Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Chargers chairman Dean Spanos faced similar crises in recent years — neither could muster up enough support to obtain public funds to upgrade their stadiums.
The Dolphins’ $350 million taxpayer initiative died on the floor of the Florida Legislature in 2013, and the Chargers’ half-billion-dollar hotel tax initiative failed spectacularly this past November, receiving only 43.6 percent approval, far short of the 66 percent threshold required to pass.
Ross, the Dolphins’ owner since 2009, responded admirably to his failure. He dropped his veiled threat of relocation, stopped asking for public money, and simply paid for the upgrades himself. The result was a beautifully-renovated Hard Rock Stadium that now has a canopy to protect fans from sun and rain.
Spanos, whose family has controlled the Chargers since 1984, responded cowardly. He threw up his hands, stopped looking for a solution, and sold out.
Spanos punched the collective gut of San Diego on Thursday when he announced that he is moving the Chargers to Los Angeles, abandoning the community where they took root for 56 years.
This decision had nothing to do with fan support, and everything to do with public support for a stadium, of which there is little-to-no appetite for in California.
“We pretty much exhausted whatever possibilities that were down there, and it was time to come,’’ Spanos told San Diego TV station KUSI. “We’re excited to be here and looking forward to spending the next 25 to 30 years here.’’
Spanos could have been a hero for San Diego, much like South Florida now appreciates Ross. Miami fans have a nicer stadium, and economic boosters such as Super Bowls and college football championship games will now return.
Instead, Spanos chose to be the villain, and it’s a label that will follow him to the grave, much like it did for former Browns and Ravens owner Art Modell.
Spanos had unsuccessfully spent the last 15 years asking for public money to replace the outdated Qualcomm Stadium, and decided he was out of ideas and out of patience, running off to LA to chase dollar signs. The NFL had granted Spanos an extension until Tuesday to decide on whether to move, but Spanos didn’t need the extra time.
“We live in a great city and we will move forward,’’ Mayor Kevin Faulconer of San Diego said. “San Diego didn’t lose the Chargers, the Chargers lost San Diego.’’
The Chargers would still likely be in San Diego if their owner had deeper pockets. Spanos, unlike Ross, doesn’t have the individual wealth to simply pay for renovations himself. Forbes lists his family’s wealth at around $2.4 billion, though most of it is theoretical wealth tied to the value of the Chargers. The San Diego Reader estimated last year that Spanos is worth about $200 million outside of the Chargers.
Now Spanos will be forking over as much as $650 million to the NFL in a relocation fee, though the NFL changed its rules to help him pay it. League rules prevent teams from carrying more than $250 million in debt, but in December the owners voted to allow Spanos to borrow up to half of the relocation fee ($325 million).
It’s nice to see the NFL get creative to help one of its own. Too bad the owners couldn’t use that same creativity to help Spanos come up with the funds to renovate Qualcomm, or help build a new stadium. Surely, the $13 billion NFL and its mostly billionaire owners could have found a way.
For many Chargers fans, the move won’t change much. They’ll still get to watch Chargers games on TV (though the team may undergo a complete rebranding — with a new team name and uniforms — within a few years in Los Angeles). Some fans may still drive a couple of hours north to attend the games.
But the Chargers aren’t just playing in a new city. They are detaching from the community they had called home since 1961. Chargers players won’t be visiting San Diego elementary schools on Tuesdays anymore, or holding youth clinics in San Diego’s parks. The team’s charity arm won’t invest as much into the community.
The Chargers meant something to the people of San Diego, even if attendance waned in recent years (Spanos’s threat of relocation obviously played a major role in that).
According to a poll from the San Diego Union-Tribune, 70 percent of San Diegans blame Spanos for the team’s move. Only 6 percent blame Faulconer and 9 percent blame the NFL at large.
“At the end of the day, Dean Spanos was never willing to work with us on a stadium solution and demanded a lot more money than we could have ever agreed to,’’ Faulconer said. “We could not support a deal that is not in the best interests of San Diego.’’
The Rams’ move to Los Angeles last year made sense on several levels, and didn’t engender too many feelings of pity or remorse for the people of St. Louis. The Rams were originally LA’s team, and St. Louis always felt like a temporary landlord.
