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The Council's Letter to the Chargers Is News — But Not for the Reasons You Think

The idea of giving or leasing the Qualcomm Stadium land to the Chargers is at least 13 years old. But City Council members’ letter resurfacing the idea was the first PR trick that put the team on its heels.

It has been several years since I have seen anyone on the San Diego City Council pull a PR stunt as impressive as the one four Council members pulled this week with their letter to the Chargers.

It poses as an offer to the Chargers to let the team rent a vast, valuable plot of land in the heart of the city for just $1 a year for 99 years. The team’s owners, veterans of the real estate development world, could turn the land into gold and use that gold to build a stadium.

The letter enraptured local media. Sports radio lit up. The story went national when the Associated Press broke it. KPBS quoted Councilman Scott Sherman, who said the offer was a way to let the NFL know that there was a route to a stadium as owners meet in Dallas.

The thing is, though, the letter itself means nothing and is nothing new.

The idea of giving or leasing the Qualcomm Stadium land to the Chargers and letting them build things to pay for a stadium is as old as the Chargers pursuit of a new stadium — if a boy were born when the idea was, he would be looking for a shadow of mustache on his upper lip every morning in the mirror.

It is at least 13 years old. Some version of the idea has haunted the stadium discussion every single step of the way since it was first proposed by the original stadium task force in 2003 and later adopted by the Chargers. The only variable is whether it’s the Chargers who lease or buy the land and then manage the development, or whether it’s the city or some third-party partner.

In fact, Sherman, one of the Council members who signed the letter, offered a vision of the latter in 2015. It was, um, poorly received. Later, the Citizens Stadium Advisory Group (remember them?), produced yet another version of the idea wherein the city would simply sell more than 70 acres of land to a private developer and plow the profits into a stadium.

The letter this week, in fact, is literally the most vague version of this idea to come up in 13 years.

So why was it sent? Why did it get so much attention?

Simple, the four Council members just owned Chargers President Dean Spanos. It was the first PR trick that put the team on its heels. In one simple letter, the politicians were able to frame Spanos as greedy and petulant.

After all, any other business in the world would probably look at an offer like this with great enthusiasm.  Wait, you’re giving me some of the most valuable property in the city for $1 a year for 99 years? Thanks! Only the golden world of NFL owners would look at this as an insult.

The letter was not an effort to communicate anything to the Chargers. They know about this idea.

The letter was a way to catch the Chargers’ flat-footed and force the team to explain to the public, and perhaps other NFL owners, why this is such an insult. (The Chargers tried to, here.)

I’m not sure why the Chargers have been so hostile to this sort of deal — the kind they helped pioneer 13 years ago. Team leaders have offered many reasons:

Getting the city to rezone the land around Qualcomm Stadium is no small task. It could take years, and it would be crippled by uncertainty and fighting. Meanwhile, the team or the city would have to borrow money to begin construction of the stadium. What if the permits never came through? Who would be on the hook?

These are normal problems big-shot developers have to deal with all the time. The Chargers, put simply, do not want to deal with these problems.

The Chargers believe a stadium will cost at least $200 million more than city officials have estimated. Basically, the city or city and county or someone would have to put about $600 million into the project.

That means there is a roughly $300 million to $400 million delta between what the stadium would cost, what the taxpayers may be willing to put in (“may” is doing a lot of work here) and what the Chargers and NFL are willing to put in.

The Chargers and NFL will have to adjust their expectations if they want to stay in the San Diego market. It’s as simple as that.

Some plan like this could probably work for Mission Valley (though it is hardly guaranteed to get voter approval). With enough leadership and a positive campaign, they could pull it off.

The NFL may very well decide it will have to make an unprecedented investment in a stadium in San Diego to keep the Chargers here. This would make the City Council and mayor look like absolute geniuses.

But don’t let anyone tell you the letter this week had any news in it.

The only news is that the City Council finally figured out how to play the PR game.

Update: NFL owners today approved the Chargers lease deal in Inglewood, with the Rams and a way for the Chargers to pay off the relocation fee over many years.

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