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San Diego Union-Tribune

TIM SULLIVAN

City-Chargers tussle grows more and more contentious

December 12, 2002

Abstract:
Twenty-four hours after council rejected the Chargers' request to revisit their 1995 Qualcomm Stadium lease, reason was losing a steel- cage showdown with rage in San Diego. Rebuffed Chargers representatives were preparing for battle by describing scenarios designed to compel surrender, borrowing a ploy from Henry V at Harfleur. Politicians, meanwhile, were justifying their negligence on the basis of lingering resentment and mob e-mail.

Unless the Chargers use their trigger within its 60-day window, they will lose that leverage until next December. Unless the Chargers invoke the trigger, they can not be sure meaningful discussions will start. Yet if the Chargers are sincere about staying in San Diego -- if this whole exercise is not a sham conducted to conceal the team's designs on Los Angeles, Orlando or Hooterville -- perhaps letting the trigger lapse is the best way to prove it.

The danger in refusing to talk, in deferring all discussions to the Task Force, is that the Chargers may run out of patience before the committee completes its task. Should the Chargers trigger -- even if their intent is simply to prod the bargaining process -- the perception will be that it is a first step toward the exits. This could turn the ticket guarantee from an intermittent nuisance to a lasting debacle.

Full Text:
Copyright SAN DIEGO UNION TRIBUNE PUBLISHING COMPANY Dec 12, 2002

The San Diego Chargers are denied the benefit of the doubt.

Their declarations inspire distrust. Their motives invite suspicion. They tell us a deal is a deal, so long as the deal suits their purposes, and then they try to stampede us into renegotiating it as soon as it becomes inconvenient.

They wonder why we are so wary.

The City Council refuses to be duped.

It is so worried about getting hoodwinked on another stadium deal -- and, more to the point, facing the fallout at the polls -- that it has recused itself of the responsibility to set matters right. It declines to negotiate with its pro football tenant, charting instead a treacherous course toward the courtroom. It seeks not a win-win situation with the Chargers, but a war-war.

Our civic leaders don't trust themselves to avoid getting trampled.

Twenty-four hours after council rejected the Chargers' request to revisit their 1995 Qualcomm Stadium lease, reason was losing a steel- cage showdown with rage in San Diego. Rebuffed Chargers representatives were preparing for battle by describing scenarios designed to compel surrender, borrowing a ploy from Henry V at Harfleur. Politicians, meanwhile, were justifying their negligence on the basis of lingering resentment and mob e-mail.

The middle ground is a minefield. The spirit of compromise has taken a pounding reminiscent of Mike Tyson against Lennox Lewis. The future of pro football in San Diego is unclear, but the landscape makes one leery. If there is to be peace in Mission Valley, someone had better attend to the volcano before it erupts.

"There are five people on the council who said, `The Chargers are trying to screw us again,' " said Chargers Task Force member Bruce Henderson. "My reading is we're going to do everything we need to to make these people play NFL football here through 2020."

Translated: Sue them.

"It's clear that the council's refusal to talk to the team has left the team with very few alternatives," Chargers consultant Mark Fabiani said yesterday.

Translated: You were warned, and you will be sorry.

Curiously, the Chargers did not exercise their contractual "trigger" in the wake of Tuesday's council meeting. They did not use the one tool at their disposal guaranteed to force the two parties to the bargaining table. Depending on your point of view, this was either evidence of the team's remarkable restraint or the flimsiness of the financial figures required to reopen negotiations.

Henderson: "If they can trigger, I can't imagine why they've handled it this way. If they can't trigger, their bluff has been called."

Fabiani: "Anyone who doubts whether the team can trigger or not is making a big mistake. There's no doubt the team can trigger if it chooses to."

Unless the Chargers use their trigger within its 60-day window, they will lose that leverage until next December. Unless the Chargers invoke the trigger, they can not be sure meaningful discussions will start. Yet if the Chargers are sincere about staying in San Diego -- if this whole exercise is not a sham conducted to conceal the team's designs on Los Angeles, Orlando or Hooterville -- perhaps letting the trigger lapse is the best way to prove it.

Task Force Chairman David Watson is now aiming to submit his committee's report to council in late February, almost a month after the trigger window closes. Insofar as that timetable is a direct result of the Chargers' decision to postpone their presentation, now scheduled for Jan. 16, the team is poorly positioned to gripe about the delay.

The Chargers might be better served to let the process run its course free of the implicit threat triggering would represent. If the team is to generate popular support for a new or remodeled stadium in time for a 2004 referendum, it must find the means to reduce some of the rancor that resulted from the last deal.

Efforts to elicit a goodwill gesture from Team Spanos in the past have been largely fruitless. Whenever city leaders sought to revisit the team's ticket guarantee, they were inevitably reminded that, "A deal is a deal." Those smug words are now shoved back in the Chargers' faces with regularity.

"The thorns which I have reap'd are of the tree I planted," wrote Lord Byron.

The Chargers have recently shown more flexibility on the ticket guarantee, but their proposed elimination of the infamous clause has been tied to a truncated lease that could facilitate their skipping town in 2004.

Council members were right to reject this initiative because the Chargers' proposed concessions are far outweighed by the increased risk of a litigation-free escape. Council was wrong, however, to stifle discussion. The proposal Fabiani outlined was preliminary. It may not represent his bottom line. In any case, "no" is always an option.

"All I can say is that was an idea," Fabiani said. "Since we brought that idea up, I've heard five other good ideas."

Translated: You talk, we'll listen.

The danger in refusing to talk, in deferring all discussions to the Task Force, is that the Chargers may run out of patience before the committee completes its task. Should the Chargers trigger -- even if their intent is simply to prod the bargaining process -- the perception will be that it is a first step toward the exits. This could turn the ticket guarantee from an intermittent nuisance to a lasting debacle.

"You never know how fans will react," Fabiani said. "In Houston, the Oilers were embroiled in two years of litigation with the city. They were essentially lame ducks for two years. Attendance fell to 15,000 per game."

At current prices, a comparable attendance shortfall could mean $30 million of annual liability for the city. And what's to keep the Chargers from raising their ticket prices to extortion levels? Not a single syllable in their current contract.

It behooves both sides, then, to seek a better solution. Trusting the Chargers can be tricky, but provoking them could be perilous.

Tim Sullivan: (619) 293-1033; tim.sullivan@uniontrib



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