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Chargers' move to Los Angeles fraught with uncertainty

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Earlier this week, one executive in the NFL who has closely followed the Chargers' decision on relocation offered this off-hand comment:

"I think these decisions are emotional, not rational," he said.

That seems truer on Thursday than ever, after Chargers owner Dean Spanos announced his decision to move the team to Los Angeles starting next season. Even though the NFL gave the Chargers the option to move almost exactly a year ago, when the Rams were allowed to relocate, Spanos' decision was something of a surprise even to people in the league, because Spanos has labored for so long at the idea of leaving his home. That was sometimes to the frustration of others in the league who worried that Spanos' difficulty in deciding might be squandering opportunities. Earlier this week, league officials genuinely did not know what Spanos would decide.

But moreover, whether this is the wise course for the Chargers is a legitimate question.

During the owners' meeting in December, several owners privately expressed empathy for Spanos, who was seemingly running out of options to find a solution in San Diego after a November ballot initiative that would have given hotel tax money to help pay for a new stadium failed miserably. They sensed Spanos' frustration and desperation, with one owner saying, "at some point, you have to say enough is enough." But the melancholy among owners was also palpable, about the possibility of a beloved team leaving a loyal fanbase for a less-than-ideal stadium situation.

It was telling, though, that when the owners on the stadium and finance committees met in New York on Wednesday, the Chargers were barely a topic of conversation, with the attention focused instead on the Raiders' efforts to move to Las Vegas. The Chargers did not attend that meeting, and no further help to keep them in San Diego was discussed, despite buzz in league circles that there might be last-ditch efforts in the works. When nothing came of it, though, that was, apparently, the final straw for Spanos.

Spanos, ironically, knows precisely how his old fans in San Diego feel today. A year ago, when his fellow owners approved Stan Kroenke's plan instead of his own to move to Los Angeles and Spanos stood ashen-faced on a dais as Kroenke was pronounced victorious, Spanos felt the sting of rejection from those whom he expected would be by his side. On that day, Spanos called the entire relocation process excruciating. He was talking about his own experience, of course. But the fans of San Diego can take some small comfort in knowing that Spanos had to swallow hard as he accepted a fate -- precisely a year ago and now -- that is far from his ideal scenario.

The truth is that nobody really wanted the Chargers to move to Los Angeles, least of all the Chargers. It was widely known around the league -- even as the Chargers were working with the Raiders on a plan to build a stadium in Carson, California, a plan that lost out to Kroenke's bid to build his stadium in Inglewood -- that Spanos, in his heart of hearts, wanted to stay in the city where his family's team had been headquartered for 56 years. People around the league have described the decision Spanos has faced as "agonizing." Now, the Chargers are set to play in the 27,000-seat StubHub Center while they wait for the Rams' stadium -- which the two teams will share -- to be completed.

Spanos, who will take the brunt of the blame for this move and has already become a pariah for Chargers fans, seemed to acknowledge in a statement he released that the Chargers face an uphill climb toward relevance in Los Angeles.

"L.A. is a remarkable place, and while we played our first season there in 1960 and have had fans there ever since, our entire organization knows that we have a tremendous amount of work to do," Spanos said. "We must earn the respect and support of L.A. football fans. We must get back to winning. And, we must make a meaningful contribution, not just on the field, but off the field as a leader and champion for the community."

The league certainly wanted Spanos to stay home. The league office still views San Diego as a viable market on its own, if a stadium solution could be found. An interesting wrinkle to watch in coming years: whether existing teams in other markets will start to explore the possibility of moving to San Diego. When the NFL last year gave the Chargers the one-year option to follow the Rams to Los Angeles, the intent of the Chargers at the time was that they would make the move, even though there was hope that having a deadline would finally spur action to save the Chargers in San Diego.

More critically, there are serious concerns about the ability of Los Angeles to support two teams after 21 years of having none, particularly when one of those teams (the Chargers) does not have a historical fan base there, as the Raiders and Rams do. (The Chargers started in Los Angeles in 1960 but moved further south a year later).

The question of whether Los Angeles is a two-team market was hotly debated within the league before the Rams were approved for relocation last year, with the majority believing it was. But it was clear as recently as this week that there exist real concerns now -- after the struggles of the Rams to maintain public support and television ratings during the team's first season in Los Angeles -- about what the Chargers and Rams can expect, especially if both teams continue to lose. One executive speculated that if both teams are losing, the Rams would still be the top football team in town, because they have the brand. If the Rams win and the Chargers lose, the Chargers, the executive said, would probably be a distant second.

