How do you celebrate moving into a new stadium when the people it has been built for can’t attend? That is the very question that the Los Angeles Chargers are contemplating as they head into the 2020 National Football League (NFL) season.
When Stan Kroenke and the St Louis Rams were given the green light to build a US$5 billion, 70,000-seater stadium in early 2016, neither they nor their future tenants could have prophesised that their first game in the state-of-the-art venue would be played to an eerie backdrop of empty seats.
But that will be precisely the scene for the Chargers on 20th September, when they begin life at SoFi Stadium behind closed doors against the NFL’s reigning Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. In normal times, relocating to a new home would be enough on its own to occupy any franchise’s front office in the build-up to a new season, but this year has presented challenges like no other.
“Our plans are as solid as jelly,” jokes Steve Ziff, the Chargers’ chief marketing officer. “We’re obviously working very hard to be as planned as we can, and I think it’s the external factors that are hard to bank on. With normalcy in your business you have the cycle of the league, the cycle of sports and the cycle of fandom that are always mainstays we can count on. They are pillars that prop up the annual lifecycle of our business in the way we make decisions traditionally.
“The earthquake of the pandemic has shaken the foundation of those pillars and in some cases cracked a few of them off, so not being able to bank on how corporate partners, for example, will react to this and what they will want from us, or how season ticket members need to be dealt with. There are some things that foundationally have created really tough mountains for us to climb, [but] I think that as a company we’re climbing them.”
Like most NFL teams, the Chargers will start the 2020 season without their fans
Ziff describes the events of 2020 as “interesting”, “incredible” and “scary”, but one thing that the Chargers and the NFL have had on their side is time. Anthony Lynn’s team last played a game at the end of December, almost three months before Covid-19 started to spread across the United States. Even when the Chiefs lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in early February, there was little indication that the country would be in lockdown a matter of weeks later.
The timing of it all, though, has led many to suggest that the NFL should be better prepared for play during the pandemic than any sports league, given that it has had half a year to plan.
“No question we’ve benefited from more time,” Ziff considers. “I think time was the archenemy of the NBA, the NHL, and to some degree the Premier League, MLS, or other professional sports leagues around the world. When you’re pressed into it and you’re in the middle of your season, you’re clearly dealing with multiple situations: should we finish? How do we restart?
“The NFL, while it had the benefit of time, also wanted to use that time to watch what happened to other leagues and then make decisions. This isn’t where you could put your head down and plan in a bubble aside from what’s going on. You had to read the business and you had to read the industry, at the same time making plans.”
There are some things that foundationally have created really tough mountains for us to climb, [but] I think that as a company we’re climbing them.
The Chargers and the Rams are among 26 NFL teams that will start the regular season without fans in attendance as a result of the pandemic, and it is difficult not to sympathise with the two LA franchises given the investment that went into SoFi Stadium. Some 3,000 construction workers were on site daily to build the facility, logging more than ten million hours of labour between them as they assembled a venue that spans 3.1 million square feet.
The stadium is the centrepiece of a broader 298-acre entertainment district in Tinseltown, one which will eventually also comprise restaurants, retail and office spaces, residences and parks. Equipped with 100,000 tons of steel and cable, as well as the largest video board in all of sports, it would be fair to say that SoFi Stadium will immediately be among the world’s most impressive entertainment venues – both from a visual and technological perspective.
And if there were such a thing as the seven wonders of the sporting world, Ziff certainly believes SoFi Stadium would be one of them.
“I think it’s the nicest building that will ever be built in the history of professional sports,” he declares. “I think it will be a Taj Mahal of this industry for people to want to see at one point in their lifetimes. Whether it’s us, the Rams, or another live event, I think people will want to see this venue to experience it themselves, so it’s very frustrating to not be able to open it.
“The benefit of not having a modest amount of fans in there [this season] probably helps us, because when you open this building you want the energy and the power to be unified. You want this thing to be full of fans, you want it to be rocking, and that was our intention.
“The good news is we’re all looking forward now. We obviously lament the present and what has happened in the recent past, but we are looking ahead to the future, so we know next season when we bring fans back at full capacity – if it’s not this year at any capacity – it will be an incredible moment for Los Angeles, Chargers fans and sports fans to see SoFi Stadium, because it really is beyond impressive.”
