So now it is supposed to happen to San Diego, the way it just happened to St. Louis, and the way it may happen to Oakland, sooner rather than later. San Diego will lose the Chargers the way St. Louis lost the Rams back to Los Angeles, the way Raiders fans will likely lose their team to Las Vegas. Same song, different cities, with the owners always acting as if they are the victims of some civic conspiracy against them, or swindle. But they're the ones swindling their own fans, as part of what has become one of the great civic boondoggles of the past 40 years in America:
The New Stadium hustle.
When the New York Giants left so much history and glamour behind at Yankee Stadium, they were just trailblazers, right over the George Washington Bridge. Sonny Werblin, the old showbiz impresario who signed Joe Namath to a $400,000 contract when Werblin was running the Jets, was running the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in the 1970s when the Giants decided they needed a new stadium, even if it meant they had to move to New Jersey to get it.
"Think of [the Meadowlands] as 13th Avenue," Werblin said, and brilliantly, pointing out that Giants Stadium was going to be about seven miles from Times Square, even if it was on the other side of the Hudson. There were a lot of people who called Giants owner Wellington Mara a lamister in those days. It turned out that Mr. Mara was just ahead of the curve, the way he was back in the '50s when he said that even though the Giants were playing in New York, that all NFL teams should share television money equally when the big television money started to pour into the sport.
The Giants left town, but really didn't, because Sonny Werblin happened to be right with his old agent's instincts, formed in the long-ago at the Music Corporation of America (MCA), that he could just expand the whole idea of "New York." But the Giants clearly saw the future with new stadiums, and the money they could generate, even before the National Football League became as filthy rich as it is now.
Before too long, the Rams, who were sick of playing in L.A., were on their way to St. Louis and the Browns were on their way to Baltimore and the Colts were on their way to Indianapolis and always, as they all wanted new stadiums with more and more luxury suites -- this was even before the birth of private-seat licensing, which turned seats at NFL games into country club memberships -- you heard the same thing:
How good these new stadiums were going to be for taxpayers.
Well, only if you were talking about the taxpayers who owned the teams, and the taxpayers building these new palaces for an insane amount of money. The rest of it is just rich-guy hoo-haw. The ultimate deceit in these deals is that everybody -- the league, the owners, the fans -- are all in it together. They're not.
This all goes back to William Goldman, who wrote the screenplay for "All the President's Men" and wrote the line for "Deep Throat" that for years and years was attributed to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein:
Follow the money.
When you do that in pro football, you often end up following it from Los Angeles to St. Louis and back, from Cleveland to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Indianapolis, from Houston to Nashville. Oh, sure, don't forget the Oilers. Not only did they leave their city and their fans for Tennessee and another set of fans, they took their nickname -- a great nickname, by the way -- with them until the Tennessee Oilers became the Tennessee Titans and the new team in Houston became the Texans. Not a bad nickname. Not anywhere near as good as Houston Oilers. They don't just take your history, then, after all the years of taking your money. They take your name, too.
If the Chargers move to Los Angeles, San Diego probably has the same chance of getting another team that St. Louis has, the same chance that San Diego has of getting another NBA franchise now that the Clippers have lamistered their way to Los Angeles. It is kind of a beautiful thing, too, if you think about it. All of a sudden Los Angeles, without an NFL franchise for more than two decades and barely noticing for most of that time despite all the false starts with new stadiums, is about to have two teams, if it's true -- and it sure seems to be true -- that the Chargers are on their way up the freeway.
And San Diego, whose football history goes all the way back to the American Football League, and some of the most entertaining teams in the history of that league, is about to lose its team over a new stadium that will likely never be built in that city. And Chargers fans will go watch their team head out of town to Los Angeles, and become a tenant in the stadium that Stan Kroenke is building there with a couple of billion in his own money and another billion in a loan -- biggest for a sports stadium in all of recorded history -- from JP Morgan Chase and Co.
It is interesting that Kroenke, according to the Los Angeles Times, can't sell naming rights, suites or personal seat licenses for the new stadium until February 2017 unless they first reach an agreement to share the venue with another team. Which is expected to be the Chargers, as soon as they can beat their way out of San Diego the way Kroenke beat his way out of St. Louis.
At least Kroenke, one of the richest men in the country, is fronting most of the money himself. So often in these deals, the burden falls on cities and states. The original cost of Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis was $720 million, of which $620 million was paid for by taxpayers. You know what that is? It is a glorified shakedown, for the second domed stadium in which the Colts had played after the late Robert Irsay took them out of Baltimore.
No one would ever suggest that there shouldn't be some sort of public and private partnership with these deals, even when you've got a situation like the one with the owners of the 49ers, who had to move to Santa Clara to get their own sweetheart deal with Levi's Stadium. They still call themselves the San Francisco 49ers, all right, even though the team now plays its home games nearly 50 miles from downtown San Francisco. Another world record. Compared to that geography, the Patriots, who play their home games in Foxborough, Mass. -- about 20 miles from downtown Boston -- are practically right next door to Fenway Park.
Fans of the Chargers, if there is no big civic handout in San Diego and the Chargers really do leave, are about to realize the real bottom line with bottom-liners who own football teams in the National Football League:
They don't matter. They never do. Their history goes the way the Browns' history left, the way Colts' history left Baltimore one time in the middle of the night, the way all the terrific history of the Houston Oilers left Houston. The owners think they own history like that the way they do everything else. They don't. In the end, this is about money. How about they start expanding, and stop subtracting?