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Around the time the Chargers were using threats to sell tickets to their Monday Night Football game against the Indianapolis Colts, I got into a Twitter debate about San Diego’s sports fans. This is not a rare occurrence. What is rare is that I walked away from the debate feeling like I had solved a riddle. Allow me to explain.
For years, many have tried to find reasons for the poor attendance at Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park. There were the easy answers, such as the fans hating the coach, or the team not having star players on the roster, but those are easily dismissed. Plenty of fan bases sell out game after game for a bad team with a worse coach, such as Romeo Crennel’s Kansas City Chiefs, or the 2013 Philadelphia Phillies.
How about the theory that there is so much to do in San Diego that not as many people will choose to go to games? Well, the sunny beaches probably don’t have much to do with the Padres having 30,000 empty seats on a Wednesday night, and they didn’t have much to do with the Chargers’ inability to sell out the game against the Colts. Also, the other side of that theory is that fans flock to games in areas where there isn’t much else to do. But that doesn’t explain why the Kansas City Royals and Buffalo Bills rank among the worst in their respective leagues in percentage of tickets sold to their games.
I know why the fans aren’t filling up the stadiums in San Diego, and I can thank a random tweet for giving me the best term to describe it. San Diego sports fans need emotional anchors. An emotional anchor is a memory, not just of a night but the experiences of an entire season or longer, that continually brings them back to their favorite teams. Something that won’t let them move on.
I could never love another baseball team, because no baseball team would ever be able to give to me what the 1998 San Diego Padres gave to me. Not knowing much about sports, my father purchased season tickets for him and I, and I learned what the game meant every night. I learned how to play center field by watching Steve Finley. I learned how to hit from Tony Gwynn, and how to hit home runs from Greg Vaughn. I learned how infectious good pitching can be from Kevin Brown. I learned that Jim Leyritz is magic. I learned, from Ken Caminiti, how to make each play and play each game as if it was your last.
I’ll never forget the night the Padres clinched the division against the Dodgers, with 60,000-plus fans swinging their free T-shirts in unison. I’ll always remember the hot chocolate and the cookies my dad bought from the concession stand for me on cold nights. I learned what heartbreak was for the first time by watching the New York Yankees celebrate their World Series victory on the field in front of me.
While I didn’t go to church much during my teenage years, I had my own Sunday tradition. Surrounded by my dad, my uncles and my grandfather, watching a small TV in my grandparents’ living room, I learned how to love a bunch of losers. I watched a rookie running back turn into a Hall of Famer right before my very eyes. I saw a basketball player trying to play tight end, eventually becoming one of the most skilled players to ever play the position. I cheered on the Chargers for 16 weeks while they finished 1-15. A few years later, I flew across the country to make sure I was with my family to watch as San Diego narrowly missed going back to the Super Bowl.
These are the emotional anchors that will forever tie me to these franchises. These are the bonds that take a person from a casual fan of a sports franchise to a diehard fan, someone who will support the team through all of the ups and downs for the rest of their life. These types of memories are the ones that fill the seats when the team isn’t winning games.
The Padres can change their colors, they can move the fences and they can buy free agents, but they’re not going to turn this generation of casual fans into the die-hard fans that every team needs until they can get to the playoffs and win a playoff series. The Chargers bought some goodwill from the fans by firing A.J. Smith and Norv Turner, and replacing them with the amiable Tom Telesco and Mike McCoy, but those fans haven’t had an emotional anchor to bring them back to the team in five years. For fans of the Padres, it’s been 15 years.
It’s not up to San Diego sports fans to start supporting their team. They don’t have much reason to. What drives the best sports fans is their hearts, and the anchors attached to them. Unfortunately for the Chargers and Padres, the anchors of their franchise seem to be nothing but a distant memory.