As far as this season goes, the Chargers are giving season ticket holders the option to either roll them over into the 2021 campaign at the same cost, or receive a full refund. Members of the team’s new Charge Forward programme will also receive first priority for single game tickets should the franchise decide to allow a limited number of spectators for fixtures later in the year.
I think it’s the nicest building that will ever be built in the history of professional sports. I think it will be a Taj Mahal of this industry for people to want to see at one point in their lifetimes.
But while the Chargers might not be able to welcome fans into SoFi Stadium in the immediate future, they will at least be trying to give them a glimpse of what a game at the venue might look like. The franchise plans to unfurl its own virtual gameday experience that Ziff says will “bring SoFi Stadium to the fans at home” and create interactivity through sweepstakes, prizes, entertainment and various other touchpoints.
Indeed, the Chargers still have tickets and commercial inventory for the stadium to sell, which means the franchise will be looking to show off their new home in any way they can.
“I do think that we will be marketing this building hard through the next year at every opportunity we can in front of a live television audience,” says Ziff. “We’re going to do everything we can to surround the venue with care, love, visibility, because I think creating more widespread visibility for the venue itself is an attraction to become a Chargers fan in Los Angeles in the future.
Ziff says the Chargers will be “marketing this building hard” despite fans not being able to attend SoFi Stadium for the time being
“Our version of the presentation we think will be outstanding, and we think that there will be a lot of casual sports fans that maybe haven’t chosen their favourite team – because Los Angeles never had a team for many years – that have grown up here looking for something to identify with as a football team.
“We know that there are millions of football fans in Los Angeles, and a lot of them don’t have a favourite team – by choice they haven’t yet made that decision. We want to be that choice and do things that help them make that choice, and be ready to come with us to the stadium when that moment arrives.”
A big part of getting new fans on side will be through content, something that Ziff says has become “one of our most important topics of discussion internally”, and is likely to become all the more significant in a year when the Chargers can’t interact with their fans in person.
“It’s going to be one of the ways that we communicate with people, keep them informed, keep them engaged and interact with them,” he adds.
We’re going to take a very community-focused approach, it’s going to be very grassroots centric, and we really do believe that the process of building fans is one at a time – you’re not going to mass advertise your way to fans.
The Chargers have already benefited from featuring alongside the Rams in this year’s Hard Knocks, the annual reality series which traditionally follows one NFL team through its pre-season training camp. After each episode the Chargers have hosted a live show designed to bring fans closer to the characters and personalities that feature in the documentary, and it is down that path that the franchise want to continue with the type of content they push out.
In addition to providing new content opportunities, it comes as no surprise when Ziff reveals that SoFi Stadium has opened “massive, massive doors” for the Chargers from a commercial and marketing perspective. The likes of American Airlines, Cisco and Pechanga Resort are among the venue’s founding partners, with Social Finance having committed to spending some US$30 million a year to put its name to the stadium.
In amongst all this it is easy to forget that the Chargers and the Rams are about to share the same turf having spent much of their existence apart. The Chargers originated in Los Angeles in 1960 before spending more than half a century in San Diego. The Rams, meanwhile, started out in Cleveland and sandwiched 20 years in St Louis in between their two stints in LA.
Now that the two franchises’ journeys have brought them to the same place, Ziff says that the Chargers plan to stay true to their brand – “very carefree and California cool”, as he describes it – to differentiate themselves from their landlords.
“We have very identifiably different marketing visions for the product and for the brand, so we are on different paths,” he continues. “As you look at our brand, we believe in a customised approach to the community. We’re going to take a very community-focused approach, it’s going to be very grassroots centric, and we really do believe that the process of building fans is one at a time – you’re not going to mass advertise your way to fans.
“We want to let people know what we stand for, how we stand for it and be as authentic and genuine as we possibly can be in the process of showing them who we are, and hopefully that’s attractive. We’re going to do a lot of different things to widen that out so that fans feel like this is their version of LA, and we’re OK with that.
“We want them to fall in love with us because it feels right to them, not because we force ourselves into that equation. Love the Chargers however you want; that will make you a fan, and hopefully we’ll build on that and make you a customer down the line.”