The black SUV pulled into the StubHub Center complex Sunday afternoon with the most powerful man in sports in the back seat.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell stared out the window, preparing to see the league’s smallest stadium for the first time. But before the 27,000-seat venue came into view, the car rolled past the bleachers lining the west side of a 1,200-seat track stadium used for second-division soccer games and college track meets.
“Oh my God,” Goodell gasped, “is that it?”
The scare was only momentary, and Goodell was impressed once he stepped inside the actual StubHub Center, which looks like a sleek NFL stadium through the wrong end of a telescope.
“From a fan standpoint, this is great,” said Goodell, surveying the field from a suite on the concourse level, where he spent much of the first half chatting with sponsors. “You can do things here that you might not be able to do in a larger stadium.”
The announced attendance Sunday was 21,054, a reminder that the Chargers have plenty of work to do. By comparison, the Rams drew announced crowds of 89,140 and 62,888 (distributed) for their exhibition openers against Dallas last year and Saturday. As was the case in those games against the Cowboys, the place felt split, with thousands of fans pulling for the StubHub visitors.
In this case, the Seattle Seahawks glided to a 48-17 victory.
“Nice building, though,” said Seahawks radio analyst Warren Moon, slinging his bag over his shoulder and heading for the team bus. “It looked the same, football-wise, but it felt weird when you didn’t see another level of seats up there. Nice cute stadium. But everything else was pretty good about it. Press box wasn’t bad, the locker rooms were OK. But it’s a soccer stadium.”
Then, after a pause: “They’d better win.”
AEG President Dan Beckerman, whose company owns StubHub Center and the rest of the 125-acre sports complex, sees this as more than a “cute” option. He said the Chargers have spent more than $10 million to meet the NFL’s requirements.
“We’ve always thought this was an opportunity to do something special and do something unique,” Beckerman said. “It’s a way for the Chargers to differentiate themselves in this market in a very intimate setting. We’ve been talking about it for a really long time.”
That intimacy will be a key selling point for the Chargers, who will play here for the next three seasons while Rams owner Stan Kroenke is constructing his vision in Inglewood, a $2.6-billion palace that will house both teams.
As it stands, neither franchise is a juggernaut. The Rams were 4-12 last year, and the Chargers were 5-11. Both have new, young, dynamic coaches and their share of marquee players. Both will be elbowing for attention behind USC football until the NFL regains a true foothold in the market.
The Chargers, who spent the past 55 years in San Diego, are looking to leave a mark in their new city — in part by paying for team-themed tattoos. During a 12-hour window this Tuesday, from 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. — the team will foot the bill for anyone who wants to get inked with one of an array of Chargers tattoos at the Shamrock Social Club in West Hollywood.
“It’s just one way to show our appreciation for the fans, and to let them know that we’re always thinking creatively about how they can put their hand up and say they love the Chargers,” said Jeffrey Pollack, a Chargers special advisor.
There are no plans, Pollack said, to pay for removal of Raiders tattoos.
The indelible impressions Sunday were about the setting. For many, if not most in the crowd, this was their first glimpse of NFL football in a venue that’s less than half the size of every other stadium in the league.
“This is NFL 3-D,” said Marcellus Wiley, an ESPN analyst and commentator on KABC’s pregame show along with former San Diego Chargers teammate Shawne Merriman. “I’m excited for the players just to have something different, a way to interact with the fans.”
It isn’t just the fans paying attention to the players, Wiley said, the players — even though they might act cavalier — are paying attention to the fans.
“During pregame warmups, they wear the headphones to try to pretend that they’re not listening,” he said. “But they’re really listening. They know when you scream out their name. The energy is contagious. I’m feeding off of you, you’re feeding off of me.”
Lopsided loss notwithstanding, Merriman sees the L.A. market as ripe for the picking.
“The Chargers win three or four games to get this thing started, and you won’t be able to get a ticket to this place,” he said.
That’s easier said than done for a team that has gone 9-23 the past two seasons, but the Chargers do have the advantage of three home games in their first four weeks.
Simi Valley’s Dave Coleman is ready to give the L.A. Chargers a try. He was a Rams fan before they moved to St. Louis in 1995, then switched allegiances to the Chargers and had season tickets in San Diego the past couple of seasons. When the Rams moved back last year, Coleman bought season tickets to watch those games at the Coliseum. But he said the Chargers’ customer service, and the allure of games at StubHub, won him over.
“It’s L.A., people are fickle, they love a winner,” he said. “I love the fact that I can go to an NFL game with my kids, in this environment.”
Of course, he and other newly minted Chargers fans will be looking for a different outcome when the games actually count.
“L.A. demands one of two things,” Wiley said. “Win. Or lose, but be entertaining.”
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer