San Diego refuses billion dollar ransom as Chargers head to LA
NFL franchise leaves California city after 56 years having failed to land $1.1bn golden gift
San Diego Chargers president and chief executive Dean Spanos will take his NFL franchise to Los Angeles. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters
Sooner or later the public welfare office for sports billionaires is going to close. American cities will look at the more than $7 billion (€6.5 billion) of taxpayer money spent in the last 20 years on football stadiums alone and say: “enough!”
On Thursday, the San Diego Chargers announced they are leaving the city where they have played for the last 56 years and will move up the southern California coast to Los Angeles. They are doing this because the politicians and voters in San Diego did not give Chargers owner Dean Spanos the same golden gift Minneapolis and Atlanta and Seattle and all the other capitulating municipalities gave their ridiculously wealthy teams’ owners.
The Chargers were never going to pay up for what so many others kept getting (in part) for free. Their final plea to the electorate came with just $350 million of their own money as they asked for a 4 per cent hotel tax increase and some city contributions to fund $1.1 billion of a $1.8 billion project.
Even with the $300 million in loans and grants from the NFL, San Diego wasn’t buying a bad deal. Not for a stadium that would swallow up valuable downtown real estate and parking lots, and perhaps damage business for the nearby convention centre the team said their stadium would help.
The whisper of Super Bowls to come – always a favourite NFL lobbying trick – meant little to the masses. They’ve had Super Bowls before. If there’s one thing a Super Bowl city knows once the show goes away, the party was never worth the ransom the powers that be demanded. In November, voters shot down Spanos’s last offer by 53 per cent to 47 per cent .
For the want of free money that was never going to come, Spanos will move his team to the StubHub Center, the 30,000 seat stadium that hosts the LA Galaxy, a venue tucked in the faceless sprawl where Los Angeles County bleeds into Orange County. Then in 2019 the Chargers will relocate to LA Rams owner Stan Kroenke’s new stadium in Inglewood where they will become second-tier tenants, taking little income for themselves but paying a fabulously-low price for the space.
One estimate has the team nearly doubling in value to $3 billion with a move to LA so presumably becoming Kroenke’s annoying renters is worth abandoning San Diego.
While it is easy to look at San Diego heroically in this fight, painting the city as more concerned with funding schools than stuffing the wallet of a greedy owner, Spanos’s fight to get a stadium more-than-half paid for by someone else was always a loser. His biggest mistake was in asking for public money in a state that had nothing left to give.
In another time, San Diego might have given Spanos a new stadium. They could have built it with some kind of financing scheme like the $235 million in municipal bonds and $53 million in redevelopment funds that voters awarded the city’s other sports team, baseball’s Padres, in 1998 for a $456 million stadium.
The problem was the Chargers had already cut an ugly deal with the city in the mid-1990s, one that turned scenic Qualcomm Stadium into a concrete urn. It also forced the city to buy any unsold Chargers tickets for 10 years to guarantee sellouts and bypass a foolish league rule that pulled games off television in any markets where a stadium was not fully sold.
And yet even with that sham, San Diego might have come through for Spanos had California’s economy not fallen into near-ruin this century. Not long after the Padres got the funding for Petco Park, California’s sports goody bag was empty. The baseball stadium in San Francisco and the arena in downtown Los Angeles built in the early 2000s were constructed almost completely with private funds, just like Kroenke’s new palace in Inglewood. The lone California exemption was the 49ers new home in Silicon Valley, a $1.2 billion building, which received $114 million in local hotel tax money from Santa Clara, the city in which it was built.
No way was San Diego handing out $1 billion for a stadium that would sit empty for most of the year. Even assuming the special tax – which would have raised the city’s take on hotel bills to 16 per cent – wouldn’t have pulled money that could have gone to schools and roads, the effort to raise the tax would have taken energy away from tending those schools and roads. Giving Spanos $1 billion, regardless of where it came from, would have sent a terrible message.
He is less marching his team to LA than slinking away with a cheap new logo that looks like a broken lamp plug. Thursday is not historic, it is sad. The Chargers are an institution in a city that doesn’t have many. As someone who entered this world on the hilltop behind Qualcomm Stadium and was raised by a father who had grown up dreaming of professional football in his hometown, the thought of the Chargers playing in LA leaves a pit in my stomach. San Diego might seem blasé about sports but it is also a community, a provincial place; nothing like the megalopolis to the north.
Having the Chargers mattered to San Diego. The yellow lightning bolt was a big piece of the city’s identity. Keeping the team was important. But not even civic pride is worth giving a billion dollars to a billionaire.