With the Olympic Games behind us, sports fans are turning their attention toward the start of the National Football League season next week. There are plenty of compelling story lines, from Brett Favre's short retirement and resurrection with the New York Jets to the mystery surrounding Peyton Manning's knee injury. But for me, the biggest story is the ascension of the San Diego Chargers, one of the early favorites to make it to the Super Bowl.
As an 18-year Chargers season ticket-holder and borderline-obsessive fan, I should be excited by these forecasts. But my exhilaration is tempered by anxiety and a touch of sadness. Why? Because it's possible that this season, which could be the team's most glorious, could also be its last in San Diego. The Chargers are currently looking for a new stadium but can't find any takers here. Owner Alex Spanos and his son, Dean, who runs the team, say they need revenue from new luxury boxes, club seats, sponsorships and advertising to keep pace with all the teams that are playing in new stadiums and the others that soon will be.
It's more a situation of "want" than "need." Last Monday night I attended the final preseason game, against the Seattle Seahawks, with 53,000 other screaming Charger fans at a sold-out Qualcomm Stadium. Built in 1967, the 'Q', formerly known as Jack Murphy Stadium, is an old-school, multi-purpose stadium that apparently has become outmoded by today's luxurious, football-only, skybox-laden venues. It still works just fine—it hosted a Super Bowl as recently as 2003—but the Spanoses want a new state-of-the-art facility, and the city of San Diego has basically taken itself out of the running because of ongoing fiscal woes.
In San Diego County we're down to one last hope: Chula Vista, a burgeoning city a few miles south of San Diego where the Chargers hope to build on the bay front site where a power plant currently operates. The team is conducting a financial analysis and meeting with Chula Vista city officials. But to get this done it'll take new freeway ramps, parking lots, and a new trolley stop. It doesn't look good. To put it in football terms, it's fourth and long for the Chargers' future in the San Diego area. If Chula Vista doesn't come through, this team will probably punt.
In January, the Spanos clan will be free to start talking to officials in cities outside San Diego County, and all they have to do to leave is give San Diego written notice and a termination fee of $56 million. Sounds like a ton of money, but if they can find another city willing to help them build a new football stadium, which now can cost as much as $1 billion, that $56 mil will be worth it. Though the team could possibly find a new deal and move before the start of next season, the more likely scenario if they decide to move is that team would play one last lame duck season in San Diego.
If the Chargers leave, I fear I'll be left with a serious case of separation anxiety. But I can hardly blame the Spanoses for all this. They could have a little more local loyalty, granted, but like all business owners they're just trying to get the biggest return on their investment. Luxury boxes have become an important source of revenue in the NFL, whose current revenue sharing agreement forces teams to forfeit a substantial portion of ticket revenues for redistribution among all the teams. But luxury boxes, which can be rented out for an entire season or for individual games, are exempt. And, to their credit, the Spanoses have campaigned tirelessly for six years and spent millions trying to find a local stadium option.
The real problem is a woeful lack of leadership by San Diego city officials, who are apparently afraid to touch the stadium issue because of the perceived mega costs in these down economic times. The solution? The new stadium should be built on the site where the 'Q' now sits-costs would be lower since the infrastructure (freeway exits, etc.) is already in place.
It's probably going to take a Super Bowl appearance, perhaps even a Super Bowl victory, to convince San Diego's mayor and city council that this team is worth keeping. The Chargers, who have been here since 1961, are as beloved in this town as any of the league's storied franchises are in their cities. We don't wear cheese on our heads, bur we love the Bolts, and the idea that they might leave is unthinkable for fans like me who live and die with Charger football.
Of course, owners taking their professional sports teams to other cities and leaving hapless fans behind is not new, and not limited to the NFL. It's been happening in the money-above-all-else sports world for years, the most famous example of which was the move by the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958. It even happened in Cleveland, which possibly has the most loyal sports fans of them all. Former Browns owner Art Modell, who took his team and bugged out for Baltimore in 1996 (The same city which, to be fair, saw its beloved Colts decamp for Indianapolis under the cover of darkness in 1984) much to the dismay and anger of Browns fans, still can't comfortably walk the streets of Cleveland. The Browns franchise was happily resurrected with new ownership - and the same ugly old uniforms - three years later. But the resentment toward Modell persists.
Georgia Frontiere, the late owner of the Los Angeles Rams, took her team to St. Louis in 1995. The same year Los Angeles lost its other pro football franchise when the Raiders returned to Oakland. But the City of Angels, which is the second largest city in the nation, barely seemed to notice the loss of the pro game. Still, San Diego isn't L.A. We call this America's Finest City for a reason. Even with our wildfires, sewage spills, border violence, laughably amateurish local newscasters ("stay classy, San Diego"), and sometimes-corrupt city officials, this is still to my mind the best place in the country to live. There's a strong sense of community here, and we take some smug satisfaction in the knowledge that we have an NFL team and Los Angeles doesn't.
But I digress. The point is, if the Bolts bolt, especially if they opt for Los Angeles County, where Spanos family friend Ed Roski reportedly wants to build a new stadium, a good chunk of our quietly superior attitude toward that gargantuan mess of a metropolis a couple hours north or us will go with it. The Chargers actually started out in L.A.; they were once known as the Los Angeles Chargers, but soon wised up and moved south. A return of the Los Angeles Chargers would be too much to bear. But there isn't much a hapless fan like me can do to stop this. I'm not too proud to beg, but I'm not sure who'd listen.
Meantime, the disconnect has already begun. In the parking lot at the 'Q' last night I chatted with dozens of Charger faithful and asked each one of them about the possibility of the team leaving. Most of them said they really don't believe it will happen. But they all know the issues; they read the sports pages and listen to sports talk radio just like me. They're in denial. And I'm right there with them.
This season may or may not be the Chargers' swan song in San Diego. But I'm not going to let it ruin what promises to be a great year for this football team. I'll enjoy every minute with my fellow fans in Section 39 as we watch LaDainian Tomlinson, Phillip Rivers, Antonio Gates, Antonio Cromartie, Jamal Williams, Chris Chambers, Sean Phillips, Nate Kaeding and the rest of this team strive to make it to the Super Bowl in Tampa Bay next February. But I do have one question for anyone reading this: Are there 12-step programs for football fans?