The death of Alex Spanos this week came not two years since his heirs opted for an NFL-sponsored stadium deal and moved the San Diego Chargers north, securing tenancy in a 70,000-seat venue to arise in Inglewood by 2020.
The stay-or-go decision fell to Spanos’ four adult children, headed by Chargers control owner and Chairman Dean Spanos.
Alex Spanos, who was 95 when he died Tuesday, had been outside the company’s decision loop for many years. In December 2008, his son said doctors found that Alex probably had “severe dementia.”
San Diegans today may wonder, then, what Alex’s relocation decision would’ve been, had health allowed him to have final say.
My view is that Alex Spanos would’ve made the same decision as his children did, for at least two reasons:
One, family was first with him, and the L.A. deal sets up his family sports business in a 21st-century stadium next to a NFL campus in a huge media market.
Two, he was famously (and proudly) impatient and would’ve grown fed up with not having a fancy stadium in San Diego.
Gleanings from my few conversations with Alex Spanos as a Chargers beat writer in the early 1990s aren’t primary to my views of the relocation scenario, although he came off as impatient and quick to cite his devotion to family.
His successful practices in real-estate ventures jibe with the NFL deal his children accepted.
Spanos was famous for reducing risk — remember, San Diego taxpayers footed the bill for unsold Chargers tickets under a deal between the team and City Hall — and the Inglewood deal burdens the club with no construction debt, a rare outcome for a project of such massive scope.
Most of the downside on the whole Inglewood project, as well as bigger upside, falls to Kroenke, a mega-billionaire who has invested $1.6 billion in the sprawling project.
The only obligation to the Chargers is the relocation fee that, although hefty at $650 million, can be paid out over 10 years. (Yes, the Chargers will have to pay back an NFL construction loan but that would’ve held true on a San Diego stadium deal, too, and the loan is $100 million less than the NFL-approved $300 million earmarked toward a new San Diego stadium. The “G4” loan money is repaid over time out of the visiting team’s share of ticket revenues. So, it’s not a debt in the way a bank loan is a debt.)
And, as the NFL has described the deal, the team receives equal shares to the Rams of the major revenue streams.
While the Chargers may never grow into a big fish in the crowded L.A. sports ocean where they are now a minnow, securing a foothold in the second-largest media market ought to give Alex Spanos’ heirs a better chance to sell the franchise at a solid valuation if cashing out becomes the choice years after the Inglewood venue opens. And if Alex’s children hadn’t taken the L.A. option, the team’s negotiation position in San Diego, previously not strong enough to get a new stadium at an NFL price, only would’ve weakened.
Likewise, when building his empire, the family patriarch was mindful of downside in his construction and land-use deals. He was said to seldom build an apartment complex without having pre-sold the development to a pension fund or other investor. While the practice may have shaved upside off a deal, it reduced downside.
Averse to debt, the elder Spanos was known to halt business if he concluded the economy was going to crash and endanger his ability to repay loans.
He owned four private jets when he took over the Chargers. He’d paid for them with cash. And in August 1984 when he overcame a Dallas businessman’s bid for a controlling stake in the Chargers, he paid off club majority owner Eugene Klein with a check of $40.3 million (while also assuming $8 million in club debt).
I doubt the Chargers will ever capture the heart of Angelenos as other L.A. clubs have done, even if San Diegan Philip Rivers were to lead them to a Super Bowl soon.
However, I think Alex Spanos’ pride (and pragmatism) would’ve encouraged him not to stay out of L.A. but to leave San Diego.
He would’ve developed stadium envy. Along with the ham-fisted NFL, he probably didn’t have the chops to get a deal done here or the inclination to blame himself for the San Diego stalemate.
He was not a patient man, and as far back as 2005, when he was still in the Chargers’ loop, San Diego outcomes on the new-stadium front vexed him.
The Chargers’ pitch to City Hall to redevelop the Mission Valley land hadn’t yielded a deal. And the elder Spanos had noticed that NFL dreamers were eyeing L.A., which had seen two teams move out in the mid-1990s. Wondering if the Chargers should expand their potential options, he was intrigued in the 2000s that sports project developer AEG was exploring a stadium and entertainment complex for L.A.
Was his heart in San Diego?
Upon buying control of the Chargers, he talked of relocating his Stockton headquarters, but never did. Stockton remained his primary home.
He was famously wounded by the boos that rained down on him at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium during the ceremony to retire Dan Fouts’ number in 1988.
“It was a moment of misery like I’d never experienced before,” he wrote in his book, released in 2002. “Afterward, dejection hung over me for days. My family encouraged me to sell the Chargers. But I was stubborn.”
He did many good deeds in San Diego, but was also a benefactor to Los Angeles and in 1998 appeared at Hollywood gala where he was honored for his humanitarian work.
The Greek words for goodbye are antio sas.
Substitute a lucid Alex, the son of Greek immigrants, for Dean and siblings atop Chargers Football Company, LLC in January 2017, and I think the result would’ve been the same. Antio sas, San Diego.