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City needs professionals, not politicians, in stadium talks

Discussion in 'Chargers Fan Forum' started by Johnny Lightning, Jul 25, 2010.

  1. Johnny Lightning

    Johnny Lightning Go Bolts

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    By Tim Sullivan , UNION-TRIBUNE COLUMNIST
    Saturday, July 24, 2010 at 10:54 p.m.


    Forget the economic impact studies. If your goal is to get a new stadium built, there will always be consultants who can be counted on to paint pretty pictures and present quasi-decipherable spreadsheets to justify the filching of public funds.
    They will tell you what you want to hear or you wouldn’t have hired them in the first place.
    And there will always be entrenched opposition, long on passion and short on funding. These are the people who will be predicting peril, decrying corruption, launching lawsuits and, more often than not, getting steamrollered by the vested interests with the big money.
    They don’t really expect to prevail, but they are resolved to preserve the right to say, “I told you so.”
    Both sides need to be heard, of course, but they don’t have to be heeded. In the ongoing debate about appeasing the Chargers, the critical battle is not on the margins, but in the middle.
    The one voice we most need to hear is dispassionate and discerning, tactical and tough, more measured than “whatever it takes,” less defiant than “over my dead body,” and carefully positioned in nobody’s pocket. Someone able to joust with the National Football League across a quasi-level bargaining table.
    This is someone we haven’t seen previously in San Diego.
    I’m thinking of a negotiator like the one William Shatner portrays in the Priceline commercials. Bold and brassy. Finely tailored. Nicely coifed. And capable of making the Chargers crawl.
    Make no mistake. Keeping the Chargers in San Diego is a vital interest in this aisle of the toy department. To the extent that pro football facilitates the sale of newspapers, which helps to keep me employed and prevents those tuition checks from bouncing, the prospect of the team leaving town falls somewhere between unsettling and unthinkable.
    Moreover, the Chargers are one of the things that binds San Diego as a community, a team whose performance has been a source of pride and frustration across generations, cultures and socioeconomic strata for half a century. The Bolts are our common catharsis, our primary source of vicarious thrills and a substantial civic asset.
    They are a business, however, not a charity. And however cleverly Mark Fabiani might couch it, the Chargers will be seeking (at a minimum) $500 million in public subsidies for a playground/palace that may be in use as few as 18 to 20 days a year (including San Diego State football and two bowl games).
    Given the city’s economic instability and higher priorities — underscored last week by the human cost of fire department “brownouts” — this is no time for Mayor Jerry Sanders to be ramrodding lopsided legacy projects that enrich billionaires. This is the time, rather, for city leaders to insulate themselves from the political pressures that have heretofore led to lousy deals and seek out their own hard-edge hired gun.
    There’s a deal to be done here. Always has been. But it isn’t the land grab the Chargers once proposed for the Qualcomm site, and it won’t satisfy those who wonder why taxpayers should drop so much as a dime in Dean Spanos’ pocket. Yet between those two extremes lies a broad range of possibilities, fluctuating levels of leverage and hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake.
    To negotiate effectively with the Chargers, San Diego’s representatives need to know if Los Angeles is a stalking horse or a serious threat and, if a threat, on what timetable? They need to know if the San Francisco 49ers can finance the $493 million they have committed to their stadium deal in Santa Clara and, if so, whether that is a game-changer or an anomaly. They need to know how the NFL expects to contribute to the cause in light of the depletion of its G-3 loan program and in the face of an imminent labor impasse.
    You need professionals for this purpose, not politicians. You need experts to detect the fatal flaws in the fine print before the amateurs sign off on them. You need a detached, disciplined approach to protect the public from another myopic boondoggle like Susan Golding’s ticket guarantee. And you need someone who can run the numbers well enough to know just how far the Chargers can be pushed before they back out.
    “I think it’s pretty clear looking back at history that city officials typically get rings run around them by teams,” said Neil deMause, co-author of “Field of Schemes: How the Great Stadium Swindle Turns Public Money into Private Profit.”
    “It seems that elected officials don’t realize what leverage they have. They don’t know how to counter (teams’) arguments. I would like to think some professional help would help them. … There’s certainly plenty of people who have the expertise who are out there, but it’s always the team side that hires them.”
    Case in point: Mark Rosentraub, Ph.D, the endowed chair of the University of Michigan’s sport management department.


    In 1999, Rosentraub’s “Major League Losers” attributed the growth of stadium subsidies to “local government leaders, dazzled by promises of economic growth from sports, mesmerized by visions of enhanced images for their communities, and captivated by a mythology of the importance of professional sports, (failing) to do their homework.”
    Rosentraub subsequently served as a paid consultant for the proponents of Petco Park and last year published a new book: “Major League Winners: How Some Cities Turned Subsidies for Sports and Culture Into New Downtowns.”
    Is Rosentraub speaking from beneath both sides of his mustache? Not necessarily. That American cities have been consistently outflanked by sports franchises is inarguable, but it is not inevitable.
    Any experienced negotiator should have been able to forecast the folly of the Chargers’ ticket guarantee, which failed to address both increases in ticket prices and limits of liability. Any novice should have been able to appreciate that the 30-year lease St. Louis signed with the NFL Rams was an invitation to extortion.
    Terms of that agreement allow the Rams to exercise an escape clause when a stadium that opened in 1995 ceases to be in the top 25 percent most “state of the art” in the NFL, which has already occurred.
    Such a shortsighted deal was worse than irresponsible. It was insanity.
    “That state-of-the-art clause the Rams have, they were just throwing stuff in there and they were amazed when St. Louis actually went for it,” deMause said. “When Washington, D.C., was sitting down with the Major League Baseball Relocation committee, (the city) said they were thinking in terms of two-thirds public, one-third private (funding). (White Sox owner) Jerry Reinsdorf said, ‘We were thinking more three-thirds, no-thirds.’ ”
    Sparring with such savvy operators is not a job best handled by City Hall. It calls for a Donald Fehr or a Donald Trump, for someone accustomed to high-stakes haggling and, preferably, ineligible for local office.
    The NFL’s stadium boom is in large part a product of political panic, of overmatched local officials capitulating before real or implicit threats from their local franchise. No one wants to be remembered as the mayor who looked on as the moving vans pulled out, and the NFL has exploited that anxiety with the same merciless precision it uses in targeting backup cornerbacks.
    To cut the best possible deal, San Diego must learn to play rough. Or hire someone who already knows how
     

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