FOR MORE THAN A CENTURY, athletics has been a cornerstone of American culture. From the solace of an earlymorning run to screaming alongside 60,000 fans in a concrete stadium, from tracking fresh back-country powder to tracking 15 NFL games from a futon for 10 straight hours, sports have, for better and worse, permeated our national psyche.
The lines of tradition and fanaticism have been blurred to the point where a January football game has become a de facto national holiday, while in April, the Massachusetts Patriot’s Day, ostensibly established to honor the beginning of our nation’s battle for independence, is observed in Boston by the running of a marathon and a Red Sox home game. Coincidentally (or not), both days are also renowned for legions of bingedrinking spectators who emerge to cheer on the athletes.
In a country this sports-obsessed (even our president is a former part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team), the argument often arises: “What is the greatest sports town?” Rather than address that matter and all of the chest-thumping and finger- pointing that accompanies it, another question must be answered. What makes a great sports town?
The quick answer is to point to a megalopolis steeped in tradition and world championships, like New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. And while dynasties certainly thrive on occasion in these large cities, trophies have been hoisted in unlikelier places, like Green Bay and Tampa.
The fact that the Padres and Chargers have never won a World Series or Super Bowl, or that we don’t have a collegiate athletic program with a national audience every week like Duke or USC, should not diminish our standing as a sports town. In truth, it’s not really about the win-loss record or the number of championship banners hanging in the arena. A great sports town means different things to different people. So how is San Diego, the seventh-most-populated city in the United States, doing as a sports town—and do we have the facilities necessary to be perceived as a major player?
“TOWNS THAT HAVE GOOD FACILITIES and a good team take more pride in themselves than those that don’t,” says Herb Klein, one of the founding fathers of sports in San Diego and one of the men responsible not only for lobbying to bring three Super Bowls to San Diego but for bringing the Chargers themselves to town in 1961.
“That was during a time when we were in between economic phases, and I think the Chargers had a lot to do with building the whole spirit of San Diego. People could get together and cheer for something from San Diego,” he says.
Qualcomm Stadium—known at the time as San Diego Stadium and later, San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium—hosted its first Chargers game in 1967.
“When we built the stadium, it was state-of-the-art, where you could play two sports in it,” says Klein. “What’s changed drastically is that now baseball and football make big money, which is made by the individual teams off luxury boxes and more-expensive tickets. Qualcomm lacks those things, so that’s why it’s important to get a new stadium—beside the fact that it’s falling apart.”
Michael Silver, who covers the NFL as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, offers a slightly different take. “It’s certainly not the nicest stadium in the NFL,” he says, “but it’s definitely not the worst,” an honor Silver bestows on Monster Park Stadium in San Francisco. “Every NFL owner claims they have to have luxury boxes and a state-of-the-art facility. That’s a dubious argument, since the NFL is the only U.S.-sanctioned form of communism in this country. Because the TV revenues are shared, owners are guaranteed a profit every year, win or lose.”
Of the 10 largest cities in the United States, seven have an NFL franchise (New York has two, though they both play their home games in New Jersey). Of those seven cities, Houston and Philadelphia have recently built new stadiums, Soldier Field in Chicago was completely renovated, and a new stadium outside Phoenix is slated to be ready for the 2006 season.
While there is clearly no correlation between a new facility and a successful team —the Houston Texans have played consistently awful football in a new $450 million facility—there is an important point for San Diegans to consider.
The two most recent Super Bowls held in San Diego, in 1998 and 2003, generated a combined economic impact upwards of $650 million to San Diego County. That’s a lot of income for a city that has, well, some fiscal issues. Super Bowls are traditionally held in warmweather cities, so a new stadium would go a long way to compete with those in Houston, Miami, Tampa and Phoenix for future Super Bowl bids. (Jacksonville was widely considered a debacle last year, and New Orleans is, sadly, out of the picture for now.)
Generally, the prevailing argument across the country against new stadiums is about using taxpayer money to fund the facilities. Since 1990, more than $20 billion has been spent to build or renovate 82 sports facilities in North America, with more than two-thirds coming from public sources. New facilities across the country, like Reliant Stadium in Houston and the one under construction outside Phoenix, are being built by partially using tax-financed bonds, while a proposed stadium in Indianapolis is slated to receive more than 85 percent of its funding from the public. In an about-face from the status quo, the current Chargers stadium proposal says the team and a development partner will construct the facility completely at private expense.
Additionally, the city of San Diego subsidizes the current stadium to the tune of anywhere from $9 to $19 million annually, depending on whose report is believed. Whatever the exact figure, Qualcomm Stadium is channeling public funds away from essential city services.
The Chargers’ proposal could alleviate the fiscal hemorrhaging, as well as relieve taxpayers from the city’s $60 million in bond debt and an additional $50 million owed in deferred maintenance—money the city would also eventually have to pay.
In return, the team is asking for a contribution of 60 acres of land at the existing Qualcomm site to the development project. Opponents protest giving away city-owned land. While private developers are hesitant to estimate the value of the 60-acre parcel—citing lack of clarity with regard to entitlement, environmental concerns and liability of infrastructure costs—a source close to the county concedes that, with mixed-development zoning, the land could sell for upwards of $300 million. Consider, though, that the bulk of that land is currently being used solely as a parking lot for 10 Chargers games, six SDSU Aztecs games, two NCAA bowl games and an occasional site for the biggest used-car sale this side of the Continental Divide.
