San Diego Chargers a Good Bet for Los Angeles Homecoming

Howard BurnsCorrespondent IAugust 16, 2011

SAN DIEGO, CA - DECEMBER 16:  Quarterback Philip Rivers #17 of the San Diego Chargers goes under center during their game against the San Francisco 49ers at Qualcomm Stadium on December 16, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

There are more than a few pro football fans in San Diego who believe the writing’s on the wall.

Now that the Los Angeles City Council has given its nod to the framework for a plan to co-finance a new downtown football stadium, the question of who its primary tenant will again be a hot topic.

Anschutz Entertainment Group, the company financing construction of the stadium, has cemented its place as the driving force of entertainment in downtown L.A. with Staples Center, Nokia Theatre and the surrounding L.A. Live complex. Enticing an existing NFL franchise to come to its state-of-the-art facility will not be an issue.

Those most prominently mentioned are three former Los Angeles teams, the San Diego Chargers, St. Louis Rams and Oakland Raiders, as well as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Minnesota Vikings.

Of the five, the one making the most sense is the Chargers. Geographically, a move a few hours north would likely be the least objectionable for the NFL, which while abhorring the idea of seeing an existing team relocate would be delighted to again have a franchise in the nation’s No. 2 TV market.

Like other metropolitan centers, San Diego is facing severe economic challenges. Its primary football facility, Qualcomm Stadium, is 45 years old and even with renovations over the years remains antiquated. Discussions about building a new stadium in the city have continued for the past decade, but have yet to yield results.

The Chargers’ Los Angeles pedigree dates back to the launch of the American Football League in 1960, when hotel magnate Barron Hilton owned the team. After a season of playing before sparse crowds in the cavernous L.A. Coliseum, the team moved to San Diego.

Following six seasons at ancient Balboa Stadium, the Chargers in 1967 moved to the new San Diego Stadium, later known as Jack Murphy Stadium (named after the sportswriter who convinced Hilton to leave L.A.) and now Qualcomm.

Lawyer Mark Fabiani, hired in 2002 by the Spanos family that owns the Chargers to liaison with local officials, recently told The New York Times a new downtown stadium would cost $750 million to $800 million. Citing previous stadium projects, Fabiani said the public share of those costs would be about 65 percent.

San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mike Aguirre noted in a recent column that San Diegans have shown their support for the Chargers for more than a half-century, and despite how unsavory the public costs of a new stadium might be in these recessionary times, the city simply cannot afford to lose the team.

In 1984, the San Diego stadium was expanded to nearly 61,000 seats and 50 suites were added at a cost of $9.1 million. In 1997, it was expanded again when 10,500 seats, 34 suites, four Club Lounges, upgraded food service and two video boards were added. The cost to taxpayers was $78 million, which also included a new practice facility for the Chargers.

There was also a controversial ticket-guarantee provision in which the city promised the Chargers revenue equivalent to 60,000 general admission seats for each home game during the first 10 years of the 1995 Qualcomm Stadium lease, which was designed to keep the team in San Diego until at least 2020. AEG president Tim Leiweke has said his company is prepared to cover the cost for the NFL team that comes to L.A. to get out of an existing lease.

As Aguirre also wrote in his column, “The fans pay, too. They shell out at least $70 million a year for tickets, food, drink and Chargers gear. The city subsidizes the team so it plays at Qualcomm with very little stadium costs even as libraries, recreation centers and public swimming pools are closed.”

AEG’s $1.2 billion stadium, to be called Farmers Field (the insurance giant paid $700 million for naming rights), is scheduled to open in 2016, seat nearly 68,000 and be situated just south of Staples Center, home to the NBA’s Lakers and Clippers and the NHL’s Kings (another AEG property).

The roofed stadium would be attached to a new $275 million wing of the Los Angeles Convention Center adjacent to Staples Center. The city would issue that amount in bonds to pay for the wing, according to the Los Angeles Times. Up to 49 percent of the new revenue generated by the stadium and Convention Center renovation would be used to pay off $195 million of that debt. AEG would be responsible for another $80 million in bonds.

Unlike previous efforts to return NFL football to Los Angeles, this one won’t be stopped. AEG has the track record and political might to get it done, while the NFL will finally be able to leverage the inclusion of a Los Angeles franchise when the time comes to negotiate another multibillion-dollar television contract.

AEG will get its team and the one that consistently stands out among the rest is the Chargers. The fans in San Diego indeed have reason to be concerned.

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