The Raiders’ potential move to Las Vegas doesn’t boil the blood, either. The Raiders are more of a regional fan base after already moving twice (from Oakland to Los Angeles to Oakland), and Vegas is ready to roll with $750 million in public funding for a stadium already approved.
But this Chargers move stinks all around — NFL greed at its worst. Notably, no one in Los Angeles seems to even want the Chargers. San Diego and LA are two distinct markets, and the Chargers have been decidedly “San Diego’’ for 56 years.
“We. Don’t. Want. You,’’ Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote last week. “The Chargers might not even be in the top-five favorite NFL teams in Los Angeles. The Chargers are San Diego’s team. The Chargers are beloved there. The Chargers belong there.’’
Excitement for the Rams wore off quickly as they went 4-12 and had the worst offense in the NFL. Now the NFL is flooding the LA market with a second team, and expects it to be successful? A team with no roots in the community and no sizzle on the field?
As comedian Jimmy Kimmel said of Thursday’s Chargers news, “Fans here in LA reacted the same way we react to opening a Bed Bath & Beyond coupon in the mail.’’
But Spanos got his way. The Chargers will now play in a sparkling new stadium in Los Angeles — without having to pay the freight, of course. In 2019, they will be tenants of Stan Kroenke’s $2.6 billion football palace, with the ability to sell luxury suites and personal seat licenses and corporate sponsorships.
It will increase the value of Spanos’s franchise by hundreds of millions of dollars and end the stadium headache that has perplexed him for 15 years.
It was the easy way out. Ross didn’t take it with the Dolphins. Spanos jumped at the chance.
SHUFFLING THE ORDER
New coaches may wield less power
The NFL coaching carousel nearly stopped spinning last week as the Chargers, Bills, Rams, Broncos, and Jaguars all hired new head coaches. The only vacancy left is in San Francisco, which might be waiting for the Patriots’ season to conclude to hire Josh McDaniels, and possibly in Indianapolis, where owner Jim Irsay has been notably silent about the futures of Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson.
Coaching hires are always portrayed with optimism of a new era, but the power structures created by some of these teams should give their fans some pause.
The Jaguars made the most interesting moves, removing the interim tag from coach Doug Marrone’s title, giving GM Dave Caldwell a two-year extension, and hiring Tom Coughlin as executive vice president.
On the surface, what’s not to love about Coughlin coming full circle? The former Boston College and Giants coach was also the Jaguars’ first coach, bringing instant legitimacy to the franchise in 1995 and leading the team to the AFC Championship game in just its second season. After a year out of football, Coughlin returns to Jacksonville as the big boss, having final say on roster moves over Caldwell and Marrone.
Yet Coughlin was notoriously strict and demanding as a head coach, micromanaging small details and wanting things done his way. The Jaguars had some fun in the press release announcing his introductory news conference, noting that a 10 a.m. news conference would begin promptly at 9:55, but there’s truth behind every joke, and it will be interesting to see if Coughlin can allow Marrone and Caldwell the space to do their jobs.
The Rams made the most outside-the-box head coaching hire, going with 30-year-old Sean McVay, who had been offensive coordinator in Washington, and pairing him with 68-year-old defensive coordinator Wade Phillips. But the Rams retained GM Les Snead, which could make for an interesting dynamic between the front office and the coaching staff.
Jeff Fisher took the fall for the Rams’ failures the past five years, but Snead is just as responsible for the team’s 31-48-1 record, if not more so, and is still feeling pressure to turn the team around. Will the Rams be going for the long-term, sustainable build with their young coach, or the quick-fix route to save their GM?
And of course in Buffalo, the football department doesn’t seem to have too much power, no matter how owner Terry Pegula tries to spin in. Former interim coach Anthony Lynn said he didn’t participate in the decision to sit quarterback Tyrod Taylor in Week 17, and GM Doug Whaley said he didn’t participate in the decision to fire Rex Ryan.
The Bills hired a smart coach in Sean McDermott, who will bring more discipline to a talented team. But until further notice, Pegula and team president Russ Brandon are still calling the shots in Buffalo.
