The San Diego mayoral candidate’s clumsy statements about the team owner are not helpful, or wise. Update: Watch KUSI Debate
I like Bob Filner. I think he’s been an outstanding representative of our region in Congress, and I think he’ll make a very good mayor. I’ve enjoyed the several interactions that I’ve had with him during his campaign for mayor. I think he’s the right candidate to look to in order to create a better economic environment for all of San Diego. This online publication recently endorsed Bob Filner, and I fully and completely support that endorsement. I wrote the damn thing, after all!
So yes, I will be voting for Bob Filner on Nov. 6. No question whatsoever about it.
There is one thing, though, that I do wish Filner would clean up his act about. During a debate last night on KUSI between Filner and his opponent, Carl DeMaio, the question was posed about the candidates’ support for a new stadium for the Chargers. Both opposed public subsidies, although DeMaio supports the idea of a sports entertainment complex that will include a new football stadium. “But it has to be privately funded,” he said.
Filner said that while he supports the Chargers “even when they lose,” he is against any public subsidies for a new stadium. He said that the Chargers have a billionaire owner that is trying to defraud the City of San Diego, accusing the Spanoses of essentially trying to hold the city hostage with the threat of moving the team in order to get a sweetheart deal. He said that these billionaire owners are “making hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” so if they want a new stadium, they should build it themselves.
So many things wrong with those statements I’m almost embarrassed for Mr. Filner.
Full disclosure: I worked for the Chargers for 11 years, eight of those years as a part of the Player Personnel office. I know Dean Spanos. I know or have at least met pretty much his entire family—brother, sisters, parents, wife Susie, and his sons A.G. and John. I am not a stranger to them.
Politically speaking, there is almost nothing about which I agree with the Spanoses, particularly Dean. This is a guy with pictures all over his office wall of his father aboard Air Force One with George H.W. Bush. By invitation, the entire family attended both George W. Bush inaugurations. These are hard core, right wing Republicans. I most certainly am not. As anyone who has read any of my writings would know, I am a liberal, and proudly so.
More full disclosure: I left the Chargers of my own volition in 2006. I was not fired. I did not “leave for better opportunities elsewhere.” The conditions of my continued employment became unpalatable to me, so I made the decision to leave. And it was my decision. Do I miss it? Sure I do. Is there perhaps some bitterness about the circumstances under which I left? Maybe, for reasons which I may or may not discuss in a future column. But I wouldn’t trade the experiences of those 11 years for anything.
Because of their wealth, the Spanoses might very well be considered out of touch with the common man, including many of those who work for them. They’ve lead rather sheltered lives that can be afforded by wealth and privilege. Good for them. That certainly does not make them bad people.
In fact, despite my difference in world view with them, I’ve always found Dean and his family to be more or less good people. And anyone who has met Dean’s brother Michael can’t help but like the guy. So Filner’s attacks on the Spanoses throughout the campaign have struck a particular nerve with me.
Some simple facts: Filner excoriates them for being “billionaire owners.” That’s true. Technically they are billionaires, at least by the assets they own. According to Forbes, the Spanos family is worth $1.1 billion as of March, 2012. But here’s the interesting part, and it’s something that Filner needs to keep in mind when he launches his attacks: The San Diego Chargers football team accounts for $936 million of that $1.1 billion, making them the 24th most valuable of the 32 NFL teams. Without the Chargers, the Spanos family, according to Forbes, is worth $164 million. That’s a lot of money, but it won’t exactly qualify one as a billionaire Master of the Universe. Context, as always, is key.
Next, Filner has repeatedly insisted that the Chargers are making “hundreds of millions of dollars” every year, meaning they clearly have the resources to build their own stadium if they really wanted to. Again, context is key. The Chargers do not make hundreds of millions of dollars per year. The NFL collectively might, but not the Chargers by themselves.
