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Whose fault will it be if the Chargers leave San Diego?

This whole recent flap about the "Monday Night Blackout" demonstrates one truth about the Chargers fans. They don't trust the Spanos family, and not without reason. In issues large and small over almost 30 years, this lack of trust (along with a helping of cavalier disregard) is fundamentally why the Chargers are not able to marshal the support needed to build a new stadium.


What is Past is Prologue

A lot of the animus against the Spanos family occurred early in Alex Spanos' reign as owner. He purchased the franchise from the late Gene Klein in 1984 and made two disastrous mistakes within the first three years.

The first of which was an extended slap which forever hardened the hearts of long-time San Diego sports fans - unceremoniously firing local legend Don Coryell as Head Coach of the Chargers during the 1986 season. In fairness, this wasn't necessarily the wrong decision, as the Chargers were mired in a seven-game losing streak, and the Chargers "Air Coryell" offensive core was well past its prime. But simply firing Coryell and calling it a "resignation" wasn't the worst of it.

When it was revealed that Coryell had been turned into a figurehead with Spanos, College Scouting Director Ron Nay, and Assistant Coach Al Saunders calling the shots in 1986, it was about as close as you could get to sports blasphemy in San Diego. For those of you who don't understand the impact this neutering and humiliation of Coryell had on Chargers' fans, I have never heard anyone booed as loudly for as long as Alex Spanos was in 1988 (Eli Manning in 2005 is a distant second) during the ceremony when Dan Fouts' number was retired.

The second big mistake was hiring Steve Ortmayer (who was the Director of Football Operations and Special Teams Coordinator with the Los Angeles Raiders) to become the General Manager in 1987. Now, Ortmayer wasn't quite as bad as his reputation suggests (he did select Anthony Miller, Burt Grossman, Courtney Hall, Quinn Early, and Marion Butts), but Chargers' fans never could ignore the trade which brought OL John Clay and RB Napoleon McCallum to San Diego in exchange for future All-Pro LT Jim Lachey. Following his ouster, he was rehired by Al Davis.

Also, under the Spanos family, the uniform began to shift away from lighter blues and golds in 1985, and towards navy blue and white.

After a disastrous 5½ years of ownership, the first laudable decision from Alex Spanos was hiring Bobby Beathard as the GM in 1990. The second laudable decision was Alex putting his son Dean Spanos in control of the franchise.

The Dean Spanos Era

Here are some hits:

- In the salary cap era, the Chargers have never been league bottom in spending, and have committed big money to free agency on multiple occasions (1998, 2001, 2003, 2012 being good examples). They've also been willing to commit big money to players on long term deals. You can argue whether the decisions were good or bad, but they've never been afraid or unwilling to spend on players.

(By the way, if Chargers' fans want to blame someone for being cheap and potentially costing the team a championship, Gene Klein would be the appropriate guy. Who gets rid of Fred Dean and John Jefferson in their prime?)

- The decisions to hire proven GMs with successful track records spoke well for the Spanos family, in the cases of hiring both Bobby Beathard and John Butler to rebuild a franchise which had fallen into disrepair.

- Hiring Bobby Ross and Marty Schottenheimer were crucial moves that helped the Chargers build young rosters with talent into teams which could contend for the Super Bowl.

Here are some misses:

- Dean Spanos has twice been unable to mend the fences of internal power struggles between a Head Coach and GM. First, it was Bobby Ross vs. Bobby Beathard, and later it was Marty Schottenheimer vs. A.J. Smith. In both cases, Dean Spanos chose the GM. I'm not arguing that Spanos made the wrong decision in either case; rather, the inability to handle the problem internally before the breaking point was reached does speak to a lack of awareness and/or leadership on his part.

Dean Spanos tends to avoid change - perhaps an implicit acknowledgement that he's not a "football guy" - but in the cases of both Beathard and Smith, it has caused the organization to turn stale and fade from contention. In Smith's particular case, his unnecessary antagonism gave the franchise a bit of a black eye, especially with LaDainian Tomlinson's departure, and the messy contract situations of popular players like Marcus McNeill and Vincent Jackson.

- The whole "uniform issue" (this is what I mean by cavalier disregard). The Chargers should be wearing their AFL throwback uniforms. Period. It's popular with the fans, popular with the media, and popular with the players. It's a simple way of generating good press and good will at low cost. Embracing your history is also great way to build your fanbase - creating a shared history that carries across generations is the beating heart and emotional core of sports. It's especially important for a team in a high-transient population center like San Diego to build the fanbase, because the stable (i.e. long-term) population is lower than in other large cities. Ask the Green Bay Packers, or the Pittsburgh Steelers, (hell, even the Oakland Raiders) how well this stuff works. The Spanos family's stubborn insistence on establishing their own identity looks like a big middle finger to longtime / diehard fans.

