Will Owners Let Chargers Leave Bankrupt City?

San Diego has a bang-up football team and a banged-up balance sheet. And that presents a dilemma: will National Football League owners permit the Chargers, potential Super Bowl contestants, to leave a city the year it may be forced into bankruptcy? The team can flirt with other cities in January and elope after the 2008 season, but it probably won't woo any metro area publicly while this year's playoff turnstiles are spinning. A move could create a public relations disaster: the nation may see that pro football is not a game but an extortion racket by which money of poor taxpayers is distributed to billionaire team owners.

Art Modell, who owned two different pro football teams, once put it this way: league owners are "32 fat-cat Republicans who act like complete socialists." It is an apt description: the owners are consumed by greed, but through such arrangements as the draft, easy schedules for weaker teams, and player salary caps, they make sure that have-nots eventually become haves. Karl Marx would have loved it. Because of revenue sharing, every team will have its days in the limelight.

The trick is coming up with a good team at the time you're squeezing your home city for several hundred million dollars for a new stadium. The Chargers thought they had timed it right, but then the City was forced to reveal that it had been covering up more than a billion dollars of pension deficits. Now the city is falling apart.

The last election may have been sobering to pro sports owner/mendicants. In turning thumbs down on a plea by its pro basketball team, Seattle voted 3 to 1 for a measure that prohibits sports welfare unless taxpayers get a return on their investment. By the same margin, Sacramento voters rejected a bid for a new basketball arena that would have required a sales tax hike. Overwhelmingly, Pasadena voters said they didn't want to invite the National Football League in to help rehabilitate the Rose Bowl. Could pro football owners fear an Age of Enlightenment?

I asked five of the most prominent sports economists whether the league, concerned about deserting a bankrupt city, might turn down the Chargers' bid for relocation. I asked if the Chargers' claim that it needed a new stadium to remain competitive made any sense, particularly since they have done so well the last few seasons playing in a stadium they fallaciously consider out of date. And I asked if the Chargers might end up in the Los Angeles metro area, particularly Orange County, which I still think will be their new home.

They shot down the notion that November 7's election results portend a new realization by the public that it is getting screwed. "There is creeping enlightenment, but not a sea change," says Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College. "The level of resistance" to a Charger departure "might be higher than in the past."

That's too optimistic, say others. "There have always been a number of places that have refused to cave in, but in the end, there are always more places that will," says Ronald D. Utt of the Heritage Foundation. Yes, there were minor victories Election Day, but this year baseball's Washington Nationals "got the first 100 percent government-financed stadium."

"From time to time I think we really have become more rational, but then weird things happen," says Robert A. Baade of Lake Forest College.

And even if rationality were creeping into public discourse, there is little evidence the National Football League would be attuned to it. "The NFL is about making as much money as it can for owners," says Dennis Coates of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "They wouldn't have a problem moving a team if it would make more money for the owners. The league doesn't have a terribly strong sense of loyalty to cities."

"Nothing will deter the NFL from putting its teams where it will make the most money," says Rodney D. Fort of Washington State University, author of the text Sports Economics.

"If the NFL thought it could move the Chargers without too much in the way of negative publicity, the NFL would allow this. It is a bottom-line business," says Baade. Because of the emotional impact of Katrina, the league might want to keep the Saints in New Orleans "for at least a period of time to give the impression that the NFL is not a heartless entity."

The Chargers claim they need a new stadium so they can field a better team. Is that poppycock? In a word, yes, say the economists, mainly because of the share-the-wealth socialism. In all sports, "half the time they get better, half the time they don't" after wangling a new facility, says Fort. It's less likely to happen in share-the-wealth football, even though some revenues, such as from luxury boxes, do not have to be shared with other owners. By and large, new stadiums make football owners richer but don't make teams better. Teams such as the Chargers, Green Bay Packers, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Chicago Bears, and Oakland Raiders have had both stellar and smelly years in old facilities, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams have had both good and bad years in new stadiums.

So are the Chargers headed out of town -- particularly to the juicy L.A. metro area? If the team goes deep into the playoffs or to the Super Bowl, "San Diego might have a change of heart," says Zimbalist. Mayor Sanders might not be able to resist entreaties from his business backers and could give away the entire Qualcomm site.

A deal outside of the city, such as in Chula Vista or National City, might work, says Fort. The Oakland A's are angling to move to Fremont and the 49ers to Santa Clara, he notes. Of course, public financing is a stumbling block in San Diego County cities. And two logical alternatives would seem to be out of the question: the nabobs who want cities to subsidize the Chargers aren't likely to put their own money in, and big owner egos would prevent the team from staying at Qualcomm, an excellent facility.

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