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The Mayor Fumbled in the Chargers Game but It's Not His Fault They're Leaving

The mayor is not to blame for losing the Chargers. But he and others consistently got what was going on wrong.

The Chargers pretty clearly telegraphed their determination to leave San Diego two years ago.

San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer responded. He announced he was forming a task force to figure out what to do. Apparently, a decade of research and consultants, even a previous task force, were not enough.

“At no point in San Diego’s history has the possibility of the Chargers moving to Los Angeles been more real. It’s time for us, as a community, to come together to decide the future of the Chargers in San Diego,” Faulconer said in his State of the City address Jan. 15, 2015.

Scott Lewis on Politics LogoAnd then he said the only thing he has gotten right about this mess: “This decision will be made on my watch as mayor.”

Shortly thereafter, unimpressed, the Chargers announced their intention to build a stadium, with the team’s rival, the Raiders, in Carson.

Still, there was a constant undercurrent of suspicion. I can’t tell you how many times someone made the case to me that the team would not really leave — this was all about negotiation and leverage. When I wrote that the team was clearly determined to move, I got a lot of grief.

The mayor is not to blame for losing the Chargers.

But he and others consistently got what was going on wrong. They assumed L.A. would be so unattractive to the team, Chargers owner Dean Spanos would balk. They assumed they could make the case to the NFL better than Spanos could. Finally, the mayor assumed he could embrace a plan the Chargers put forward for downtown — a plan he obviously did not support — and it would ingratiate him enough with Spanos to salvage a deal.

He was wrong. The underlying assumption the Chargers simply would never move crippled the region’s entire response to the threat. It was so unfathomable to so many people that we never were able to properly call the team out or seek other leverage.

Only on the day the team left did Faulconer declare that it was never possible to get the Chargers aboard their plan. He never acknowledged the vulnerabilities of it as he countless times expressed confidence he could pull it off.

But Faulconer’s fumbles are not what cost San Diego its professional football team.

The Chargers are moving because Spanos and his executives were not willing to put together a deal in San Diego that San Diego could pull off. Spanos and his family faced their nightmare scenario.

“As difficult as the news is for Charger fans, I know Dean Spanos and his family did everything they could to try to find a viable solution in San Diego,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.

This is not exactly true. In reality, Spanos and his family concluded at least two years ago that they could not build the stadium they wanted here and did everything they could to prove that to the NFL. They succeeded.

The very basic fact is that a stadium could rise in Mission Valley. But three other facts made it impossible to pull off.

The first is that expectations for new NFL stadiums around the country have ballooned in the past 13 years. As U-T columnist Dan McSwain noted recently, if the Chargers wanted to build the same “state-of-the-art” facility they sought a decade ago, it would only cost $600 million. The NFL, though, has reached a new golden age of moxie and demands. The Chargers consistently relayed to city and county officials that even their optimistic assumptions about what the public would donate to the cause was at least $200 million short.

The second fact is the city. City voters now have two decades of raw feelings about the subsidizing the Chargers’ operations. The threat to leave, vilification of critics, legal squabbles and drama has hung over San Diego public life since at least 2001. It has left voters profoundly fatigued. They express it in all the community meetings I attend.

So it should have been as apparent to the mayor as it was to, ironically, the Chargers, how hostile voters would be to subsidizing a new stadium using tax dollars that could go to more pressing needs. Combined with notoriety the city received nationwide for its brush with bankruptcy, a public subsidy was a hard sell at best.

This is why the Chargers sought an alternative: funding from a tax on tourists. But they pushed for it unilaterally without even trying to bring people into the process early. Of course it would fail too.

It was no coincidence that every candidate for City Council opposed not just the mayor’s vision for a new stadium but any subsidy for the Chargers at all. All four of the City Council races this year featured some version of the fight to prove who was more against a subsidy.

The mayor can say all he wants about how he had funding on the table for the Chargers but it was at best difficult and closer to something of a fantasy. The same goes for the county contribution, which, mysteriously, shrunk in half in the last few weeks without any explanation.

The third fact is that the NFL, whether intentionally or not, made this happen. There are countless takes out there about how the NFL did not want this outcome. Well, if that’s true, NFL leaders are incompetent boobs. Because they set this in motion.

Spanos made it crystal clear that his nightmare scenario was two teams moving to Los Angeles — the Raiders and Rams — and Spanos being stuck here without a new stadium under construction.

He was literally days away from this happening. The Raiders, while obviously focused on Las Vegas, had not formalized a deal and application to relocate to Vegas. And the NFL had not extended the Chargers’ option to L.A., except for just a couple days. If the Chargers passed on that option, then it would fall to the Raiders, who might immediately have dropped the Vegas push to move to L.A.

The NFL and Rams owner Stan Kroenke put this in motion. All the talk about it not being what they wanted is belied by this basic fact.

It put enormous pressure on San Diego politics, and we are not built to move mountains like that.

“Even after our plan was rejected we weren’t going to stop. The effort in the last few weeks was Herculean,” Faulconer told the press after the news became official.

It may have been Herculean, but it was never real and never part of the game the Chargers were playing. They are deep into a world of fantasy and flagrant flamboyance.

His Herculean effort was to keep San Diego in the NFL world, which has become a bloated, decadent, over-confident dystopia. I don’t feel like the league can act this way forever. Its franchise owners are extorting cities, crushing their employees’ brains and limbs while actually gambling on them. And it is poised to emotionally devastate its customers in three major markets. For what?

The cracks are showing. Ratings are down. Cities are balking.

This is hard to watch. I feel awful for San Diego. Only with equally Herculean leadership on all the space this opens up and our other major problems will we be able to look back on this with pride about how we responded.

I think we can do it.

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