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Alex's Interlocutor

— Timing is everything. For self-employed journalist Evan Weiner, it was good. For Chargers football team owner Alex Spanos, it was bad.

Their chance encounter and brief conversation in the luxurious Breakers' hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, last month resulted in a scoop for Weiner and a public-relations snafu for Spanos and his staff. Spanos expressed his desire for a new stadium to replace the recently remodeled Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, and Weiner parlayed that into a news story for TodaysSports.com, an Internet news service.

Caught off guard, sports writers for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the North County Times scrambled to catch up. They speculated whether Spanos would take the Chargers to another city and noted the awkward timing of his remarks. The City of San Diego is on the brink of issuing $299 million in bonds to finance a new baseball stadium despite cost overruns of $74 million and a shortfall in hotel taxes that are supposed to support the project. Only three years ago, the city spent $78 million to upgrade Qualcomm Stadium for the Chargers. The city's commitment to buy unsold Chargers tickets exceeded $5 million this past football season.

That Spanos would say he wants a new stadium when the city appears overextended financially had at least one radio announcer wondering whether the 76-year-old multimillionaire was having "an elderly moment." A television broadcast suggested Spanos's comments to TodaysSports.com were "off the record," meaning not intended for publication. In a subsequent interview with the North County Times, Spanos said, "I was not taken in the right context." Chargers publicist Bill Johnston told the Union-Tribune, "Mr. Spanos feels bad about what happened. It didn't come out the way he meant it." Johnston did not return telephone calls from the Reader.

In further damage control last week, the Chargers published a full-page advertisement in the Union-Tribune featuring a letter signed by Spanos and his son, Dean Spanos. "The Chargers' mission to win may require us to build a new stadium that will generate the revenues needed to attract top players," they wrote. "Given the current climate, the Chargers do not expect the public to pay for such a stadium."

Weiner, who is based in Westchester County, New York, is a little taken aback with the reaction, which included congratulations from competitors as well as colleagues for being first with the story. A self-described "multipurpose media person," Weiner broadcasts "The Business of Sports" daily for Metro Source, which distributes radio programs nationally for Westwood One Radio. "It's amazing how a four-minute conversation has become a major issue in San Diego," he said. "But I'm well aware of the emotional impact sports teams have on communities."

Weiner is annoyed by the notion that Spanos didn't realize he was being interviewed by a journalist. "The National Football League and the San Diego Chargers tried to put a spin on this later," Weiner said. "I don't want to be in a position of defending Alex Spanos, but he's a very smart man. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was quite clear, quite firm, quite direct. He's not being spoon-fed at this age of his life."

One irony of Weiner's scoop is he didn't plan to question Spanos during last month's meeting of National Football League team owners in Palm Beach. However, his editor at TodaysSports.com instructed him to "get something no one else has." Because there was little on the agenda, Weiner thought he might cobble together a feature about one of his favorite topics, "money and stadium issues." He hoped to interview Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints, Bill Bidwell of the Arizona Cardinals, Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Red McCombs of the Minnesota Vikings about their efforts to get new football fields.

"I talk with every owner I can just to see which way the wind is blowing, and Alex Spanos happened to be the first owner I ran into," Weiner said, recalling they crossed paths in the hotel lobby. "I was looking more for background than a story from him. I wasn't looking for him to deliver any kind of bombshells." One question led to another. "My line of questioning is never a line of questioning, rather a conversation." Weiner first asked Spanos whether they could talk. Then he asked whether the team owners might discuss stadium issues. When Weiner asked whether Spanos was happy with the lease for Qualcomm Stadium, the team owner unloaded.

"What got to me was Spanos was almost jealous of the Padres getting a ballpark," Weiner said. "When an owner says he wants a stadium, it's a story. It's up to the local media whether the story has legs. In my mind, the bigger story is Spanos saying, 'The Padres got a new stadium, and we didn't.' "

The reporting of Spanos's desire for a new stadium isn't the first scoop for TodaysSports.com, according to Mike Attiyeh, news director of the Internet service, which is based in Sacramento. TodaysSports.com and its predecessor, SportsExtra, have occasionally beaten the mainstream press on such news items as second baseman Fernando Vina being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals from the Milwaukee Brewers. The news service also discovered that Win Remerswaal was nearly destitute and in a coma in Holland and alerted Baseball Assistance Team, which provided financial help to the former Boston Red Sox pitcher.