The NFL as a whole makes around $4 billion per year on TV alone, according to a report by Bloomberg News. That $4 billion gets split up evenly into 32 parts, equaling roughly $125 million in revenue per team. That’s before expenses. The teams then have to pony up for the NFL operations in New York and the NFL Films operations in New Jersey. Then there’s the NFL Network, which gets paid for by the team owners.
And that’s before we even get to the team’s individual expenses, which includes player salaries and benefits; coaches salaries and benefits; team staff; operating expenses of the teams’ headquarters; the expense of sending the teams’ scouting staffs all over the country to evaluate players for the upcoming draft, including airfare, hotel, rental car, per diem, etc. And do you have any idea how much it costs to charter a flight for an entire NFL team and everyone that travels with them to away games and back, paying for lodging and selected meals in between? Tens of millions per year in travel expenses for the team alone.
I may not have seen the Chargers’ accounting books myself, but being there every day can give you a pretty good idea of how much it really costs to run an NFL franchise. By the time the team has covered most of its expenses, that $125 million is pretty much gone. In fact, the NFL salary cap–the amount teams are allowed to spend each year on player salaries–stands somewhere in the neighborhood of $123 million, adjusting each year for the amount of TV revenue the league expects. And since most teams, including the Chargers, will spend right up to that salary cap, that means that the TV money gets spent almost exclusively on player salaries.
No one is saying that NFL teams are not profitable. They are—some much more so than others. But they are not nearly as lucrative as people like Bob Filner would have us believe. When all is said and done, NFL teams are lucky to turn a modest profit. My educated guess is that a profit—pure profit—of about $10 million is a pretty good year for most NFL teams. As the saying goes, an owner does not get rich by owning an NFL team, they get rich by selling an NFL team.
One other point: Spanos, team spokesman on stadium matters Mark Fabiani, and the Chargers have been very careful to not issue threats, veiled or otherwise, during this decade long quest for a new facility. They have never once issued any sort of ultimatum—“build a stadium or we’re leaving” sort of challenge. Rather, they have quietly and meticulously gone about making their case. Never once have they used the rumblings of one of two possible new stadiums in Los Angeles to club San Diegans over the head. Other sources may have, but it never came from Murphy Canyon. Their approach has actually been quite responsible.
Bob Filner has seriously distorted the facts when it comes to the Chargers, and that won’t help his cause or San Diego’s when it comes time to hunker down and find a way to keep the team here in San Diego, if that is still a priority.
Much as it may personally pain me to say it, Carl DeMaio had a point last night during the debate on KUSI. He said that painting Dean Spanos as an evil billionaire owner (paraphrase) is not a good starting point for negotiation with the team. In fact, it could act as a deterrent for negotiations, similar to what we saw when Mike Aguirre was the San Diego City Attorney; Aguirre was the reason no talks between the team and the city could occur at all during his tenure.
Mr. Filner has a bad habit of repelling people who could potentially be valuable assets to his campaign. He did it with Irwin Jacobs, the billionaire founder of Qualcomm, a Democrat who supports Democratic causes, but who has endorsed DeMaio in this race. I understand why Jacobs would be reticent to support Filner after Filner’s clumsy comments about him in front of the City Council on the Balboa Park renovation. And directly insulting someone with whom you would be in direct negotiations should you become the next Mayor of San Diego, as he has Dean Spanos, is not typically a wise thing to do.
I still fully support Bob Filner as San Diego’s next mayor. But I would offer him two pieces of advice in the closing days of the campaign: First, get your facts straight on the Chargers and their finances. Don’t try to mislead the public about what resources they may or may not have. It’s not helpful. Second, don’t vilify Dean Spanos or the team he and his family owns. They’ve done nothing to deserve it. The family may not support your candidacy (as Republicans they surely don’t), but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t be valuable assets to you in the future should you win on Nov. 6. In fact, I’m pretty sure they will.
Follow Andy on Twitter at @AndyCohenSD
Update: Watch the debate on KUSI in its entirety below:
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