In the quest for a new stadium, the public needs to meet the team at least part of the way.
By Andy Cohen
Last week, the venerable Chargers blog “Bolts from the Blue” ran a piece pondering the question of who will be primarily at fault if the team ends up leaving San Diego, its home since 1961, for the greener pastures of a new stadium in a new locale. It’s an interesting question with few concrete answers, but with plenty of blame to go around if the team does relocate.
Let’s be clear about something: The Chargers cannot continue to play in Qualcomm Stadium indefinitely. Contrary to popular belief driven primarily by civic pride, Qualcomm Stadium is the second worst stadium in the entire NFL, surpassed only by Oakland’s O.co Coliseum, which is truly a pit unmatched. Not even Candlestick Park, which is scheduled to be replaced as of the beginning of the 2014 season with the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, comes anywhere close to being as awful as Qualcomm. Candlestick at least has some charm to it. It has some character; an intimate, festive atmosphere for fans. The ‘Q’? Not so much.
The ‘Q’ is wholly owned by the City of San Diego, and by the city’s own admission, it is in an embarrassingly dilapidated state with a backlog of maintenance needs approaching $100 million ($80 million as of 2011). It is also a massive drain on the city’s coffers to the tune of $11.8 million per year. That’s $11.8 million that could be spent on other pressing civic needs.
A 2010 San Diego County Grand Jury report also compared the leases of the Chargers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who, like the Chargers, play in a publicly owned facility. The Grand Jury found that the Buccaneers pay significantly more in rent to the Tampa Sports Authority. However, that comparison is hardly apples to apples, since Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium saw its first regular season NFL game in 1998, compared to the then named San Diego Stadium, which first opened its gates to the public in 1967.
The difference is in the revenue generating capacity of the newer stadiums compared to the older buildings such as Qualcomm. The newer stadiums are in and of themselves revenue generators for the teams that occupy them: Electronic sign and ribbon boards allow for greater in-stadium advertising flexibility and broader advertiser appeal; more efficient and strategically placed concessions offer greater convenience and better service, encouraging more sales and increasing revenue; better premium seating options that are more valued to the fans who opt to purchase them; the list goes on and on.
The Buccaneers are able to generate more revenue from their stadium, and thus have the ability to pay more in rent….not to mention the fact that they are paying for a new, modern facility with more bells and whistles which presumably has its maintenance needs up-to-date.
The Chargers have been seeking a new stadium for the team to call home for over a decade. They’ve explored numerous sites, including the current Qualcomm property, parcels in Oceanside and Chula Vista and Kearney Mesa, as well as two recent proposals downtown. To date there has been precious little progress to point to, and yet Spanos and his Chargers soldier on in a quest to continue to call San Diego their home.
The BFTB crew lays a large portion of the blame for the “mishandled” stadium issue on the Chargers’ ownership, Dean Spanos in particular. They accuse the Chargers’ brass of being shortsighted, saying that “they should have worked with the city for a new stadium in 1995-1996, when the cost was much lower.” They then compare the costs of the seven newer stadiums that opened throughout the NFL between 1995 and 1999, lamenting that they “settled” on a $78 million expansion that was completed in 1997. The problem is that the expansion idea was the city’s to begin with; a new stadium had to that point never been part of the discussion, and at the time was not deemed necessary by the team.
Then-Mayor Susan Golding (a Republican) was intrigued at the prospect of getting San Diego into the permanent Super Bowl rotation. Convinced that an expanded Jack Murphy Stadium would play host to The League’s premier event on multiple occasions (it was, twice, in 1998 and 2002, but was notoriously precluded from future Super Bowls by then Commissioner Paul Tagliabue due to its dilapidated status). It was Golding that spearheaded the effort to expand the stadium to permanently meet the NFL’s minimum seating capacity of 70,000 seats for hosting Super Bowls, and it was Golding and her administration that introduced the infamous ticket guarantee that became the object of massive public derision.
Cost projections when the team first began its new stadium quest in 2002, by the way, came in at $400 million.
