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Still Number One?

(page 1 of 2)

It’s been 25 years since Sports Illustrated declared San Diego “Sports Town, USA.” A quarter-century later we revisit the notion and wonder: Does the label still hold true?

Those with hair-trigger memories will recall the SI article heaped the title on us due to a preponderance of sports participation. We run. We bike and swim. Sometimes we do all three in one day. But spectators we are not. Sit down on a sunny day to watch a mediocre pro or college team when high surf or open turf beckons? Not. For that reason, some might figure sports fans from Midwestern or Eastern cities are steeped in greater tradition.

So what defines a sports town in America today? Can we keep the title?

No San Diegan is better qualified to characterize the San Diego sports fan than Tom Ables. Since 1946, the San Diego State University alum has attended 621 of 623 Aztecs football games (a devotion highlighted by Sports Illustrated midway through the 2003 season).

“San Diego fans tend to be fair-weather,” Ables says. “At a place like Wisconsin, people go to games win or lose, because they’re Badgers. That doesn’t happen here.” One of many reasons for that, he concedes, is that so many San Diegans are transplants whose loyalties are, at best, divided.

More bad news: The past 25 years saw San Diego regress in an important category—number of big-league franchises, which has gone from three to two. The Clippers, after six unhappy seasons, took their basketball to Los Angeles in 1984. That left just the baseball Padres and the football Chargers. During the same time period, the rapid growth of the National Hockey League resulted in Sun Belt cities like Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta and Miami supporting four big-league sports.

Another identifying element in today’s American sports culture is the proliferation of luxurious, one-sport stadiums. The Padres did finally win their long battle for a signature ballpark. When Petco Park opens this spring, the Pads will abandon Qualcomm Stadium, built in 1967 when multipurpose facilities were en vogue.

San Diego reluctantly confronts the prospect of a new stadium for the Chargers. Business leaders are pushing for a deal. “If we don’t reinvest in our infrastructure,” says former San Diego International Sports Council president Ky Snyder, “we’re not going to have a pro football team, we’re not going to have a place for our college team to play, and we’re not going to have a Holiday Bowl.”

Snyder could have added that San Diego won’t host another Super Bowl—an event successfully staged here three times. Without a new stadium, says the NFL, there won’t be a fourth.

So, yes, when it comes to sports, San Diegans are more into doing than watching. And yet, says Ables, we’re so hungry for a winner here, we can still go bonkers when our teams do, occasionally, rise to the top.

In 1984, the Padres returned, embattled, from Chicago to beat the Cubs three straight in the National League Championship Series to advance to the World Series. Hall-of-Fame baseball writer Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, claimed he never heard a louder baseball crowd than that one at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.

Ables, whose football Aztecs fell on hard times beginning in 1978, remembers Florida State coach Bobby Bowden’s reaction to a rabid SDSU crowd on a 1977 night when the No. 13-ranked Seminoles lost 40-13 to the Aztecs before 50,453, the capacity before the stadium was expanded.

“Bowden said he’d never heard any crowd as loud as that one,” says Ables.

The Chargers had a similar special time with their fans in their 1994 Super Bowl season. Retired Chargers quarterback Stan Humphries knew the passion of the Washington Redskins fans early in his career, but he says what he remembers most from his playing days was the night the Chargers returned with their AFC Championship from Pittsburgh to a throng of fans who filled the Mission Valley stadium.

“The highlight of my career is the win in Pittsburgh and coming home,” says Humphries. “It was something that was hard to imagine, and something you’ll never forget.”

A stride San Diego has made as a spectator-sports town is filling the void of midsize facilities. The openings of Cox Arena at SDSU and the Jenny Craig Pavilion at the University of San Diego have attracted key sporting events. SDSU has been host to the NCAA men’s basketball west subregional and the NCAA women’s volleyball Final Four. USD hosted the West Coast Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
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