In 1959, American Football League founder Lamar Hunt granted Barron Hilton (Paris Hilton's grandfather - yes, that Hilton) a franchise in the newly formed AFL.
After a brief "contest," the new team was, unsurprisingly, named the "Chargers." While we've become accustomed to the lighting-bolt imagery that's the hallmark of today's franchise, the name actually stems from Barron's involvement with the now defunct Carte Blanche "charge" card.
The new team was to share the Los Angeles Coliseum with the NFL's Rams and the Trojans of the University of Southern California. The Chargers quickly found it difficult to compete for fans (and their money) with these other established football entities and all there is to do in sunny Southern California.
Frankly, the appetite for football just wasn't there. USC was seven years removed from its last Rose Bowl appearance and was navigating the dissolution of its conference, the Pacific Coast Football Conference, by helping to create what would later become the PAC-8-10-12 Conference.
Though the Rams had two NFL Championships under their belt, they had been terrible for some time. Good thing for them they were about to enter the Fearsome Foursome Era. All Los Angeles needed was another team to break fans' hearts, right?
The Chargers of 1960 were a great team. But the attendance during that year at the Coliseum was not only bad, it was proportionately horrible. Having a capacity of more than 100,000, the Chargers were lucky to get a tenth of that in paid attendance. Most of the spectators were there on complimentary tickets given out by the team. Players' wives were encouraged to attend with friends and family. Many in the stands were employees of Hilton's hotel business. This Los Angeles Times article from 1985 recounts:
Hall of Famer Sid Gillman, their first coach, recalls the day he stood on the Coliseum sideline that year, shortly before the kickoff, and personally counted the house.
Then, watching the teams warm up, he wondered, idly, if there would be more fans than players.
Nudging hotel man Barron Hilton, the Charger owner who was standing morosely nearby, Gillman said: "I've got a great promotional idea, Barron. Let's introduce the people in the stands today, instead of the teams."
Hilton brightened for a moment, then demurred.
"They'd be too embarrassed," he said. "They're all bellhops and front-desk clerks I let in free."
The fewest amount of people to attend a game during that first year? 9,928...when the Denver Broncos came to town.
Even when the attendance was at its best - 21,805 during a Houston Oilers game - those watching in person were dwarfed by all the empty space in such a large stadium. Even when ABC television executives corralled spectators around the 50-yard line to make the stadium look fuller, it still looked cold and empty.
The Chargers would clinch the AFL West division in that lonely home game against the Denver Broncos. Finishing the season with a 10-4 record, they had secured a home championship game against the Houston Oilers. Home field advantage was to alternate year after year between east and west . However, that was exactly what the young league did not want. There was no way the AFL could fill the Coliseum for the championship game, and that would be bad for the future of the league (and the Denver Broncos).
History tells the story of the Los Angeles Chargers losing to the Houston Oilers in the first-ever AFL Championship game. What's rarely mentioned is that that championship was played in Houston...at what was then a high school football field. The 32,183 people in attendance would fill less than half of Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Those were some lean times indeed.
In 1961, the Chargers relocated to San Diego and have remained there ever since. Even today the Chargers have difficulty attracting sell-out crowds. With all the rumors of the Rams, Raiders, and Chargers possibly coming back to Los Angeles, it makes you wonder whether it will run into the same problems that doomed the L.A. Chargers in 1960.
Needless to say, the newly relocated team will likely play at the Rose Bowl or Coliseum, which both hold (and have) more than 100,000 people.
Good luck with that.