What Spanos done wrong: a comparison to two Wisconsin franchises

Well, it’s official: The San Diego Chargers will be moving to Los Angeles.

For my part, I just can’t get over what a shame this is.

It’s a shame because I know that the relationship between a professional sports franchise and its fans can be so much better than what the Chargers have right now. Full disclosure: I grew up in Wisconsin, and remain an avid fan of the MLB’s Milwaukee Brewers and the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

The comparisons of the Chargers with those two franchises aren’t entirely fair, but then, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to point to the core problems that the Chargers and their fans have in their relationship.

#1: The Green Bay Packers and the Commitment to remaining in one place

If there is one franchise that will never, ever be moved from its current city, it’s the Green Bay Packers . . . their fans won’t let them . . . literally.

It’s well documented that the Packers remain the only fan-owned NFL franchise, and therefore a decision to move the team would have to be approved by the majority of the over 360,000 stockholders holding over 5 million shares. Would a sportsfan EVER vote their team to move away?

So then the Packer’s are stuck, for better or for worse, in Green Bay WI, permanently. Now, I understand that this may not be the cause, and perhaps there’s a disconnect with the effect, but I would argue that this permanency is one of the main reasons why the Packer’s have such a rabidly loyal fanbase.

Consider the climate: Green Bay is a friggin miserable place to live during the winter months. While living in Wisconsin, I can honestly say that from November through early January, the Packers represented the main distraction from generally miserable weather.

Consider the stability: With the assurance that your favorite team will NEVER abandon you, it’s that much easier to allow yourself commit to the relationship.

I’m not just being a homer here. Indeed, Forbes used an objective set of metrics that ranked Packer’s fans as the best in the NFL, citing loyalty (as opposed to bandwagon hoppers) as one of the major criteria

And the Packers, as a franchise, have reaped immense rewards. Deadspin fell off of its chair in 2011 in disbelief for how easy it was for the Packer’s to raise money from their fans: Packer’s fans jumped at the chance to become new stockholders, quickly (and easily) raising money for Lambeau Field renovations.

Meanwhile, Charger’s fan’s have mutinied, largely saying “goodbye, and good riddance” as owner Dean Spanos threatened to move the franchise to Los Angeles. Their response is hardly shocking, because the Chargers represent a near opposite to the Packers with respect to commitment to remain in San Diego.

First of all, the Chargers have only been in San Diego since 1961, having moved there from Los Angeles.  This doesn’t exactly compare to the Packer’s existence in Green Bay wince 1919, but hey, 55 years OUGHT to be long enough to create both stability and loyalty. After all, I think most of us have a certainly loyalty, or at least an affinity for some part of the country, and San Diego is one of the easiest pieces of the country with which to start a  love affair. It’s gorgeous there! So then what’s the problem?

It’s not the lack of heritage, or the weather, it’s the recent ownership history. As evidenced by Dean Spanos’ 2002 letter to the San Diego Mayor, the Chargers have been threatening to move to Los Angeles for the last 15 years, citing the abysmal conditions of their old, outdated home turf of Qualcomm Stadium.

The message to Chargers fans was both obvious and menacing: buy me a bigger wedding ring (er, better stadium), or I’ll leave you. Does that sound like a team committed to its fanbase?

Admittedly, this is an entirely unfair comparison (Chargers and Packers). First off, the Packers have generally been a more successful team in the last 25 years, and further, Chargers fans have never had, and will never have an opportunity to own and control their team the way that Packers fans do: in 1960, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle changed the NFL constitution to prevent further NFL franchises from emulating the Green Bay model.  The idea is that there MUST be a principle owner which can be held accountable, or responsible to the NFL.

So then if Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos cannot get Chargers fans invested into the team in that manner, what can he do? He cannot control (at least, not entirely) whether his team is successful. This is where I think a comparison with the Brewers helps.

 

#2: The Brewers and the commitment to putting fans in the stands.

