San Diego ponders whether it can keep Chargers

Sunday, May 26, 2002

SAN DIEGO -- This city's checkered relationship with pro sports is getting tested again.

San Diego has lost two NBA franchises, almost said goodbye to big league baseball and had a lucrative Super Bowl and a new downtown ballpark threatened by lawsuits.

Now the Chargers, Southern California's only NFL team, say they need a new stadium to keep up financially with other franchises. If they don't get one here, they might get one in Los Angeles, where they played the 1960 season before moving south.

If the Chargers leave, so does San Diego's chance of getting future Super Bowls and the millions of dollars they bring in.

The Super Bowl returns in January for the third time, but it certainly will be the last in the current stadium. Brilliant sunshine in late January only goes so far; the NFL says 35-year-old Qualcomm Stadium has fallen below league standards for Super Bowls. There are 2,500 partial-view seats the league won't sell and the locker rooms have been called the worst in the NFL.

So what's a city to do?

Locals don't seem to be in a mood to further subsidize Chargers owner Alex Spanos, who's worth almost $1 billion. And it was just five years ago that Qualcomm was expanded at a cost of $78 million -- with all but $18 million of that publicly financed -- ostensibly to keep the team here through 2020 and attract future Super Bowls.

The Spanos family -- son Dean runs the team as president -- says its first choice is to stay in San Diego, if it gets an acceptable deal.

Team has fallen behind

The Chargers say they've fallen behind because teams that have gotten new stadiums make more money from luxury boxes, other premium seating, naming rights and advertising.

Civic and political leaders knew they'd have to address the Chargers' future, but not this soon.

"We were thinking this would be a nice, quiet summer focused on the Super Bowl and the Padres," said Ron Fowler, chairman of the San Diego Super Bowl Host Committee. "L.A. issues have accelerated that."

A group led by Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz wants to build a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles to lure an NFL team back to the nation's second-largest TV market. Los Angeles been without the NFL since the Raiders and Rams left before the 1995 season.

The Chargers are prime candidates because of an "out" clause in their lease that allows them to shop for a deal with other cities and leave after the 2003 season, if certain conditions are met.

The Chargers announced May 9 that they'll move training camp in 2003 from San Diego to a complex being built by Anschutz in the Los Angeles suburb of Carson.

Fowler fears losing the Chargers would mark San Diego as a place where things don't get done. And if the city ever decided it wanted another NFL team, it would cost millions to get one.

"It can be a negative, and I don't think we need that if we want to be a world-class community, and I think we are," Fowler said.

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