“For me, I like to try to say Chargers,” Gates said, standing along the sidelines following a training-camp practice here this week. “At this point, it’s kind of difficult when I’m talking. I’ve been saying San Diego for so long that I’ve got to get accustomed to saying L.A.”
So much has changed so quickly for Gates and the Chargers since Dean Spanos, the team’s chairman, announced in January that the franchise would exercise its option, granted by Spanos’s fellow NFL owners a year earlier, to join the Rams in Los Angeles.
The move is complete. The Chargers’ lease at their facilities in San Diego officially expired at the end of July and, after the team held its offseason practices there, players and coaches joined the rest of the organization for the opening of training camp at the Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa, Calif.
The Chargers upgraded the playing surfaces on fields usually used for youth sports. They handed out gift baskets to neighbors in a row of houses beyond the end zones at one end of the fields, separated from the crowds and commotion and noise only by a chain-link fence. They welcomed an estimated 5,000 fans to their opening day of camp last weekend. Chargers players were addressed by former Lakers great Kobe Bryant, who provided advice about being an L.A. athlete and fielded questions.
“I would say the early signs have been very encouraging,” said John Spanos, the Chargers’ president of football operations and son of Dean Spanos. “Our first day of camp on Sunday was tremendous. I mean, tremendous. Every seat in that bleacher was packed. Every standing-room area was packed. There was buzz. People clearly were excited. And that’s the general feedback that I personally have received when I’ve been in town throughout L.A., throughout Orange County. People are clearly very excited.”
The Chargers’ move has been disparaged by some observers who have contended that they will be an unwelcome, unnecessary second occupant of the lavish $2.6 billion stadium in Inglewood that they eventually will share with the Rams. But the Chargers are not conceding anything. Their practice fields at their training camp are surrounded by signs and banners trumpeting the marketing slogans, “Fight For L.A.,” “Fight for Orange County,” “Fight For Costa Mesa.” That fight is now on.
“In an L.A. market, nothing’s ever given to you,” John Spanos said as he watched a practice. “We don’t show up expecting a red carpet, expecting anything to be given to us. We know that anything we gain, we have to earn. And so that’s our approach. We have to work hard and earn the community’s respect and earn their trust, and we look forward to doing that. … L.A. is very massive. It’s really a city of cities. You have all sorts of different areas.
“And I think part of our strategy coming up to L.A. is getting feedback from the different areas. Not just coming in and trying to shove something down their throats and say, ‘This is how we’re gonna market to you. This is how we’re gonna do things.’ But, really, coming in receptively and listening.”
The Inglewood stadium is scheduled to open in 2020 after its unveiling was pushed back by a year because of weather-related construction delays. In the meantime, while the Rams play home games in the cavernous Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Chargers are playing at the cozy 30,000-seat StubHub Center in Carson. The Chargers have sold out their season tickets there for the upcoming season.
The quality of the on-field product undoubtedly will have a bearing on how quickly and how effectively the Chargers will be able to make headway with L.A. fans. Their hope is that seats at StubHub will become increasingly in demand and harder to come by, thanks to a successful team and a positive game-day experience for fans inside the stadium.
“Winning is the ultimate marketing tool,” John Spanos said. “There’s no doubt about that. Especially in a competitive market like an L.A. market, really, you have to win.”
The team has a new head coach, with Anthony Lynn having been hired to replace Mike McCoy, who was fired following a 5-11 season. Lynn inherits a defense led by standout pass rushers Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram, and an offense overseen by a still-reliable veteran quarterback in Philip Rivers. But rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, the seventh overall selection in the draft, is sidelined by a back injury that threatens to end his season before it begins. Some regard the talent on the team’s roster as playoff-caliber.
“I think all it’s about is winning,” Bosa said. “That sells the franchise, I think. As a part of the team, we’re all in it to win games. That’s what it’s all about.”
The relocation has been basically stress-free for most players, according to Bosa.
“It’s been relatively easy,” Bosa said as he readied to sign autographs following a practice. “I had the help of my mom, helping me move out here. The fans have been great. It’s not too far of a trip. So it really hasn’t been too hard. … I think it’s a great opportunity for anybody on the team. It’s a huge market. They love their sports in L.A. They love a lot of things in L.A. A lot of people, a big market — I’m excited for the opportunity to play in the city.”
Ingram was adamant that the franchise move has had little effect within the locker room.
“It’s cool,” Ingram said. “We come to play football. As long as we’ve got a football field and some fans, we’re good. The transition don’t mean nothing to us. We just play football.”
Even Gates said his new surroundings already feel like his football home.
“It does,” the tight end said. “The fans have been great, to the point where they welcome us with open arms. I think that was the biggest concern for us. Now we’re here. We hear the cheers. We hear the yelling and screaming. It gives you a sense of relaxation that you’re here. Now we’re just saying, ‘Oh, okay. They welcome us and they’re happy to have us here. We’re happy to be here. Now let’s just try to win a championship.’ ”
That doesn’t mean, of course, that there won’t be those who say the words “San Diego Chargers” occasionally in the coming months.
“I’m sure you will hear people slipping up this year,” Spanos said. “And understandably so.”