The Chargers plan to develop the land with condominiums as well as commercial and office development, all of which will generate tax revenue for the city. They have also pledged $150-$175 million to improve the infrastructure, roadways and environment in the area, including a 30-acre park adjacent to the San Diego River.
Jim Steeg, who knows a thing or two about NFL stadiums, spent 26 years in charge of the league’s special-events department as the driving force behind the Super Bowl. He joined the Chargers as executive vice president and chief operating officer in November 2004. Steeg claims even if he were not involved with the Chargers, he would say the proposal is a win-win for the city and the franchise.
“Financially, it solves the problems that exist now, with the stadium operating on a deficit,” he says. “A new stadium would ideally be a 365-day-a-year facility, hosting concerts, conventions and other major events.”
The public will carefully scrutinize any proposal put forth, as well it should, but the presence of a world-class facility with the capacity to attract world-class events would no doubt help elevate San Diego’s status in the national sports community.
DOUBTERS MIGHT LOOK NO FURTHER than Petco Park for an example of a stadium proposal that came under heavy scrutiny and was widely opposed but is now considered an urban success story. Dennis Gibson, the city ballpark administrator for Petco Park, has been involved with the project since 1997 and witnessed both the controversy and the acclaim.
“The early concerns [about Petco] were traffic congestion downtown and parking problems,” he says, “but the major issue was the fact that the stadium was moving into a blighted area and that people would not want to come down to the neighborhood.” Nearly 6 million visitors later, the ballpark has clearly had a revitalizing effect— not only on the East Village but the entire downtown area. Restaurants, hotels and new developments are, for good or ill, springing up everywhere. And while Petco Park was financed in part by public funds —of the $449 million price tag, nearly $206 million came from the city of San Diego through a transient-occupancy tax, and more than $75 million from Centre City Development Corporation redevelopment funds—over time, the investment stands to pay for itself and then some, with excess tax revenue going back into city funds.
Klein chuckles when discussing Petco Park. “It took a lot of punch to get the Petco deal done,” he says, “but the funny thing is that the people who were opposing the deal are now saying what a great thing we did.”
Of the new baseball parks that have sprung up over the past several years, some have been economic successes (San Francisco and Seattle, largely due to their locations) and others failures (Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Cincinnati). In the case of Miller Park in Milwaukee, nearly threequarters of the $400 million price tag came from a five-county sales tax, based in part on a promise by the Brewers that a new home would field a competitive team. Frankly, the Brewers stink, and after five straight seasons at the new park without a winning record, the fans (and the taxpayers) are justifiably ticked off.
The key to Petco Park’s continued success, and that of most ballparks, is a quality product on the field. While hard-nosed and fun to watch last season, the Padres essentially backed into the playoffs (thanks to an anemic division riddled with injuries) and fizzled immediately. The right off-season moves and the cultivation of young talent in the Padres system should keep the Friars competitive for the next several years. Meantime, Petco Park continues to garner national attention as a top-notch facility and potential site for future All-Star Games.
ACCORDING TO BOB BREITBARD, founder of the San Diego Hall of Champions Sports Museum, another senior figure in San Diego sports history, “For a city to be considered to be a major sports town, you need a football team, and you need a baseball team. We have a good hockey team here [the San Diego Gulls of the East Coast Hockey League], and someday I would hope there would be a professional basketball team here in San Diego. But it would be very hard right now to pay the price for a new franchise.”
If anyone is qualified to offer an opinion on this matter, it’s Breitbard, who was a driving force behind the construction of the San Diego Sports Arena (now the ipayOne Center), opened in 1966. He was the owner of its original tenant, the San Diego Gulls of the Western Hockey League, and later the San Diego (now Houston) Rockets of the National Basketball Association.
Though hockey is still alive and fairly popular in San Diego with the minor-league Gulls, the arena has not seen NBA action, aside from the odd preseason Lakers game, since the Clippers moved to Los Angeles in 1984. The arena itself is getting older, and while some renovations have been completed in recent years, it is unprofitable for the city due to some curious lease deals that generated less money in rent last year ($400,000) than it did more than 30 years ago.
While development ideas have been floated for a new arena, either at the current location or elsewhere, they have all crashed. And though a gleaming, modern arena seems to be de rigueur for fast-growing cities across the country, not all of them field a successful product, and not all are fiscally sound for cities and taxpayers.
Additionally, San Diego is not actively pursuing an NBA or NHL franchise —which may be fine, since the overexpansion of these leagues has diluted the talent pool of the athletes and made success for a new club an uphill battle. Considering the challenge of finding funding for a new facility and the high price of admission fans would be asked to spend to see an unproven product, it might be in the city’s best interest to hold off on this one for now.
Besides, San Diego has plenty to offer for sports enthusiasts of every type.
The Torrey Pines Golf Course is one of the finest municipal courses in the country and, in addition to hosting the Buick Invitational each year, was recently awarded the 2008 U.S. Open championship. A United States Olympic training center sits just south of the city in Chula Vista, attracting some of the world’s top athletes on a yearround basis. Factor in the dozens of recreation centers, skate parks and thousands of recreational acres in Balboa Park, Mission Bay Park and Mission Trails Regional Park—not to mention the Padres and the Chargers —and San Diego can be proud of the progress it’s made over the years.
Comparing one sports town to another is a subjective matter best left to pundits and list-makers. Are all of our facilities perfect? Of course not—but whose are? What every city needs to do is progress at a rate that makes sense fiscally and culturally, and San Diego is no exception.
In the meantime, if you can’t get your sports fix in San Diego somehow, well, you’re doing something wrong.