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Chargers

Column: Chargers camp proves to be a real crowd pleaser

Antonio Gates
Chargers fans hold up a poster of tight end Antonio Gates while watching the team’s first workout of training camp.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

From the congested freeways to the cost of real estate, the signs are everywhere. That doesn’t make it any easier to grasp exactly how many people live here.

Sunday was a reminder.

An estimated 5,000 fans packed the Jack R. Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa to watch the Chargers open training camp.

The atmosphere was festive. Many of the fans wore new Chargers jerseys. There were homemade signs and organized cheers.

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The Chargers have inspired little conversation here since they announced earlier this year their relocation to Los Angeles from San Diego. If anything, the move was mocked, even bemoaned. The city already had a four-win team in the Rams. Was it really necessary to add a five-win team in the Chargers?

Except when an area is as populated as this one, someone is always interested. It might be one person here and one person there, but add them all together and there’s a decent-sized crowd. If a franchise as insignificant as the Galaxy can develop a stable niche audience in the area, the Chargers should be able to do that and more, which is why they abandoned their devoted fan base to move here.

From an economic standpoint, it’s better to be an afterthought in Los Angeles than it is to be the main attraction in San Diego.

Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers didn’t know what to expect, nonetheless.

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When Rivers pictured the nightmare scenario before the workout, he didn’t have to use his imagination. His memory sufficed.

The veteran quarterback recalled his first-ever training camp with the Chargers, which was in Carson.

“Literally, there were about 12 people there,” Rivers said with a laugh.

The Chargers attracted a larger crowd than that. Much larger. Call the San Diego Chargers the Los Angeles Chargers, move their home from Qualcomm Stadium to the StubHub Center and everything changes, evidently.

The Chargers didn’t receive the overwhelming — and misguided — heroes’ welcome the Rams received when they moved back to Los Angeles last year, but it was close. The bleachers alongside the near practice field were completely packed. So were the fences by the entrance of the facility, where fans high-fived and screamed at players walking in. Children navigated obstacle courses and compared their wingspans to some of the players’ in a nearby play area.

This was with the Rams working out about five miles away at UC Irvine. It’s not only Los Angeles that can support two NFL teams. Orange County can, too.

Still, there was a strange uneasiness in the air. As much as these fans welcomed the Chargers, this only recently became their team, after all.

Welcoming the fans on this morning was LaDainian Tomlinson, who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next week. An exceptional running back who transcended his sport and market, Tomlinson was the right person for the Chargers to appoint as their brand ambassador.

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Tomlinson faced the bleachers and shouted into a microphone: “Chargers fans! Let’s go! Yes! Yes!”

The crowd roared.

Tomlinson told the fans he was proud of how he would soon be representing the Chargers in the Hall of Fame. More cheers.

Hear from Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, as well as fans, on the first day of training camp in Costa Mesa.

“But you know what?” Tomlinson said. “It’s because of all you. Thank you, guys, for your support. You made me run harder. You made me dig deeper. The passion that I played with was because of you.”

Uh …

How many of these fans were already Chargers fans when he played? Not many, if the polite but awkward applause was any indication.

Shortly before Tomlinson spoke, Chargers chairman Dean Spanos wandered into the area near the bleachers. Spanos is reviled in San Diego, which blames him for moving its beloved team.

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Several reporters looked over, curious to see the reaction of the crowd. There was none. The fans didn’t know who he was.


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