On the one hand, the Chargers are having trouble establishing themselves in the Los Angeles market and the franchise’s future there has been a topic of discussion among NFL owners. On the other hand, the Chargers are locked into a 20-year lease that hasn’t even started yet because the stadium they will share with the Rams in Inglewood is under construction, so they’re set in Tinseltown until at least 2040.
On the… uh… third hand, it does not matter where the Chargers play. Not in the nihilistic way that nothing matters now anyway and we’ll all be dead by 2040, but in the way that it does not matter where any NFL team plays.
Through three home games this season, the Chargers have drawn a total of 76,110 fans to their temporary home in Carson, which would be less than the average single-game attendance of five NFL teams. At the same time, the Chargers are operating at 94% capacity at that stadium, a figure that ranks a modest 25th in the 32-team league, but isn’t far off the median figure of 96.8%. By announcing lower ticket prices than the Rams for Inglewood, the Chargers are trying to ensure that when they reach their permanent home, they continue around the same rate of empty seats.
The important part here is not the revenue, but the recognition of the importance of people attending football games as part of the experience for the people who really drive the football business: people watching football games on television.
Under the current rights deals, the NFL makes more than $5.5 billion a year from television or a little north of $172 million a year per team. To match that take at a 70,240-seat stadium like the Chargers and Rams would share, a team would need to sell every single ticket for an entire season at an average price of $306. The balance of importance shifted long ago to making TV partners happy, and the reason it remains important to get fans to the stadium is that sports look way better – and football looks a million times better – when played in front of a full house.
This year’s worst attendance in football, by the rate of seats filled, belongs to Washington at 72.1%, a figure that would rank 13th in baseball, right behind the Colorado Rockies. Forget for a moment the inherent differences between football and baseball in both stadium size and frequency of games, and consider that the least full you’ll see an NFL stadium is a little less full than you’ll see the stadium of an MLB playoff team, and what that means when it comes to the television presentation of both leagues. The NFL has serious problems, including an existential crisis in which it increasingly appears that merely playing the game shortens and worsens the lives of the people who play it, but the sport that is forever “dying” in the media narrative is baseball, whose top-drawing team by stadium occupancy rate, the St. Louis Cardinals at 95.6%, would be tied for 20th in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.
As long as an NFL team can fill its stadium, looking good for television to keep those huge contracts coming – the current deal runs through 2022 – that team is viable. The Chargers, charging less for tickets than their stadium co-tenants, in the second-biggest market in America, should be able to do that, and let’s be honest, you’ll still be calling them the “San Diego Chargers” for at least as long as they’re in Los Angeles.