League could spur key change
We’ve seen several attempts over the last decade of a potential NFL developmental league quickly fizzle out due to lack of funding and interest — think the now-defunct XFL and UFL. But Don Yee, better known as Tom Brady’s agent, introduced an interesting concept last week — a developmental league for athletes out of high school who don’t want to go the traditional NCAA route.
Pacific Pro Football, which “recently closed its angel round of financing,’’ according to a press release, projects to have four teams in Southern California that pay players $50,000 plus one year of tuition and books at a local junior college.
Teams would have about 50 players and play an eight-game season, with an emphasis on NFL fundamentals and style of play. The league’s advisory board includes Mike Shanahan, Mike Pereira, and Adam Schefter.
While we’re not thrilled about the idea of encouraging kids to skip college, we do like anything that would encourage the NCAA to start financially compensating student-athletes. Yee wrote an editorial for the Washington Post last year saying that the NCAA’s refusal to pay athletes is financially and racially unjust.
Will this be the league that finally challenges the status quo with the NFL and college football?
Bell’s production tops them all
A few season stats that caught our eye:
■ Le’Veon Bell became the first player in NFL history to average 100 rushing yards and 50 receiving yards per game, finishing with 1,268 rushing yards (105.7 per game) and 616 receiving yards (51.3 per game). Almost as impressive was the Cardinals’ David Johnson, who could have become the first player in NFL history to gain 100 total yards in all 16 games, but played just 15 snaps in the season finale and had 44 total yards. He finished the year with 2,118 total yards and 20 touchdowns.
■ Of the top 61 players in passes defended, only one wasn’t a defensive back. Bengals end Carlos Dunlap was the sultan of swat, batting down 15 passes, tied for 13th most in the NFL. Jason Pierre-Paul was next among defensive linemen with eight.
■ From reader Soren Hygum Hansen, who has run his own NFL Draft website from Denmark since 2004 (www.draftday.dk), the Patriots could be the first Super Bowl team since the 1970 merger to not face a single top-10 passer in the regular season. Based on passer rating, the best quarterback the Patriots faced this year was Ryan Tannehill, who was 12th (93.5). Amazingly, they did this while facing 15 different starting quarterbacks in 16 games (Tyrod Taylor was the only one they saw twice).
This trend would continue through the Super Bowl, with the Patriots facing Brock Osweiler (29th) and either Ben Roethlisberger (11th) or Alex Smith (16th). And if they face the Seahawks again, Russell Wilson was 14th. In comparison, the Chiefs played six games against a top-10 passer, the Texans played five, and the Steelers played three.
The NFL chooses its Super Bowl referee from the pool of four that work the divisional-round games, making Gene Steratore, Pete Morelli, Carl Cheffers, and Tony Corrente this year’s candidates. The buzz in officiating circles is that Corrente has a slight edge over Steratore for the job. Neither candidate has refereed a Super Bowl before . . . Hat tip to Rotoworld’s Evan Silva for pointing out that the Patriots have not allowed a rushing touchdown since the Week 8 win over the Bills. The Patriots allowed 12 touchdowns in their final eight games, all passing touchdowns . . . The Browns may have kept coach Hue Jackson, but they’re not helping themselves by firing five assistants, four on the defensive side. Spell it with me, Cleveland: C-O-N-T-I-N-U-I-T-Y . . . If the Raiders leave Oakland for Vegas, they’re ditching the sixth-biggest Nielsen TV market for the 42nd, which would make Vegas the fourth-smallest NFL market, ahead of only Jacksonville (47), Buffalo (51), and New Orleans (53) . . . Not to look too far into the future, but the Patriots will probably get a weeklong trip in Los Angeles in 2020, as they are scheduled to play at the Rams and at the Chargers that year, per the NFL’s normal schedule rotation. The NFL often schedules back-to-back games for East Coast teams heading West, and Stan Kroenke’s sparkling new football palace is scheduled to be in its second season and should be full of Patriots fans. Oh, and the Super Bowl will be played in LA that season, too.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BenVolin. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.