By Ron Donoho
At one time there had been sanity, even elation. No more. Those qualities slipped out of town in January on the heels of former Chargers football coach Bobby Ross, who packed his bags after an 8-8 season and headed off to Detroit.
Detroit! Who leaves San Diego to winter in the Rust Belt? But the insanity was just beginning.
Try to recall the euphoria Ross helped generate during his tenure here. Remember the giddiness of the Chargers' 1994 season, a campaign that ended in an appearance in the 1995 Super Bowl? Civic pride and sense of community reached a glorious high (never mind that the San Francisco 49ers laid claim to the NFL championship). And just weeks after that title game, San Diego city officials were preparing to score a long-term lease extension with the Chargers to play in an expanded San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
More than two years later-two years!-that lease extension and even the future of professional sports and sporting events in San Diego had yet to be resolved. Resolved? It had been turned on its head.
Stadium expansion should have been a slam dunk. Instead, arrogance, egomania and confusion interceded. A divided house fell out of order. Expansion costs, the ability of the Chargers (and the Padres) to continue to play here and San Diego's opportunity to ever host another Super Bowl all were in question.
The elements of these issues were not easily explained in sound bites-though sound bites were mostly what was supplied. The public grew ever more confused by the rantings of columnists and commentators and frustrated by the double-talk and butt-covering of politicians. Confronted with compelling arguments, it became easy to fall into the camp of either the (pro-expansion) civic-minded sports fans or the (anti-expansion, pro-referendum) civic-minded champions of political accountability.
But above all else, there were serious questions tied to this sports/ politics tilt-questions that, if left unaddressed, could cause even more trouble at the Murph; more than John Elway or Bret Favre or any other Charger nemesis might ever devise.
The basic questions: What happened here? And what can we do to prevent such insanity in the future?
In the hope that a dissection of the past might prevent a future outbreak of dementia, we offer up the following autopsy report-a review of the common perceptions, and misperceptions, that led to the city's tenuous relationship with professional sports. At issue:
1. The citizens of San Diego don't understand the intricacies of the stadium-expansion contract.
True. If you lack a political science degree, haven't passed the bar-the legal bar-and don't have hours to spare to read contracts written in Farsi, you couldn't possibly understand all the issues.
In a nutshell (appropriate editorial word choice), Mayor Susan Golding said the city and the Chargers approved a $60 million deal for improvements to Jack Murphy Stadium-to be financed by the issuance of lease revenue bonds-on May 10, 1995. Chargers President Dean Spanos concurred. The agreement included a controversial 60,000-ticket-sales guarantee, extended the Chargers' lease to 2020 and stipulated reopening rights for the Chargers. The reopening rights clause gave the Chargers the option of reentering negotiations on the contract every four years (if player salaries should exceed certain milestones).
The legality of using the bonds to finance stadium improvements was challenged in court by former San Diego Councilman Bruce Henderson, tax activist Richard Rider and other opponents of the expansion. The opponents lost in Superior Court and lost subsequent appeals. In October 1996, the California State Supreme Court ultimately declined to hear the case, ending that dispute.
Then came round two.
On December 10, 1996, the city council voted to amend the $60 million stadium contract, adding $18 million to the cost of the project ($11.8 million for additional improvements; $6.2 million for delays caused by the opponents' legal challenge and other adjustments). This opened the door for a new challenge by Libertarian activist Henderson and company, who threatened a referendum to force a public vote on the expansion. Henderson-backed by lawyers Mike Aguirre and Bob Ottilie-said the city and the Chargers failed to completely sign off on the original $60 million agreement forged in 1995. Therefore, according to Aguirre, on December 10, 1996, the city made a new $78 million deal and not an $18 million amendment. (This dispute was scheduled to be heard in court on February 20, after San Diego Magazine's press deadline.)
But believing it still had an inked agreement for the $60 million expansion, the city began demolition of portions of the stadium in mid-December. Deconstruction shifted into high gear on January 1. Before that, however, San Diego City Clerk Chuck Abdelnour had been presented with close to 60,000 yet-to-be-verified signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on the ordinance enacted on December 10. Abdelnour subsequently ruled the petition was legitimate. Citing an excruciatingly tight construction schedule, the city continued work at the stadium.
2. Since 1995, Mayor Susan Golding and the city have mishandled public relations regarding the deal.
Largely true. "What we have here," intoned the autocratic prison warden in Cool Hand Luke, "is failure to communicate." What San Diego had-in this situation-was failure to communicate effectively.
San Diego Chamber of Commerce President Steve Cushman won't specifically fault the mayor, but said, "We all could have done a better job of communication and of explaining the economic benefits involved in expanding the stadium." Cushman-who denies he'll soon run for mayor (with the half-smirk of a likely candidate)-suggested perhaps the chamber ought to have taken the lead in getting the word out to the San Diego citizenry.
