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The Chargers stopped caring about San Diego two years ago

Posted: February 10th, 2017 | Columns, Featured, Opinion | No Comments

By Tony Manolatos

[Editor’s note: This column was first published in the Voice of San Diego]

I was tired of listening to Mark Fabiani. For more than an hour, he arrogantly presented a series of rigid deal points on behalf of Chargers owner Dean Spanos to Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s newly formed stadium task force.

I had heard enough so I quietly opened my laptop to check Twitter. What I saw surprised me.

The memo Fabiani had prepared for the task force was all over Twitter. He had given it to the media before our morning meeting two years ago at the U.S. Grant Hotel.

After the Chargers stadium point man wrapped up and left, I turned my laptop around. “He released his memo to the media before sharing it with us,” I said to a stunned room.

That was our first meeting with the Chargers and it set the stage for everything else, including last week’s announcement that the team was moving to Los Angeles.

It was clear early on that Spanos was not going to work at staying in San Diego. His strategy focused on creating a path to Los Angeles — where the worth of his $2.1 billion franchise is expected to soar — and placing blame for his exit with Faulconer.

Throughout 2015, Fabiani worked tirelessly to sabotage any stadium progress in San Diego. He did so because Spanos needed to prove to NFL owners that a deal could not be reached in San Diego. Standing in the way of that was the truth. A deal could be struck, but Spanos wasn’t interested in one.

After more than a decade of hand-wringing and false starts, the mayor’s Citizens’ Stadium Advisory Group developed the first financing plan for a new stadium. It also selected the existing Qualcomm site in Mission Valley because building a new stadium there would take less time and cost hundreds of millions less compared with a downtown stadium. CSAG also went with Mission Valley because Fabiani assured us — at that meeting at the U.S. Grant — that the team did not have a site preference.

“When it comes to location, the Chargers are agnostic,” Fabiani famously said.

CSAG’s plan did not increase taxes or require a public vote. The Chargers quickly dismissed it. The mayor and County Supervisor Ron Roberts then presented Spanos with a plan that included $350 million in public money for a new stadium in Mission Valley. Spanos responded by ending negotiations that had barely begun.

He traveled to Houston for an NFL owners meeting believing his plan with the Raiders for a new stadium in Carson would win the day. Spanos miscalculated. Badly. The owners voted 30-2 to approve a competing plan in Inglewood, funded by Rams owner Stan Kroenke.

That was a year ago. Since that time, Spanos and Fabiani privately doubled down on their plan to move to Los Angeles while publicly attempting to convince Chargers fans they were committed to San Diego. Their gamesmanship could not have been more transparent.

Negotiations between San Diego and the Chargers following the vote in Houston never materialized, an important point when you consider the Chargers never really negotiated with San Diego before Houston. Remember, in 2015, the team did all it could to make its case for Los Angeles and that included publicly criticizing Faulconer and others working to keep the team here.

Following the Houston vote, the mayor and Roberts put their offer back on the table. Spanos requested $200 million more from the city and county. The mayor and Roberts did not blink. The league inquired and was told the same thing — $350 million would be the largest public subsidy for an NFL stadium in California history and, yes, it was the best and final offer.

Spanos responded by hastily cobbling together Measure C, a one-sided deal that would have raised taxes in San Diego by more than $1 billion to a build a downtown stadium and convention center annex. Voters rejected the measure in November.

The Chargers did a terrible job of selling the measure, and that was after they spent 2015 poisoning the well in San Diego. But at least now they can say they tried, which was their goal all along.

Please do not bother reminding me Spanos spent $10 million on the Yes on C campaign. A lot of that money was spent qualifying the measure for the ballot. It also makes perfect sense for a billionaire to spend a small share of his profits to try to win back fans he dumped on for a year while he pursued Los Angeles. Remember, Spanos earn tens of millions a year in profits.

I worked on the No on C campaign, and our goal was to keep the measure below 50 percent to provide San Diego with the certainty it needed to craft a better stadium deal instead of wondering if Spanos could get his tax measure approved in court. Measure C needed 66.6 percent to pass — an impossible threshold — but a related state Supreme Court case gave it a shot at passage if it received a simple majority.

Given all the drama, it is not surprising to see where we are today. Spanos and Fabiani set all this in motion two years ago.

Spanos and Fabiani did leave us with a parting gift. They dropped their news on the same day as the mayor’s State of the City address. That wasn’t by accident. They wanted to step on the mayor’s news. It was their way of ensuring everyone in town would be talking about their departure and not the city’s success stories.

It was a cheap shot but not a surprising one. Spanos stopped caring about San Diego two years ago. We’re better off without him.

—Tony Manolatos was the spokesman for the mayor’s stadium task force and the No on C campaign. He is a partner at Manolatos Nelson Murphy Advertising & Public Relations.

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