The situation would likely be akin to that in the New York area, where the Giants are the dominant team, with the Jets capturing the bulk of attention only if they are in the playoffs and the Giants are not. The Chargers, truth be told, are not going to be the team with the second-biggest rooting interest in Los Angeles. That will be the Raiders, whose fan base would have made them the top team in town if they had moved there with the Rams. How that will affect the Chargers' ability to attract the all-important support of the corporate community remains to be seen.

And certainly, Kroenke would prefer that Spanos stay in San Diego, because even though Kroenke agreed, at the behest of the league, to build his stadium for two teams, he would greatly prefer to have the Los Angeles market to himself. Spanos' decision creates an awkward shotgun marriage, and one that might be successful only in the ledger books. Spanos will pay $1 a year to be a tenant in Kroenke's stadium -- he should ask Woody Johnson how the Jets felt about being a tenant in Giants Stadium all those years -- although he will have to pay an exorbitant relocation fee, perhaps as much as $650 million. The value of the Chargers, though, will soar with a move to the nation's second-biggest market, a boon if the Spanos family ever decides to sell the franchise, although that has never been indicated.

That the Chargers and San Diego could not figure out a way to stay together after 16 years of trying is something of a puzzle that has plagued the NFL and multiple mayors, and is reflective of the public's distaste, particularly in California, for spending public money in the service of wealthy sports teams. The Chargers had focused their most recent efforts on a downtown stadium and convention center annex. A ballot initiative that proposed to fund the project with an increased hotel tax received just 43 percent support in November -- far below the 66.7 percent needed for approval. The low level of support was a disappointment for the team. Entering the vote, outright approval was considered a long shot, but there was a feeling within the league that if the measure reached the 50 percent approval mark, it could be viewed as a signal that there was enough local support to spur the team and city officials to try to work toward a resolution. When it fell far short, it was a resounding statement that even a loyal fan base had limits to its love. At that point, only a Hail Mary would save the Chargers. Not surprisingly, the San Diego community is livid that there was none.

"Dean Spanos made a bad decision and he'll regret it," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said in a statement. "San Diego didn't lose the Chargers. The Chargers lost San Diego."

On Thursday, Commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement in which he said he was certain that Spanos had done all he could to remain in San Diego, a belief that will be debated by scorned Chargers fans for years.

"The Chargers worked tirelessly this past year with local officials and community leaders on a ballot initiative that fell short on election day," Goodell said in the statement. "That work -- and the years of effort that preceded it -- reflects our strongly held belief we always should do everything we can to keep a franchise in its community. That's why we have a deliberate and thoughtful process for making these decisions."

Goodell added: "Relocation is painful for teams and communities. It is especially painful for fans, and the fans in San Diego have given the Chargers strong and loyal support for more than 50 years, which makes it even more disappointing that we could not solve the stadium issue."

The city's final effort centered on building a new stadium in Mission Valley, where Qualcomm Stadium is currently located. It would have included a possible $375 million in public money, although a public vote would have been necessary, and the uncertainty of the outcome of that vote was undoubtedly a concern for the Chargers. And that still left a gap of $175 million in funding after the NFL and Chargers kicked in $650 million. In a league as rich as the NFL, that would seem like a small gap for Spanos to make up, and there was buzz in the league in recent days that an 11th hour deal to keep the Chargers in San Diego might be in the works.

Instead, the NFL is stuck with a situation in two markets it did not want, and there will be plenty of questions about what it means for the league that it was not able to dictate the future the way it has the past. Last year at this time, the league's interest was in placing a team in Los Angeles. But this time around, it was to keep teams in Oakland and San Diego, markets it is loath to leave. Oakland, part of the booming and lucrative Bay Area, was considered a lost cause to get a new stadium, though, which is why there is support among owners for the Raiders to move to Las Vegas.

San Diego was still considered salvageable. Perhaps it eventually will be again for another team that would be willing to build a stadium on its own. But the Chargers no longer see it that way. With a quick change of a Twitter handle and the release of a new logo, the San Diego Chargers are no more. Spanos is leaving, reluctantly, for the cheap rent and sure thing of Los Angeles, assuming none of the risk of building his own stadium but reaping a reward that may be readily apparent only in his bank account. In two years, his team will play in a shiny new building. But it will probably take much longer for it to feel like home.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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