Asked if he would have handled PR differently, Chargers President Dean Spanos said, "No, but I think the city would have done it differently. They didn't anticipate this."
City manager Jack McGrory, too, conceded the city might have done a better job of "selling" the expansion contract. And that the politicos might have underestimated the stamina of the opposition. "There's no doubt that in December  when they started this, they caught us by surprise," he said. "We thought we'd beaten them. We'd taken this thing to court and won every step of the way."
But McGrory also cited a "severe case of collective community amnesia" when it came to recalling the information that had been presented to the public. And Golding, always loathe to admit she might have done anything better, said she did as much as she could to get the word out. "There were 16 public sessions held on the contract, and there were 30 articles in 1995 about it in the San Diego Union-Tribune," according to Golding. "I can't buy public relations for something like this; all I can do is what the free media in town is interested in."
Indeed, a search of the U-T's archives revealed more than 30 articles on stadium expansion that year-but many only mention the project in passing, as part of larger, mostly unrelated stories. And the articles contain few quotes or explanations from the mayor on why the contract was good for the city.
3. The city has mishandled its negotiations for stadium expansion.
Possibly. Mayor Golding was right when she said, "The worst time to do a negotiation with a professional sports team is as its lease is running out." Her foresight is admirable. Her techniques are what came into question; many feel she unwisely took the reins in negotiating with the Chargers.
"This is what you get when you have the mayor as your city's chief contract negotiator," said one 30-year veteran of the San Diego City Attorney's office.
Ray Blair, San Diego's city manager from 1978 to 1985, concurred. "[Former mayors] Pete Wilson and Roger Hedgecock would never have been the chief negotiators in something like this." And he spread blame to the entire city council, comparing the more recent negotiation to his dealings 15 years ago with former Chargers owner Gene Klein. "Gene Klein learned how many different ways Ray Blair could say 'no,'" said Blair.
Bob Ottilie compared Golding unfavorably with her predecessor, Maureen O'Connor: "O'Connor always sided with the people; she always supported the public. Golding is more of a back-room dealer. [Chargers owner Alex] Spanos did a lot for Golding on the GOP convention here, and she sees him as a contributor to her future political aspirations. Golding should have removed herself from the negotiations."
Golding denied she took the lead in dealing with the Chargers, and city manager Jack McGrory concurred. "That's a cheap shot to take at the mayor," said McGrory. "The mayor was not involved directly. She and I attended an initial meeting with [the city's] attorneys, Dean and Alex Spanos and their attorney. After that, she was engaged behind the scenes. The council was, too."
But the mayor's big mistake may have been in appearing to take credit for negotiating the deal-for attempting to wear the new Chargers contract as a political feather in her cap.
4. The Chargers got a sweetheart deal from the city.
Not exactly. Author Mark Rosentraub-who believes that major-league sports teams have a negligible impact on the economic well-being of
a city-was flown into town all the way from Indiana by stadium-expansion opposition leaders, who bought 200 copies of his book Major League Losers. Perhaps this also could be the title of Rosentraub's autobiography?
When, at a University Club luncheon, he was pressed by audience members to name another football team that had won a better deal from an NFL city in the past 10 years, Rosentraub came up with just one: the Carolina Panthers (the team owns and operates the stadium).
The Chargers paid $3.1 million in rent last year-second only to the New York Giants. The Chargers were scheduled to pay $5.6 million rent next year, a figure that increases in subsequent years. Three NFL teams currently pay no rent, one pays $1, and about half pay less than $1 million.
Then there's the guaranteed 60,000-ticket-sales portion of the contract (which was noted in a front-page Union-Tribune story way back on March 7, 1995). In a stadium expanded to 70,000 seats, if 60,000 football fans don't buy tickets to each game, the city must make up the difference. The Chargers have averaged roughly 60,000 the last three years.
The upside to the contract is obvious: If the Chargers continue to average 60,000, the city will pay no guarantees and collect the highest rent in the NFL. The downside: If the Chargers do a nosedive on the field and at the turnstiles, the city is on the hook to guarantee 60,000 ticket sales, regardless. But the Chargers would still have to drop to an average of 47,000 per game before they would go essentially rent-free, said McGrory.
5. Referendum proponents didn't fully understand the consequences of their challenge to the stadium expansion.
Either they didn't know or didn't care. The expansion opposition leaders are lawyers. In general, lawyers are an educated lot. So in this case, they heard NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue publicly state that the 1998 Super Bowl would have to be moved from San Diego if a $78 million stadium deal were put to a ballot referendum.
We can't be bullied, responded Mike Aguirre. The city, the Chargers, the NFL and most analysts agree Tagliabue wasn't bullying or bluffing. With the future of the Super Bowl site still in doubt past March, the NFL would not have time to handle the myriad details of scheduling the game in another city.
