium when it opened 30 years ago). Going further (regardless of how he may have personally felt), I also respect Ross for defending his players last year when some kneeled during the National Anthem in protest.
If there's one thing I've learned over the last 3 years, there's a huge difference between being a fan of a bad team (an experience with which I am intimately familiar) which at least tries to do the right thing, versus being a fan of a bad team which goes out of its way to make you feel bad for rooting for them.
In choosing to become a fan of the Miami Dolphins, I acknowledge it's also time to stop (or severely limit) taking potshots at the team I used to root for.
It's best to think of the Chargers as a long friendship which started in preschool, and lasted well into my early 30s before things became stale and toxic.
There was heartbreak along the way, but there's also some wonderful memories which I'll never forget. Those memories helped become the sports fan I am today. In the end, this old friend decided they had to go in a direction which I could not follow.
To my friends who are sticking with the Chargers in Los Angeles, I wish you all the best, so long as it doesn't conflict with my rooting interests. I'll keep following you all via Social Media, as I respect your football knowledge and writing skills. For those of you who followed me on Twitter mostly because I wrote about the Chargers, feel free to unfollow me now. No hard feelings.
Just as the Chargers have moved on, it's time for me to move on as well.