It appeared to be one of the first Chargers victories in their self-proclaimed “Fight for LA,” a real live human being from the heart of Los Angeles who had decided to become a Chargers fan.
His name was Anthony Cabadas, and he had been standing for nearly three hours on a Sunset Boulevard sidewalk in West Hollywood on Tuesday, the first in line to ink up in one of the most unusual promotions in this city’s sports history.
In a minute, he would walk inside the doors of the Shamrock Social Club tattoo studio and, on the inside of his left forearm, he would receive a tattoo of the Chargers shield. It might hurt, and it might be forever, but it would be free. The Chargers were buying. They were giving away one of three different team tattoos all day as a nutty but indelible example of their commitment to their new community.
Cabadas wore backward Chargers cap, a LaDainian Tomlinson basketball jersey, and a hopeful smile. The bearded construction worker appeared to be part of a new era, a new beginning, one of the first Angelenos to literally offer himself to the Bolts, until…
Where do you live?
How long have you been a Chargers fan?
“My whole life.”
The Chargers are trying. They’re really, really, really trying.
They know they are viewed as outsiders, intruders, an unnecessary addition to the already crowded city sports landscape. They were ripped in this column when they barged into town last winter and have seemingly been under siege ever since.
They desperately want Los Angeles to like them. They’re branding themselves not around the Orange County home of their headquarters, but around the entire city. They are the ones who started the “Fight for L.A.’’ in hopes of winning affection from the Rams, and fired a nice first shot when Kobe Bryant showed up to address the team on the first day of training camp.
Yet, since then, it feels like a fight the Chargers just can’t win.
They produced a “Fight for L.A.” video featuring actors posing as Angelenos challenging the players to prove themselves to the city, and several Chargers players answering those challenges. But the video only reinforced the anonymity of the Chargers here, as most of the actors were more recognizable than the players.
They held a grand opening at their temporary StubHub Center home Sunday, but even with a new team in a new town in a cozy new venue, they couldn’t fill the place, with an announced crowd of 21,054, about 6,000 short of the 27,000 capacity. Yes, it was only an exhibition game against the Seattle Seahawks and lots of seats go unused everywhere during the preseason, but still, the optics on this were awful. They needed to the fill the joint. No matter what, on this first day, in a town built on buzz, even if they had to give away tickets, they needed to fill the joint.
Once the game started, folks watching at home were treated to another discouraging look. Because the NFL doesn’t allow uniform changes on such short notice, the Chargers still look exactly like the San Diego Chargers. There is not one thread on the uniforms or coaching gear that summons up Los Angeles. It was like watching a team visiting from San Diego, and before you say it was the same last year with the Rams, remember, the Rams uniforms were a staple here for more than four decades. Watching the Rams last year was like watching the return of an old friend. Watching the Chargers was like watching a team that still belonged somewhere else.
But, goodness, they’re trying, reaching out to the town in a variety of ways, from Charger Girls passing out water in Runyon Canyon Park, to employees running in the Los Angeles Marathon, to sponsorship roles in the Venice Pride event and the Hollywood Glitter Run.
“The ‘Fight for L.A.’ is not just a slogan or a campaign, it’s a strategy and platform for community engagement,’’ said Jeffrey Pollock, the Chargers’ special advisor to ownership.
All of which brought the team to one of the city’s cultural touchstones Tuesday, the Shamrock Social Club, where two Charger Girls were stationed outside the front door as the line down Sunset swelled several dozen deep for the oddest of giveaway days.
Said Wes Brown, the club’s manager: “I have to admit, this is a first for me.’’
Said Pollock: “The tattoo culture is not only a football culture, but an L.A. lifestyle culture, and we’re all about connecting with the community.’’
It was a great idea, different, hip, so much that Rams punter Johnny Hekker felt a need to respond before it started, tweeting, “If this free chargers tattoo thing is true, I’ll pay for the removal.”
And, it turns out, the Chargers did connect with a community. The problem was, at least judging from the first dozen people who showed up, it was the San Diego Chargers’ community.
The third person in line, David King from Moreno Valley, has been a Chargers fan since 2006 and said, “Hey, I’m here because this saves me money.’’
The fourth person, Kevin Craig, from Santa Clarita, has always loved the Chargers because his father’s family is from San Diego.
The fifth person, Joe Cubas, is Craig’s roommate and a Rams fan who was absolutely not getting a tattoo.
On it went until the line reached Francisco Arguello, who drove down from the Bakersfield area because he always loved the Chargers so much his 3-year-old son is named Diego.
“The whole thing is crazy, but a free tattoo, it’s worth it,’’ said his wife Vanessa.
This is not exactly building the brand or winning the city. The Chargers are trying, they’re really trying, but it appears they need to take this losing fight off the streets and on to the scoreboard.
Beginning with their season opener Sept. 11 in Denver, the Chargers can win this town only by winning games. They have to win, and win quick, and win a lot.
Winning will fill their tiny stadium. Winning will fix their non-existent buzz. Winning will make more of a mark than even the brightest tattoo.
Until then, well …
A professed football fan named Dustin Thomas wandered past the Shamrock on Tuesday and brightened at the idea that he could get a free tattoo, until one of the Charger Girls gave him the details.
“Wait, you gotta get the Chargers logo?’’ he said. “Cool idea, but no.”