The Chargers left a gaping hole in East Mission Valley.
For a city so well-established as “relaxed” or “disinterested” about their sports teams, the Chargers sure seemed to have a real grasp on the city’s psyche. I didn’t move here until they’d been well gone, having already spent a full season in LA by the time I was in town. The verdict is out on whether the Chargers are LA’s team now, but they’re definitely not San Diego’s anymore. I still see a few Charger logos on truck bumpers, and my apartment complex still hosts watch parties for each Charger game, but these feel like ghost sightings more than the secure acceptance of a home team that the Chargers once represented.
I’ve met people who make the drive up to Carson for Charger games, and I’ve met people who have nothing but vitriol for the team they once called theirs. Positively or negatively, people in San Diego feel intensely about the Chargers.
But their absence does not keep away the desire for football. San Diego State now holds the reins in town – Where Charger banners once adorned lampposts on Friars Road, Aztec banners stand. San Diego State won a ballot initiative to build a new stadium in the space of the current one. Yet, for the time being, Old Jack Murphy still stands, and somebody’s gotta pick up the slack provided by the giant, empty beast that Junior Seau, Dan Fouts, and Tony Gwynn once called home.
Enter the Alliance of American Football, a minor league which began play only three weeks ago. The strategy of the AAF has been fascinating – They’ve placed teams in cities that make geographic sense – Five of eight teams in SEC country, two of eight teams in established NFL cities, four of eight teams in stadiums that formerly hosted NFL teams. They’ve specifically picked up players with prolific college careers – Trent Richardson in Birmingham, Zach Mettenberger in Memphis, Joel Lanning in San Antonio.
Enter the San Diego Fleet. The Fleet came into San Diego with limited fanfare. They have a yellow and gun-metal gray color scheme and their logo is a boat. Their brand is what I assume that tweet about the troops putting together a football team from a few years back was imagining.
They have a few billboards scattered around town and a banner on the side of the stadium. As anyone I know would attest because I talk about it all the time, they practice in an empty field that I can see from my trolley stop, and I find this very funny. They’ve signed a couple of San Diego State and University of San Diego alums, but otherwise they’ve been relatively quiet as far as public consciousness goes.
The Fleet’s first home game took place last Sunday, during a light rain. Because of this, I decided to hole up in my home with a tarp over my head instead of attending the game. This weekend was different, it was sunny, if a bit cold: kind of perfect weather for football. Me and my girlfriend decided on a whim to attend the Fleet’s second home game, this one against the San Antonio Commanders, a team coached by famously nice man Mike Riley.
This was a unique experience, if nothing else. I’ve attended only one professional football game, a Kansas City Chiefs game during the winter of 2014. The NFL experience is strange. NFL Football means so much to so many. That passion brings joyousness, sure, but it brings just as much tension, if not more. More fans around me in the Arrowhead seats seemed worried about the team losing than they were excited for a potential win.
It makes sense – A lot of NFL fans have had a love for their team embedded in them practically since birth. For many Americans, an NFL team is a defining cultural product as much as it is an entertainment product. It belies a sense of desire, necessity, a sense that unfortunately outweighs the sense of just having a good time watching a sport.
This is the value of a team like the Fleet. They provide a respite – In a post-Spanos San Diego, there’s still a desire for professional football, but there’s no way to get too embroiled in the successes and failures of a three-week old franchise. This created a cathartic, joyous, hilarious crowd that, while dwarfed by the number of empty seats in the old Q, showed up and had a fantastic time.
There was little hatred for the Commanders of San Antonio – Though the Fleet president came out before the game and threw a Commanders jersey in a trash can – and there was little anger when the Commanders scored immediately as the game began. When the Fleet began to take control, with a lengthy touchdown drive and an interception returned for a touchdown, we cheered. As the collective crowd began to get a few more drinks in them, cheering became more raucuous . (Note: Cutwater Spirits out of San Diego has created the most dangerous drink in the history of mankind, an actually very tasty margarita in a can at 12% ABV that had me feeling like I was walking on air)
Chants began to break out – Repeatedly yelling “Fleet! Fleet! Fleet!” and shouting “Fleee-eeet” like a foghorn along with the traditional “SPANOS SUCKS”. The small subsections of fans packed into the corners and ends of the stadium really made our own atmosphere. There were no cheerleaders, no mascot, and very little theming from the team itself. Any videos intended to pump the crowd up were displayed on the fascinatingly small for the current era video board so it’s not like much attention was paid. This game presented a democratized fan experience, one mostly created from the simple joy of watching a game. That’s become increasingly rare in professional sports, where nearly every stoppage in play has a sponsorship or features some team rep with a microphone asking trivia questions to bored dads.
The game was fine. In the early weeks of the AAF, it seemed like teams were afraid to go deep, quarterbacks and receivers didn’t seem to be on the same page with each other. This wasn’t the case in this game, both quarterbacks took long shots downfield in the first two plays of the game. And while the league’s been criticized so far for poor-quality, low scoring games, this game featured pretty entertaining, competitive football., a lot of risks taken by both teams, several touchdowns, nothing like the 15-6 score between these two teams in week 1.
For about twenty dollars per ticket in pretty good seats, this was a really entertaining experience and I’m glad that I got to go. The Fleet represent just one of the many entities coming in to fill a gap left by the Chargers. SDSU’s building a new stadium. The San Diego Legion of Major League Rugby begun play last year. A new franchise named the San Diego Strike Force will enter the Indoor Football League next month. Then, there’s the Fleet. That Charger-sized hole will never be completely filled, but I recommend anyone even remotely interested in the Alliance come experience the Fleet at least once, as you’ve probably never experienced anything like it before.
Also it looks like they’ve brought back Foam Fingers and Cool Starter Jackets, and for that we cannot thank them enough.