Despite a push for the $78 million referendum, Aguirre and Bob Ottilie insisted losing the Super Bowl has never been at issue. "Mike Aguirre and I are the only people who have taken a close look at the contract the city has with the NFL," claimed Ottilie. "All the city is required to provide is 70,000 seats." He said if temporary seating were put in place, the NFL could not legally back out of holding the Super Bowl here. If the NFL tried to bolt, lawsuits would be forthcoming, Aguirre and Ottilie said.
Word from the NFL is that, eventually, it wants to fit San Diego into a five-to-seven-year rotation to host the Super Bowl-but not, perhaps, until the middle of the next decade. Hmmm. On the heels of the aforementioned litigation, how likely would any future Super Bowls here be?
"I call these stadium opponents neg-omaniacs," said Steve Cushman. "I don't know what drives them. They walk around saying,
'What parade can I rain on today?' That doesn't seem like a healthy way to live."
6. Financially, the Super Bowl is worth putting up with the egomaniacs who run the NFL.
Sorry, it's true. The most conservative estimate on the economic worth to San Diego of hosting the 1998 Super Bowl is $150 million. A report from New Orleans officials indicated that city reaped a $300 million windfall from hosting the 1997 Super Bowl. Also, with San Diego in a five-to-seven-year rotation, the windfall would be cyclical. It hardly seems fiscally sound to punt on $300 million every five to seven years.
Even Bruce Henderson thinks hosting a Super Bowl is good for a city, both psychologically and financially. "There are undeniable economic benefits-only a fool would argue against that," he said. "But the benefits are not enough to give up democracy."
7. Bruce Henderson's motives are to make politicians accountable to the public.
So he has said. And it's hard to disregard 60,000 signatures collected for a referendum ballot. Henderson definitely exercises his rights as a citizen-something far too few individuals do.
But despite his repeated claims to the contrary, personal politics are intertwined with his mandate for voter approval on some form of stadium expansion. The former San Diego councilman has shown a recent eagerness to hold public office anew (he ran for state assembly just last year, and lost). Henderson's various lawsuits against stadium and convention center expansions, his public and populist-sounding pronouncements on the issues, his instigation of a public referendum, his barbs at political opponents all appear to be the tactics of a political candidate.
At a January public forum hosted by KSDO-AM's Roger Hedgecock, Councilman George Stevens noted his dismay for the situation Henderson had wrought. "I think this whole thing is a joke," said Stevens. To Henderson he directed, "You're not the city council-we are!"
In a subsequent interview, Henderson alluded to Stevens' outburst and said, "We have the worst city council right now." He added, "If I am correct, and what the mayor and the city council have done is unlawful, then I believe they all should resign."
8. Regardless of the outcome, Mayor Golding's political future is in peril because she ignored, or underestimated, unrest over the stadium issue.
Her future certainly hasn't been enhanced. Golding has assumed the same faux-denial stance Steve Cushman takes when he is asked if he'll run for Golding's job. "I'm the mayor of San Diego right now," says Golding. "This is not about my political future. I have not made a decision on what I will do in 1998, but I probably will look at that soon."
Henderson says her political future is in jeopardy. "Susan Golding is in trouble with her political aspirations," he said. "If not for this, she would have been the next U.S. senator. But she has demonstrated she doesn't have the necessary leadership abilities." Media observers are near-unanimous in the opinion that the stadium issue will affect Golding's future.
Local pundits see this episode as Golding's introduction to large numbers of voters across the state, especially in Los Angeles, where they were fairly drooling over the prospect of snatching San Diego's Super Bowl-and maybe its NFL team. And Golding herself seemed to demonstrate some concern for the political downside when, as the deal appeared to be unraveling, she first tried pointing fingers at others. It was a tactic she quickly abandoned.
But the damage was done. Golding's late attempt to forge a compromise with expansion opponents-and her reluctant acceptance of some blame for the "mess"-came just 10 days before a court ruling on the stadium issue was due.
9. The future of pro football in San Diego has been placed in jeopardy.
True. The future of professional sports is in a state of national disarray. San Diego's situation not only mirrors that-the image has been magnified.
Several years ago, Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell was asked during a television interview if he ever intended to move his team out of town. At the time, Cleveland's Municipal Stadium was literally falling apart. No way, never in a million years, I'll never leave, Modell rejoined. Most of us know that Modell now hangs his team cap-emblazoned with a new logo-in Baltimore.
Chargers owner Alex Spanos has repeatedly claimed he wants to keep his team in San Diego. Think the misadventure with the Murph didn't put the team's future at risk? Clevelanders didn't think their Municipal mess did, either.
10. Even the future of professional baseball here was put in jeopardy.
That's too depressing a thought at this point. Look for San Diego Magazine's Padres overview next month.