The biggest coup of Attiyeh's career occurred in 1997, when he was the first to report that Padres star Tony Gwynn had a blood clot. At the time Gwynn was a spokesman for SportsExtra and submitted to weekly interviews conducted by Attiyeh. In casual conversation Gwynn let slip the information about his medical condition, and Attiyeh got permission to use it.

After posting the news and an audio feed of Gwynn's interview on SportsExtra's website, Attiyeh drafted and faxed a press release to radio stations, newspapers, and magazines. "It was important to me that our name get out and that we receive credit for such a scoop." Attiyeh's use of news to promote SportsExtra worked. Soon sports writers were calling to ask, "Who are you guys, and where are you located?"

Timeliness is one advantage Internet news services have over other media, Attiyeh said. "We can report in real time. We don't need to wait for the next print run like a newspaper or the next issue like a magazine." A disadvantage is "We don't have the resources in terms of staff and on-location access that traditional media have."

Attiyeh was among a handful of people who launched TodaysSports.com last summer after SportsExtra was sold. TodaysSports.com has only a dozen full-time employees and relies on about 15 freelance journalists, including Weiner. It attracts an estimated 980,000 readers a month, mostly men between ages 18 and 34. Deriving revenue from advertising, sponsorships, electronic commerce, and syndication, the website expects to be profitable in two years.

Paul Lanning, president of TodaysSports.com and its parent company, Today's Communications Inc., has a sports connection to San Diego. He was active in student government and athletic programs at UCSD, where in 1990 he received a bachelor's degree in political science. As co-chair of the planning committee for the university's $30 million RIMAC recreational sports facility, Lanning wrote the referendum that students voted on to finance construction.

"I think it was the largest self-imposed student-fee increase in the UC system's history," Lanning said. The students approved paying an additional $170 each in annual fees to build a versatile athletic center that accommodates dancers and speakers as well as basketball players and weight lifters.

"It would be very difficult to do this again," Lanning said. "In today's climate it's very tough to get voters to pass any kind of tax or fee increase. The San Francisco Bay Area is a good example of that," he said, noting voters there rejected spending taxpayer money or public funds for a new baseball stadium. Consequently, the Giants and corporate sponsors paid $325 million to build Pacific Bell Park, which opened early this month.

However, each city is different, Lanning said, acknowledging San Diego's near opposite scenario of contributing more than $350 million to the Padres' new ballpark. "It depends on the political climate and the fiscal climate of the city. It depends on the team."

Spanos's outburst wasn't surprising, Lanning said. "You have one team [the Padres] that gets a brand-new facility that's state of the art and another team [the Chargers] is left in an old stadium. The Chargers, quite frankly, probably feel they deserve what the Padres have already received." Newer stadiums are built with such amenities as luxury skyboxes and fancy restaurants to attract big businesses and wealthy spectators, Lanning said, so they're considered more economically feasible and marketable than the elephant-like, no-frills stadiums of the 1960s.

"For San Diego, the scary part is there are a half-dozen other cities that would build the Chargers a stadium," Lanning said. "If cities don't have a team, they'll be more likely to finance a new stadium. That's how the Rams ended up in St. Louis, and the Raiders went back to Oakland. It's musical chairs." Weiner reported on the radio last week that the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission seeks to rebuild the coliseum and recruit a football team.

As a multipurpose media person, Weiner often lectures about the business of sports, and people invariably ask about new sports facilities. "Here in New York, my audiences are always shocked when I point out part of their Con Edison local utility bill goes to subsidize Madison Square Garden. The Garden is not required to pay electric bills through a unique deal cut with then Governor Mario Cuomo in the early 1980s."

In his presentations, Weiner emphasizes that government has been a partner in sports since the U.S. Tax Code changed in 1986. Some taxpayers have become suspicious of deals between team owners and politicians. Residents of Houston; St. Paul, Minnesota; and the Greensboro-Winston-Salem area of North Carolina have voted against subsidizing the construction of new professional-sports facilities.

Many team owners continue seeking new stadiums, ballparks, and arenas, nonetheless, Weiner said, noting New York City and the surrounding area exemplify that quest. He delivered a radio commentary last week about how eight of the nine professional sports teams there want new venues. They include the Yankees baseball team, the Rangers hockey team, the Nets basketball team, and the New York Jets football team.

That Spanos wants a new stadium, too, should not shock anyone, given the trend, Weiner said. "The reaction of surprise in San Diego -- and especially the overreaction in the media -- is partly because San Diego is so laid back. It caught people with their pants down, so to speak. You don't have the intensity of news coverage there like you do on the East Coast.... All somebody had to do was ask Spanos a question."

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