About that ticket guarantee (actually a rent credit, as the BFTB crew accurately notes): Once again, it was the city—under massive pressure from the public—that approached the team about renegotiating the Qualcomm lease and doing away with the controversial ticket policy whereby the city was required to “purchase” enough general admission tickets to prevent local blackouts. In hindsight, from a financial standpoint the guarantee would have turned out to be a winner for the city. But at the time no one could have forecasted the years of sellouts that followed the team’s ascendancy to elite status that began in 2004. Attendance ebbs and flows with the success or failure of the team, and up until the renegotiated deal was finalized for the 2004 season, attendance had been less than stellar for a team that went 1-15 in 2000, and whose best season since a 1995 playoff appearance was Marty Schottenheimer’s first as head coach in 2002 at 8-8.
Politically, and from a PR standpoint, the ticket guarantee was an unmitigated disaster, leading to scores of bad press for both the team and the city. The actual structure of the deal was never completely understood by the public, and it reached a point where the city could no longer abide by the existing contract. From their point of view, they had no choice but to rid themselves of the stink of the ticket guarantee just to create a sense of public goodwill.
BFTB also claims that despite the numerous proposals put forth by the team, Spanos has never declared just exactly what the team’s contribution to a new facility would be. In truth, the team’s proposals have always included at least $100 million contribution to the cause by the team and its owners, and perhaps more, in addition to an assumed $150-$200 million in so called G4 loans from the NFL. The question has always been a matter of where the balance would come from, and what the public contribution would be, if any. From day one the team has offered to pony up a significant chunk of the cost out of their own pockets (so-to-speak….the money would not necessarily be in the form of direct cash infusions from their own bank accounts, but more likely loans, funds from naming rights, etc. or some combination thereof).
Spanos and the Chargers have been incredibly patient, spending tens of millions on multiple proposals and outreach efforts in order to garner support and momentum for getting a new facility done. And if the team hasn’t given more specific numbers as to what their actual contribution amount will be, it’s because no one has actually sat down with them and discussed the situation in depth. No one has taken their concerns seriously, no one has taken their proposals seriously and earnestly begin to discuss a solution to the city’s current stadium problem—and it is a problem. And that’s the city’s fault, too, since it hasn’t been for lack of effort on the part of the team. After all, they can’t negotiate with themselves….or they could, but they wouldn’t likely get very far. The $100 million is likely merely an opening figure, one that represents eight percent of the family’s entire net worth. And admonitions of the family’s unwillingness to “cede majority control to another person or group” is ludicrous on its face.
Rather, it has been a lack of political will on the part of the city of San Diego to seriously address the issue, and an unwillingness by the public to support any sort of public contribution toward a new stadium. The public understandably views these public-private stadium partnerships with a great deal of skepticism, but an unwillingness to even consider a public financing component is what will eventually drive the team from San Diego. “Good faith deal making” requires a willingness on the part of both parties to consider a deal. For a variety of reasons, an entirely privately financed facility in San Diego is not at all realistic, and if there is no public financing component, there won’t be a new stadium. Period.
The City of San Diego and its residents have to make a choice: Is keeping the Chargers in town important or not? To this point we have heard nothing but platitudes from city officials about how they would like to keep the Chargers here where they belong, but nothing more than platitudes. There has been no commitment from anyone to sit down and hammer out a mutually beneficial bargain, whatever form it may take and if it’s at all possible to begin with, on the part of our civic leaders. The city certainly has other dire issues to deal with, and if a new stadium is just not in the realm of possibilities, then we need to simply say so.
Choosing to leave the team to their own devices and to deal with the issue on their own is a legitimate course of action. Reasonable people can make a reasonable case that having an NFL football team for the city to call its own is not and should not be a priority. And if that’s what the majority in this city believes, then we should stop stringing the team along so that they can explore their next opportunity and not waste any more time or resources fighting a futile battle in San Diego.
But know this: If the Chargers do eventually leave, it will be our fault, not theirs.