At kickoff, there were probably just over a thousand people in their seats. (Krystyn Bristol/Living Out Loud LA)
There’s something distinctly alluring about ghost towns. Something about seeing the scant remains of an abandoned town is enticing because it triggers the mind to think of the events that led to that town’s demise.
Most ghost towns were erected in uninhabitable places where there was promise of oil or valuable minerals that attracted countless hopeful people to the western frontier. Once a town was depleted of its aforementioned resources, the inhabitants left virtually overnight, and thus, a ghost town was born.
But again, the enticing things about ghost towns are the factors that led to it becoming a ghost town, and whether the town ever stood a chance to flourish in the long term.
Much like Bisbee, Ariz., Skidoo, Calif. and other boom towns in the Old West, there are versions of ghost towns in sports, too. However, unlike the ghost towns of yesteryear, which were built by simple folks who were well-aware that their towns could become an afterthought overnight, the architects of sports ghost towns lacked the foresight to see the follies that would lead to their downfall.
The Goodyear Blimp hovered over the Carson area on a Wednesday afternoon, prior to a match between Chivas USA and the Portland Timbers. After exiting at Central Avenue off the 91 West freeway, I drove into the parking lot at the Stubhub Center at 7 p.m. and noticed the lot was virtually empty. I had to double check the Chivas USA schedule to make sure the game was set to kickoff at 7:30.
As I walked to the media will-call window to pick up my credentials, a few scalpers asked me if I wanted to buy tickets for the night’s match for $10. Considering there was a plethora of $10 tickets still available at the ticket booth, I wondered how those guys sold any tickets that day. And if they did sell any tickets, why would anyone buy them, considering (again) there was a booth just 75 yards away where you could buy the same tickets for the same price with the guarantee that they were not counterfeit tickets? Then I thought, “Why would anyone counterfeit Chivas USA tickets?”
Asking myself “why?” became the recurring theme of the night.
By now it was 7:10 p.m., and, other than a few people gathered around a red and white booth where a DJ blasted regional Mexican music and a few boys playing futsal inside a makeshift soccer cage, the parking lot remained the same. I walked to the section near the north end of the stadium and saw about a dozen Timbers fans that made the trip from Oregon to see their team play.
I entered the stadium at 7:15 p.m., and there were no more than a few hundred people inside the 27,000-seat stadium, which isn’t surprising since Chivas ranked last in the MLS in attendance with an average of 8,366 last season. By comparison, their Stubhub Center co-tenants, the Los Angeles Galaxy, averaged 22,152, while the Seattle Sounders led the MLS with 44,038. By kickoff at around 7:35 p.m., there were probably over a thousand people in their seats.
The official attendance by the end of the night was just over 3,702, but as someone who has been to many soccer games at the Stubhub Center over the years, I can assure that figure was grossly inflated. In either case, the official attendance set an MLS record for the lowest in the league’s 19-year history.
The entire upper mezzanine of the stadium was closed, and the north end was covered by a tarp emblazoned with the Chivas USA logo and colors. Although it’s normal for those sections to be closed for all Chivas USA matches and Galaxy weeknight matches, the sections that weren’t closed were nearly just as empty.
There were about 60-70 Timbers fans who sang tirelessly for most of the match, while the Goats had about a dozen guys rhythmically beating a bass drum and cymbals, and waving a few home-made red and white flags.
Every time a Chivas player took a corner kick, you’d hear a recording over the P.A. system of a guy that sounded like Vicente Fernández that proudly yelled “Arriba las Chivas!” But not even the legendary Mexican mariachi singer could generate a semblance of excitement over this lackluster affair.
The game was awful. Chivas looked like a road underdog that was content to play for a scoreless draw. Any time an attacking player for Chivas gained possession of the ball on the Timbers’ side of the field, they were quickly hounded and lost the ball. The Timbers scored two second-half goals, and, other than the faint beat of the cymbals and bass drum and the contingency of Timbers fans, the stadium seemed empty and cavernous.
Chivas defender Bobby Burling was sent-off at the 84th minute after recklessly body-checking a Timbers player in an act seemingly caused by Burling’s frustration over the entire night more than anything else.
I couldn’t help but ask myself at that point, “What series of events would lead people in Los Angeles – a city where sports teams, the entertainment industry and countless other attractions fiercely compete for consumer dollars – to go to a Chivas game?” Even though there were probably less than 2,000 there, I asked myself, “Why were these 2,000 here to watch this game?”
Chivas USA became the 11th team in the MLS in 2004 after Mexican billionaire and Chivas de Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara paid a $10 million expansion fee to the league. By purchasing an expansion franchise, he planned to capitalize on the budding American interest in soccer, but more importantly, on the untapped, soccer-crazed Mexican market in Los Angeles. Vergara’s logic was simple: Chivas de Guadalajara are the most popular club in Mexico, so naming them Chivas USA would instantly give his product cachet in L.A. County, a county with nearly five million Hispanics.
But his problem was rather simple, too. Chivas USA were really bad at soccer, starting their inaugural season with an 1-8-1 record.
The biggest problem with Vergara’s logic, however, was that, although the Mexican Chivas are the most popular soccer team in Mexico, there are seven to ten other teams in Mexico with substantial fan bases in L.A. County. So by naming Chivas USA after his legendary Mexican club, he alienated millions of potential fans before Chivas USA ever played their first match.
If there is one core operating principle that has turned the StubHub Center into a ghost town during Chivas games, it is clearly that.
It hasn’t helped matters that a number of former Chivas USA players and employees sued the team last year for racial discrimination after a number of former employees alleged that they were fired or dismissed from the team for not being of Mexican heritage and because they didn’t speak Spanish.
Had Vergara put effort into bringing quality soccer to Los Angeles and picked a name for his team that alluded to Mexicans or Hispanic heritage in a more inclusive way, there’s no telling how successful Vergara’s team could have become. But in terms of dollar figures, there is no doubt Vergara came out a winner when he sold Chivas USA to the MLS for a reported $70 million in February.
The team has been owned by the MLS since then, and although the league announced they will sell and rebrand the team, there haven’t been any reports of a potential sale, nor have they presented any sort of tentative plans for the name change to the public.
To say that Vergara’s 10-year tenure as owner of Chivas USA mirrors that of Donald Sterling at the helm of the Los Angeles Clippers might be a stretch. But then again, the fact that the Clippers are exponentially more prominent than the Goats might be the only difference between the two owners, since both Vergara and Sterling built a reputation for their frugality and both have a noted history of discrimination.
If you could make a full-length feature film about Sterling’s tenure as owner of the Clippers, then surely you could highlight Vergara’s exploits in a short documentary. And in that documentary, you could highlight the factors that created the ghost town that assembles in Carson every time Chivas USA takes the field. After the documentary, you would see that Chivas USA never stood a chance to flourish in the long term.