Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers, is a decrepit hulk, but the city government’s comical dysfunction means a deal for a new venue is as far off as ever
When Peter King approached me about writing a weekly West Coast-centric column for his website, I found it attractive not only because I believe Sports Illustrated’s football coverage has had an eastern bias, but also because it meant shorter flights from my home in San Diego.
But then the reality hit me. It also meant more time in dumps disguised as NFL stadiums, namely O.co Coliseum in Oakland and Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. (Candlestick Park, thank goodness, has just one more year left; the 49ers move into their new building in Santa Clara in 2014.)
Actually, calling Qualcomm a dump really is an insult to dumps. The JumboTron is so old that some replacement parts can only be found on eBay. There’s no capacity for a hi-definition video board or for new electronic signage. In an era in which the NFL is trying to heighten the stadium experience to allow fans to keep up with scores and stats from other games via their smartphones, connectivity is limited in part by structural issues within the stadium. (At the preseason opener this year, one Chargers exec could not communicate via email with his staff during the game because of poor wifi.) White trash bags cover large electrical connectors that hang from a lower wall, and cracks are visible in the concrete in various places. Heavy rains often cause the drainage systems to back up, which is why the team has rubber boots on hand for fans whose seats are flooded. It’s not uncommon for sewage to leak onto the field and into the visiting locker room. According to an independent audit performed for the city, the stadium needs $70 million in maintenance and repairs.
Yes, I know. Stop whining. Things could be worse. I could have to critique One Direction for a living. But what’s especially irritating is that things don’t have to be this way. For the last decade, the Chargers have proposed a variety of plans for a new stadium that would keep the team in San Diego. The latest is a downtown venue near the convention center and the Padres’ Petco Park. Based on the cost of the Niners’ new stadium, the Chargers’ project would come to an estimated $1.1 billion, with $300 million of that from public sources. Whether you object on principle to any public financing for sports venues or not, the simple fact is that the Chargers don’t even have a viable entity to negotiate with. Their management is dealing with the most dysfunctional city government in the country. That is not hyperbole.
The JumboTron is so old that some replacement parts can only be found on eBay. Heavy rains often cause the drainage systems to back up, and it’s not uncommon for sewage to leak onto the field and into the visiting locker room.
At one point in the last decade San Diego had four “mayors” in five years. One announced his resignation five months after a controversial re-election win over an 11th-hour write-in candidate, and his replacement then resigned after three days as acting mayor when he was convicted (though later acquitted in a new trial) of conspiracy, wire fraud and extortion.
In February, former mayor Maureen O’Connor admitted to federal prosecutors that she had taken more than $2 million from the charitable organization of her late husband, Jack-in-the-Box founder Robert Peterson, to feed a gambling habit, and that over the years she had wagered more than $1 billion at casinos across the country. And current mayor Bob Filner has effectively pulled the emergency brake on city business because he faces at least 15 accusations of sexual harassment and mounting calls for his resignation.
The fact that Chargers president and CEO Dean Spanos hasn’t packed up the team already—and there is a gaping NFL void two hours up the coast in Los Angeles—speaks volumes about his sincerity about keeping the Chargers in town, although many of his critics will refuse to accept that. I’ve butted heads with Spanos on multiple occasions over the years, but one thing I’ve never questioned is his commitment to staying in town and doing a deal that’s fair to both sides.
His family name means everything to him. As I’ve written before, when his football people are considering a potentially controversial move, his input often is along the lines of: Don’t embarrass my family. He realizes that if he moves the Chargers, he will be to San Diego what Art Modell was to Cleveland. And if he does a deal that gets over on the city while keeping the Chargers in town, well, that would be equally unpleasant.
But how do you do a negotiate with a metropolis that is rudderless? “The city needs mayoral leadership for big projects, and right now it is not there,” city attorney Jan Goldsmith said in a statement to The MMQB. “But, we will get through this turmoil.”
Spanos is clearly frustrated, but not broken. “We’ve been over 10 years in this process, and there have been times where we thought we were close,” he said. “But we may be the furthest we’ve been from getting a stadium done because of what’s happened locally. It’s really a sad situation. But we’re not going to stop trying to get a deal done. I haven’t given up. It’s still the greatest place to live. This is where I’m from. This is where I want to be—and that means a lot. But this is a business, and we have to compete with 31 other clubs. It’s my responsibility to put this organization in the best financial position it can be in to be competitive with the 31 other clubs.”
Spanos recognizes the financial issues facing the city, which is why his group is trying to structure a deal in which any public money (more on that in a minute) would not come from the general fund that’s used for police, fire, road repairs and the like. Some residents are against spending any public money on a proposed project for the Chargers, but the reality is that the city already is spending roughly $15 million a year to maintain Qualcomm and the San Diego Sports Arena, both of which it owns.
We may be the furthest we’ve been from getting a stadium done because of what’s happened locally. But we’re not going to stop trying. —Dean Spanos
Spread those costs over the seven years remaining on the team’s lease after this season, add in the $70 million in deferred maintenance that’s due, and the Chargers believe that by bonding against that money it would cover the $300 million public contribution the team expects to seek. The city also would then be able to sell the 166 acres at the Qualcomm site, as well as the parcel that the Sports Arena sits on.
It’s a significant vision—something the area has lacked for years—because it incorporates three different parts of town: the Qualcomm site in Mission Valley; Point Loma, where the Sports Arena sits; and downtown. But the city needs strong leadership to help get a deal done, and there’s no indication such leadership currently exists at City Hall. Without it, San Diego is sure to lose the team.
My words, not Spanos’s. Just do the math.
The Chargers rank in the bottom quartile in the NFL in revenue. Teams share national television money, but local monies, such as those from TV and radio deals, suite sales, sponsorships and advertising, are kept by the individual teams. The Chargers are among the have-nots in this area.
For instance, if they sell all 113 of their suites at Qualcomm, at an average of $125,000 per suite, that totals just over $14 million. If Dallas sells out its 300 suites, at an average of $250,000, that’s $75 million for the Cowboys. In other words, suite sales alone amount to an advantage of more than $60 million in local revenue. Such differences affect how teams spend on their coaches and how they structure contracts for cash flow.
The 47-year-old Qualcomm was originally built for baseball and football and was more suited to the former—which becomes glaringly obvious when visiting a modern stadium. For one, the seats are closer to the field in new stadiums, whereas they flow away from the field in Qualcomm. The first row of seats in San Diego is approximately 70 feet from the playing field, nearly twice the distance compared to Invesco Field in Denver and the refurbished Soldier Field in Chicago. And many of those front row seats at Qualcomm—great for those old Padres games—are obstructed for football.