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Stadium PR Battle, Round One: Chargers Win

Not 24 hours after the first meeting between the Chargers and the San Diego Stadium Advisory Group, mud is already being slinged in commercial quantities.

Time to get with the program, Mr. Mayor
Time to get with the program, Mr. Mayor
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Author's Note: This post is generally working under the (admittedly suspect) assumption that the Chargers are legitimately attempting to reach an agreement to build a stadium in San Diego.

I've got to hand it to Chargers' Special Counsel Mark Fabiani. Rarely have I ever seen the PR game played so well and so ruthlessly against a clearly unsuspecting opponent.

As for the City of San Diego (City), specifically Mayor Kevin Faulconer, this should be your first lesson in dealing with a PR maven like Fabiani... Do not engage unless you can change the narrative. Also, understand you're playing in the world of billionaires and big cities and big time sports leagues with a tremendous amount of money and pride at stake. No one's going to play nice or fair with you going forward.

Recapping Tuesday's Adventures in Public Relations and Posturing...

Following a contentious Monday, drowning out any optimism regarding the Stadium Group's initial meeting with the Chargers, Fabiani doubled-down on the Chargers' leverage and general discontent on Tuesday morning, by writing a letter to Mayor Faulconer and simultaneously leaking that letter to all local press. The entire letter can be read here while I'll provide some samples:

"The Chargers were told by Task Force Chairman Adam Day that the Task Force "had no budget." If the Task Force is capable of raising private funding, do you agree that this funding is better spent on a spokesperson than on expert help that might assist the Task Force in reaching a positive result... (and) will you disclose to the public and the Chargers the source of all those donations as they are received?"

- Mark Fabiani to Mayor Faulconer

"What role is (Jason C.) Roe playing with the Task Force... (and) what legal and ethical issues are raised by Mr. Roe's dual role as an apparent de facto (emphasis in original) Task Force member and as a registered lobbyist for the Delaware North company, which is bidding to become the new concessionaire at Qualcomm Stadium and, potentially, at any new stadium in San Diego?"

- Mark Fabiani to Mayor Faulconer

Now, before we go further, these are legitimately good and important questions posed by Fabiani. Here's why:

The City and the Chargers cannot afford to risk the future on a proposal or process which shows any hint of being legally vulnerable. There's no time for do-overs.

Therefore, the Chargers AND the City can't have:

  • The appearance of private donors with personal agendas donating to the Stadium Group.
  • The possibility of conflict of interest accusations arising because people on the committee, or with access to the committee, are in a position to profit from or push the Stadium Group in a particular direction.
  • People are appearing in these meetings who weren't originally named as part of the Stadium Group, or who are only added to the group with considerable early notice.

Now, in addition to raising legitimate concerns, Fabiani laid a well-executed PR trap for the City to fall into. The City can't afford to respond to his publicly leaked letter with name-calling and cheap shots, but the City can't afford to look past it, either. The irony is that the Statement of Principles Fabiani issued Monday (along with Tuesday's letter) invited a hardball response from the City. Even better, the right response would not have relied on name calling, and (temporarily) shifted Fabiani to the defensive - I'll explain that shortly.

Unfortunately, however, the City stepped right into Fabiani's PR trap, with the following comments by Roe:

This is a fish handing the fillet knife to the fisherman.

This is precisely how Fabiani gets to go on local radio and television for the next few weeks and tell the world how the "City is pursuing political cover as usual" or "The City is more interested in pointing fingers than working toward a solution" or "If this is the attitude of people who work for the Mayor, there's no way we can reach a deal in San Diego."

To his credit, Faulconer issued a personal letter to Dean Spanos on Tuesday evening. The full letter can be read here, but here's the important section:

"It is with (explaining the mission of the task force) in mind that I express my disappointment in the ongoing actions and demeanor of Mr. Fabiani. His divisive tone and criticism of this group of volunteers, civic leaders, and the City of San Diego as a whole are not conducive to developing a plan for a new stadium. I hope his behavior is not indicative of our ability to find a solution."

- Mayor Faulconer to Dean Spanos.

Solid. Gets the point across without resorting to cheap shots, defensiveness, and puts the onus on Spanos.

Now, the Response Which Could (Or Should) Have Been

Unfortunately, had his advisor not blundered into Fabiani's trap, Faulconer and/or the Stadium Group was in position to deliver a much stronger response to both Fabiani's Statement of Principles and his letter to Faulconer. Comments along these lines (and his last line in the quote above hints at it):

  • The City appreciates the Chargers' efforts over the last decade plus to reach a stadium deal with San Diego. However, the failures of previous officeholders and proposals should not used against a completely new group of people, all volunteers, all experts and professionals in their respective fields. They deserve the benefit of the doubt without being compared to anyone else.
  • The Chargers' efforts over the last decade plus indicate that not only does the City need to work harder at finding an agreement, but it is possible the Chargers need to reevaluate their processes and ideas as well if a deal is to be reached.
  • The Chargers have made clear that they will only support a ballot measure which can be passed by 2/3rds of voters. Given the extreme difficulty of reaching this result, as well as steadfastly refusing to consider sharing other revenue streams which might allow for a simple majority vote, it legitimately calls into question whether the Chargers have entered into this process in good faith, or if they are intentionally setting a near-impossible goal with the intent of its failure allowing them to leave for Los Angeles while telling fans of 54 years that "you tried."
  • Just as the Chargers do not want the City to engage in this process to provide "political cover," the City is hopeful the Chargers and the NFL are not engaging in this process solely to leverage a better deal outside of San Diego.
  • The City fully understand and shares the Chargers' concerns with transparency in regards to the Stadium Group, and the City will ensure that any and all donations and expenditures involving the Stadium Group are documented appropriately and subject to public review. In the interest of fostering trust for the forthcoming process, the City also encourages the Chargers to disclose the nature and amount of the money spent during during their attempts to reach a stadium agreement, or to open their books for public review and show the public why a new stadium is so necessary for the long-term viability of the franchise.

Summing Up

Going forward, the City has to understand they're playing hardball with a desperate opponent, who may be actively pursuing a deal elsewhere, if not already have a deal in place.

There can't be any more gifts to Fabiani and the Chargers like Tuesday's outburst from Jason Roe, or the sudden disclosure of how the Stadium Group gets money to perform its duties. The Mayor has to ensure the transparency of the Stadium Group to protect the process, the City, and the Chargers from any potential legal troubles.

Lastly, don't be afraid to call the Chargers out on their intentions in a subtle and straightforward manner if they persist in attacking the Stadium Group throughout their process.