I haven’t always been a Brewers fan. In my childhood, I remember watching Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, B.J. Surhoff and Gary Sheffield propel the franchise through some years of hope, but after 1992, they failed to deliver a winning season for a number of years, plagued by injuries, poor finishes, and ill-advised trades. When owner Bud Selig pushed for a new stadium amidst this frustrating mediocrity, a lot of Brewers’ fans (myself included) rebelled. To most of us, the Brewers had become Selig’s hobby horse, a toy with which he played and abused when he wasn’t botching up his duties as MLB commissioner.

And the new stadium? Well, most of us regarded Miller Park as Selig’s attempt to build a monument to himself, and we didn’t want it. Indeed, we even voted to recall state senator George Petak because we were so angry that he had switched his vote on Miller Park, finally throwing his support behind a measure to tax SouthEastern Wisconsonites in order to help finance the stadium. Yes, we all went to Miller Park in 2001 in order to check out the new stadium, but after that, we went back to not caring about the team.

So what changed? Well, Mark Attanasio’s purchase made him principle owner in 2004, and he quickly made efforts to help Wisconsonites understand that he was committed to us. Not only did he quickly dismiss any notion that he had current or future ideas about moving the Brewers from the smallest market in all of Major League Baseball, but kept up his communication, penning other public letters to let us know that he had directed management to follow other small-market models (such as Oakland) in order to attain eventual success, but he also humbly pleaded with us to continue to come out to see the team, offering, for example, free tickets to the final game of the 2005 season, and free money to spend at the park during August of 2013.

These offers, Attanasio said, had two purposes: first, a “thank you” to fans for their continued support of the team, and second, a material way of saying “sorry” that the team had performed poorly.

Well, the team has only been marginally successful since 2004, reaching the playoffs only twice since then, but we let the Brewers and Attanasio know that we appreciated the attention, attending Brewers games from 2010-2016 to the tune about 18.6 million . . . good for a solid middle-of-the-pack ranking, despite being the league’s smallest market. And Miller Park? We’ve gotten past our initial hatred for it, and have instead developed an extreme loyalty to it, voting it the best ballpark in the nation not once, but twice . . . impressive considering that most critics usually place it in the middle or lower third in their rankings. Since he bought the team, Attanasio has seen the Brewers double in value. Attanasio gave us his loyalty, and we rewarded him for it.

And what has Dean Spanos done for Charger’s fans in order to gain their loyalty? Not much. Whereas the Brewers sold discount packages to games vs. the Cubs in order to minimize the impact of “Wrigley Field North,” the Chargers have merely refrained from raising ticket prices, failing to offer deeper discounts to season and packaged tickets. As a result, Chargers fans have struggled in recent years with the overwhelming presence of other teams’ fans, sometimes turning it into a visiting team’s homefield.

In toto: for failing to commit to the city of San Diego, for failing to earn the fans’ loyalty, for the semi-annual teams’ struggles and dubious front office decisions (e.g., many would question the handling of Marty Schottenheimer and Norv Turner), fans of the San Diego Chargers have largely become lukewarm to the team, and turned downright angry and ownership. Whereas Attanasio might apologize and offer something conciliatory, Dean Spanos has largely remained distant from fans, his communications usually limited to whether he has reached a decision to keep the team in San Diego or move them to LA. Understandably, these letters merely stirred the fans up even more.

The one time Spanos addressed fans’ frustration directly, he did so not by apologizing for the mistakes and the failures, but rather by bemoaning how difficult it was to deal with the fans’ anger.

What a shame. Nevertheless, the saddest part isn’t that Chargers fans are loosing their team. Indeed, it’s been difficult for them to love a girlfriend/team who is uncommitted to staying around. No, the saddest part is that Spanos thinks that he may be better off in Los Angeles. Spanos has already proven his incompetence as an owner in generating fan loyalty. After destroying a pre-existent fan-base in San Diego, how well will he do in Los Angeles where he has to start from scratch?

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