Surrounded by Tijuana to the south and Knott's Berry Farm to the north, San Diego, Calif. is an isolated community at the end of the western world, sort of a Key West with cowboys. No train runs through it, no airline goes beyond it. The Navy lives there and hates it. In particular it is the target of Los Angeles jibes, which all too often are directed at San Diego deficiencies as a sports town.
" San Diego is bush league," say Angelenos. "A nickel town. The only thing they'll support down there is the zoo. And kids get in free." Naturally, San Diego does not take this lying down. "Don't knock our zoo," says the chamber of commerce. "It's one of the finest in the world."
In truth, San Diego does not have to defend its sporting way of life. The smogless climate is magnificent and the beaches beautiful. The largest live-bait sport-fishing fleet in the world operates out of San Diego Bay. Mission Bay Park, one of the great aquatic playgrounds, has sent its fleet of racing sailors out to gain international fame, and water skiing is so popular that they have to keep traffic cops on duty there. Golf courses decorate the community, and tennis courts do a bustling business the year round. Bowling alleys run 24 hours a day, and it is sometimes necessary to make reservations a week in advance. The surrounding countryside is alive with riding stables and good hunting land. San Diego has such splendid recreational facilities, in fact, that eventually even the Navy learns to love it and thousands of retired officers return there to live.
None of which refutes Los Angeles' minor league charge. San Diego has never produced a surplus of spectators. The San Diego Padres of the Pacific Coast League have been struggling for years. The San Diego Skyhawks won the Western Hockey League playoffs in 1949, were gone a year later because of sagging attendance. College football does not draw. If a San Diegan is unable to control the urge to spend the afternoon sitting on a hard seat, instead of lolling in the surf, he would rather go to Tijuana for a bull fight—and spend the rest of the day drinking half-price booze.
Yet San Diego has suddenly found itself in possession of a million-dollar ball club, the undefeated Chargers of the American Football League, and what happens next is a test both of San Diego and of the AFL itself. For the million dollars represents not the value of the team but what Barron Hilton lost in giving unappreciative big-time Los Angeles a Western Division championship last year (the exact figure was $900,000), and San Diego may never have another such chance to thumb its nose at the noisy neighbor to the north.
If the Chargers click financially, then big league baseball may soon follow. The American League is anxious to establish a "natural" rivalry for the Los Angeles Angels on the West Coast—while decreasing travel deficits for eastern teams—and San Diego is the logical choice. Already there is talk of shifting the Kansas City Athletics out there, which shows how desperate some people can get. But failure to support the Chargers means the death of San Diego as a big league sports town. It may also bring a rattle to the throats of the AFL, for a struggling new league does not lose its strongest attraction and survive, and Hilton is determined to go no further.
"If we don't make it here," he says, "then we don't make it. I won't move again, I'll quit. Where would I go? Ensenada?"
The chances are that the baby-faced, 33-year-old heir of the hotel wizard will not have to dig too deeply into Conrad's pocket again. He estimates that he will lose only $250,000 this year. When the AFL was formed, each of its new owners was prepared to face a much heavier financial beating than that, probably for a period of two or three seasons, until the new league gained maturity. But already Barron Hilton has more going for him than the old carte blanche he carried last year.
In Los Angeles the Chargers were bucking the Dodgers, Southern Cal, UCLA and the National Football League Rams. In San Diego they are bucking only inertia and the zoo. In Los Angeles, Hilton insisted upon going first-class—straight to the cleaners. He paid 15% rental on the Coliseum for each game, another $1,500 in expenses and had no share in concessions, while maintaining a complimentary ticket list of almost 4,000 names. In San Diego he gets Balboa Stadium, enlarged to seat 34,500, for free during the 1961 season and then must pay only $2,000 a game in 1962—unless the gate exceeds $100,000, in which case he will pay 5% of the gross. He also rakes in all receipts for parking and concessions.
In Los Angeles, a diehard NFL town, the Chargers were looked upon as a grossly inferior product. Newspapers treated them as second-rate and the Times, most influential of all, ignored them. A heavy promotion campaign managed to sell 11,000 season tickets, but on the day the Chargers won the division championship by beating the Denver Broncos, only 9,900 people showed up. The Green Bay Packers, it seems, were playing the San Francisco 49ers that day for the NFL Western Division championship. The Rams were not involved—but the game was on TV.