Chargers vs. Raiders: Can’t We All Just Get Along?
Sunday morning came early to the lavish World Headquarters of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. As soon as the first rays of light filtered through the blinds, I was wide awake and headed for the Executive Locker Room to shower.
What prompted this burst of energy on the sleepiest morning of the week? I was going to an NFL game! The pinnacle of fan-dom, a fact that ESPN reminds me of every 6 minutes. As I brushed my teeth I found myself actually starting to care whether Brett Favre was coming back to play in 2012. Or 2013. Or…well, you get the picture. I was excited.
My mind wandered back to all of the enjoyable times I’d spent at NFL stadiums in the past – both inside and out, tailgating with friends. And as I thought more about it, I was genuinely surprised to realize that it had been over ten years since I’d been to an NFL game. My pulse quickened…
Many hours later, I rolled back into the IGTS Parking Garage, ascended to the Board Room and wearily slouched into an over-stuffed chair. In the ten years between my visits to the NFL, the product had, ahem…evolved, shall we say?
Commissioner Goodell, we’ve got a problem.
I had arrived at Qualcomm Stadium plenty early for the game between the San Diego Chargers and the Oakland Raiders. Having vague memories of growing a full beard while idling in line to exit the parking lot during my last visit to Qualcomm, I had parked a couple of miles away and taken the trolley to the stadium.
As the trolley rolled into view of the stadium complex, a veritable tent city became visible. As far as the eye could see were blue pop-up tents, accented by clouds of smoke rising from portable grills. I took a detour on my way into the stadium and wandered around in the revelry, mouth watering at every turn from the smell of cooking meat (and meat by-products). There were nothing but happy faces all around. Remember, I said I had arrived early.
Now I’m aware that I had chosen a rivalry game to attend, and I know that Raiders fans have a reputation for “making their presence known” when they visit another stadium. So I was attuned to the potential for the…exchange of contradictory opinions, shall we say. But not to worry – everyone seemed to be getting along famously. Have I already mentioned that I was there early?
Into the stadium I went, and this was where I was first introduced to pro football in the new millennium. There was a veritable blanket of security, and I went through not one, but two check points at which I received a full pat-down. Nothing says “fun” more than being frisked. Twice.
By modern standards, Qualcomm might as well be the Roman Coliseum in terms of appearance and amenities. Discussion of renovating or otherwise upgrading the stadium were already well underway when I lived in San Diego – in 1999. Those conversations clearly haven’t proved fruitful quite yet.
But there was one big change that jumped right out at me – an escalation in the number of outlets at which you could buy a beer. At $9 a pop. Then again, you really needed a couple of frosty ones to avoid thinking about what you just paid for a plastic bucket seat in a 1,497 year-old stadium.
In my case, it was $74 (plus the usual assortment of “convenience fees”) to sit halfway up my section in the upper deck of the end zone. Yes, these were the Cheap Seats. I can’t even imagine what it cost to sit in the “Sorry sir, you appear to be over your credit limit” seats.
In the lower concourse, life appeared to be good. It seemed that virtually everyone in attendance was wearing a replica jersey with the name and number of their favorite player proudly displayed. I couldn’t help but notice that the Chargers fans were sporting the jerseys of current or recently departed players, while the Raiders fans opted for more vintage jerseys. Jerry Rice. Tim Brown. Marcus Allen. Howie Long. Jack Tatum. Ken Stabler. Lyle Alzado George Blanda, for God’s sake. Evidently, the Raiders don’t actually have any current players.
Whatever the case, all was calm and harmonious. The Official Chargers Band played, and sporadic burst of “Let’s go Chargers” were offset by shouts of “Raiiiii – Ders”. All in good fun down there.
As I ascended the escalator and made my way around the upper ring though, there was a marked difference in the atmosphere. You could see the tension on the faces of the security guards as they prepared for their afternoon’s work. Up here the exchange of team-supporting chants were more like challenges – people marking their territory.
When I got to my seat I was amazed to find my section almost unpopulated, just 20 minutes prior to kick-off. I knew that the Chargers had been having difficulty selling out their home games all season, but I never imagined that it was this bad. Kick-off came and went, and still the upper deck was just over half full. And then the tail-gaters arrived.
Commissioner Goodell, (admit it – you rarely miss an IGTS post) I know that you are an intelligent man. But I’m afraid you’ve had the wool pulled over your eyes. See, despite what your good friends at Anheiser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors might have told you, not everybody that drinks beer remains the charming, quick-witted character that populates every beer commercial. Some of them actually become belligerent after their first six-pack. Weird, I know.
The first brawl came in the break between the first and second quarters. It was not an isolated incident. Throughout the game the air was continuously full of profanity-laced tirades spewing from heavily tattooed bodies and angry mouths. And the guys were even worse.
By the two-minute warning of the first half, police were permanently stationed at the foot of each section in my end zone. On a regular basis, they would wade up the stairs and come back down with some staggering soul who was often already in handcuffs.
But in the spirit of fairness, let’s look at this from the perspective of these fans.
First of all, in the A-Z Fan Guide that the Chargers publish on their web site it clearly states “We strongly encourage fans to arrive at least two hours before game time.” The stadium lots open at 9:00 AM for a 1:00 PM game, and they “can be expected to reach capacity and close an hour before kick-off.” So once you’re on site, you’ve got some time on your hands. What to do? What to do…?
But in comparison to the time given over to television time-outs during the game, that four hour pre-game window is a relative eye-blink. I’m sure that people that have regularly frequented NFL games over the years haven’t really noticed the gradual increase, but with over a decade intervening between my last two visits I was stunned at how much more dead time now exists. Clearly the advertising folks at the NFL have been effective at selling commercial time, bless their enterprising little hearts.
Unlike a baseball or basketball game however, a football game does not lend itself to fan promotions and interactivity during time-outs. So the fans in the stands spend an inordinate amount of time staring at a bunch of players standing around waiting to start playing again. What to do? What to do…?
I got it! Let’s have a beer and talk it over!
I truly felt badly for the father who had brought his young son to the game. Arriving well in advance of kick-off, they sat right in front of me and reveled in their surroundings. It was clearly the kid’s first NFL game, and his Dad was proud to be his host. They were gone by half-time.
That got me to thinking. I took a lengthy look at the portions of the stadium within my view (hey, I had plenty of time) and became genuinely surprised at how few kids were in attendance. The next generations of NFL fans, at least on this day, had taken a pass on pro football.
And I myself couldn’t wait to leave. As a veteran of fan ingress and egress set-ups, I can spot a looming bottleneck a mile away. From my seat high above the field, I could see the line already forming for the trolley at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Had the game been remotely entertaining I might have felt differently, but the Raiders punched in three early touchdowns and controlled the contest throughout. There were a lot of punts, which translated into a lot of TV time-outs – on top of those already scheduled into the broadcast. When the Raiders scored to go up 28-13 with five minutes left, the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt, so I made up my mind to “beat the traffic” and started literally running down the ramp to the exit.
And thankfully my efforts paid off, for it took me “only” an hour to board the trolley and travel the two miles to my car. Other less proactive people may still be standing in line, for all I know.
I feel like I’ve lost an old friend. I’d always loved the NFL game day experience. Heck, I even proposed to The Bird while tailgating prior to a Carolina Panthers game (as romantic as that may sound). But things have clearly changed.
A work stoppage is almost a certainty for the NFL next year. Both the owners and the players have already drawn up clear battle lines. But I’m one step ahead of them. I am on a permanent NFL Fan Strike.
Next Up: Smallball – 8-Man High School Football