- Most recently, the failure to take advantage of the NFL's updated blackout rules, which could lower the blackout level in San Diego from about 56,500 (non-premium) seats to just over 48,000 - a difference of about 8,500 seats. What was that, you say? The Chargers, ESPN, and local sponsors covered 8,500 remaining seats for the Indianapolis game?

How this affects the stadium issue

Aside from Dean Spanos' constant statements of his desire to remain in San Diego, and the several million spent on various proposals over the last ten years, the Chargers (as well as the City of San Diego) have largely mishandled the stadium issue from Day One.

Instead of seeking to expand Qualcomm Stadium beyond market size (to be discussed in an upcoming post), they should have worked with the city for a new stadium in 1995-1996, when the cost was much lower. Seven new football-only stadiums opened from 1995-1999, and they averaged a cost of $249 million. The Chargers and the city settled on a $78 million expansion instead. Sometime shortly after the expansion, Alex Spanos spoke publicly about wanting a new stadium. The comments didn't go over well; it made the family look shortsighted and greedy.

The renegotiation of the Qualcomm Stadium lease in 2003-2004 was bad for all parties involved, except the Chargers money flow. Had the city stuck by the original lease, the Chargers' rent would be considerably higher today, there would be no "exit clause," and the ticket guarantee (a rent rebate, in actuality) would have stayed in place - which would have removed the threat of blackouts.

The City took it in the shorts twice, by making a bad initial deal, then changing it at precisely the moment it started working in their favor.

The fans lost the guaranteed ability to watch all 16 games on television. The city and the fans also got a (currently unloaded) gun put to their heads with the "exit clause." The Chargers should have upheld their end of the deal to begin with, and not sought to renegotiate when it stopped working in their favor.

Aside: Blackouts are like skunk stink on a fanbase. No one painted Chargers' fans as bad fans from 1997-2003 (even though the stadium was frequently not full) because the lack of blackouts gave nothing for the press and other teams' fans to comment about other than the Chargers' poor play. The ticket guarantee protected the fans, and built the fanbase because fans were still able to see the games at home. The reintroduction of the blackout in 2004 cost Chargers' fans opportunities to watch four home games (Jets, Titans, Jaguars, and Saints) from a young team which was on its way to winning the AFC West. Furthermore, in the modern media age, the blackout is used against Chargers' fans like a sledgehammer in every stadium/relocation/fan loyalty discussion.

Lastly, and most importantly in my opinion - every stadium plan or idea the Chargers have trotted out seems like a gimmick because the Spanos family never makes a hard financial commitment as part of the plan. Whether is a stadium built using (now gone) redevelopment money, or proposing a stadium/convention center, or the idea of getting the Qualcomm site essentially free (again, for chrissakes!), the one thing we never hear is how much the Spanos family is willing or able to contribute.

As of right now, here's the math on stadium construction revenue. As always, these are my estimates.

  • City sells the Qualcomm and Sports Arena sites for $350 million
  • Naming rights: $175 million
  • NFL G4 loan: $200 million

Total so far: $725 million

Further, a $200 million G4 loan means the Spanos family MUST contribute at least $200 million themselves. This leaves a shortfall of at least $75 million, maybe up to $300 million if you include a retractable roof (which would be necessary if they wanted to bring in the NCAA Final Four). This money is not coming from a tax increase, nor a bond, nor any other sort of public money.

When's the last time you heard the Spanos family state they're willing to put in at least $300 million ($500 million including the G4 loan) towards a new stadium?

You haven't, and neither have I.

The reason no one (fans, civic leaders, politicians) is taking discussions about a new stadium seriously is because the Spanos family has yet to make a proposal or offer which can be taken seriously. Furthermore, the Spanos family has also demonstrated they're not willing to cede majority control of the franchise to another person or group, which why the deal with AEG in Los Angeles fell through, and why they're not currently (i.e. today) a threat to move.

This is not good-faith deal making, it's the Spanos family trying to find a sucker to take on all the cost and risk, while keeping all the profit. And as far as stadiums are concerned, that ship has pretty much been sunk by the recession, rising construction costs and public awareness (i.e. Jeffrey Loria in Florida).

Furthermore, when you combine this P.T. Barnum deal-making model with the hit-or-miss history of the Spanos family as owners of the Chargers, is it any wonder the stadium business never gains any traction? Is it any wonder the fans have taken on a wait-and-see attitude? Is is any wonder local politicians seems to greet each new stadium proposal with yawning and faux indignation?

I believe that Dean Spanos is a good man, I believe he wants to keep the Chargers in San Diego, and I believe he cares about winning. I also believe he needs to treat his adopted hometown and the fans of his franchise with more respect than he's shown, and the respect they deserve.