Union-Tribune: Spanos supplicant under four owners?

Twenty years’ worth of editorials advocate big taxpayer fork-overs

Mark Fabiani
  • Mark Fabiani

As Chargers owner Dean Spanos employed captive video to announce his official exit from San Diego on the first Monday of 2016, others took to Twitter to express their disdain, not for the team but about the favorable treatment critics say Spanos and his lobbying chief Mark Fabiani have gotten from the Union-Tribune.

"Wondering why for 10 years the Chargers spokesman was not fact checked,..same claims!" tweeted one about the media-friendly reign of Chargers special counsel Fabiani.

Did, in fact, the Union-Tribune — once owned by Helen Copley and her son David, and later by other big-money buyers — give Republican Spanos and Democrat Fabiani a free ride?

A review of more than two decades’ worth of editorials shows that through four ownerships, the newspaper has been consistent in its position that taxpayers should be tapped to keep the football team from fleeing the city. The editorials also show that the paper has been less than skeptical about the Spanos family’s motives.

The roots of the saga grow from 1995, when mayor Susan Golding, seeking campaign cash from Chargers owner Alex Spanos, cut the subsequently notorious ticket guarantee and expansion deal for Qualcomm Stadium (then called Jack Murphy Stadium after the Union sportswriter).

"San Diego gets the peace of mind that another city will not be able to steal its football team," wrote U-T sports columnist Barry Bloom on May 16, 1995. "Even a complicated clause in the lease tied to changing economics in the NFL would allow the city first right of refusal to match any outside offer the Chargers might obtain."

Four years later, Spanos, who supposedly had been placated by the city's just-expanded stadium, dropped a bombshell, telling a Florida reporter he wanted a new venue. Finding themselves engulfed in a national storm of controversy, in April 2000, Spanos and his son Dean took out a full-page advertisement in the U-T.

"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."

Enter Fabiani, embattled Democratic president Bill Clinton’s so-called master of disaster, who by 2000 had moved to La Jolla and was working for vice president Al Gore's presidential campaign.

As special counsel for the Chargers, it fell to Fabiani to lobby city hall for an end to the controversial Golding deal keeping the team in town and getting the taxpayers to fork over for a posh new Qualcomm replacement.

"Mark Fabiani's language is evasive. His tone is cheerful. The Chargers' political consultant, the sultan of spin, is at work on a proposal designed to woo a wary public," wrote the Union-Tribune’s subsequently fired Tim Sullivan in November 2002.

"He envisions a new football stadium in Mission Valley, one that enriches the City as well as his employer."

A costly legal battle launched by Spanos ensued, ending with a favorable new escape hatch for the Chargers.

After the dust settled, Fabiani embarked on a subsidy-seeking journey across the county. There were stadium proposals for Oceanside, Chula Vista, National City, and, in 2008, San Diego's 10th Avenue Marine Terminal, which city voters shot down 70 to 30 percent.

In October 2006, as Chula Vista and National City entertained NFL dreams, the Union-Tribune editorialized that "Fabiani appeared pleased with both the progress that has been made so far and the seriousness and can-do attitude of the officials on the other side of the negotiating table."

Then the paper added, "Meanwhile, Mayor Jerry Sanders' profile on the issue remains microscopic, and the rhetoric of some politicians, including Councilwoman Donna Frye and Supervisor Pam Slater-Price, seems intended to cultivate the idea that any deal the Chargers can come up with will exploit the public."

Scolded the U-T, "This is nonsense. It is possible to simultaneously oppose taxpayer giveaways while passionately working to keep the Chargers in the San Diego area."

The paper went on to assert that due to the "monkey-wrenching tactics of City Attorney Michael Aguirre, there is no way investors could be found who would be willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars on the Mission Valley project."

No criticism of Fabiani's role appeared.

Five years later, with the Union-Tribune having been acquired in 2009 by Beverly Hills billionaire Tom Gores, Fabiani was still prospecting for taxpayer subsidies, and the U-T was still rooting for him.

"There is a huge amount of work to be done if Sanders is to get a stadium proposal before voters in November 2012 — a month before he leaves office — as he and Fabiani have long set as their goal," said an October 16, 2011, editorial.

"A financing plan that is workable and legal must be cobbled together. Hopefully, the county government and perhaps other cities can be recruited to the cause."

By January 11, 2014, the Union-Tribune, by then in the hands of La Jolla development kingpin Douglas Manchester, remained Fabiani-friendly.

“We need to get stable political leadership in the city,” the paper's editorial quoted Fabiani as saying. “And then we need that leadership to coalesce behind a proposal that they can enthusiastically support...."

Pronounced the U-T editorialists, "What is needed is for the mayor to make the stadium a top priority and to gather all the stakeholders together to come up with the best and most doable plan. He must then take the lead in educating the many public constituencies about the proposal, and be its champion."

Fabiani was quoted as saying that team owner Dean Spanos “has never put a deadline on anything."

The quote continued, "Dean understood from the beginning that the bond that you have with your fans is the most important thing that the franchise has, more important than anything else, and once that bond is severed, it’s very hard to reattach."

He added, “And so Dean has always felt that you never want to make a threat, you never want to say ‘do this or else.’ You never want to impose any deadlines. And we haven’t....”

Concluded Fabiani, “I think Dean is realistic about what is possible and how quickly things can happen. So, no, 2014 is not a drop-dead date."

On March 12, 2015, following the February revelation by the Chargers of their plan to relocate to Carson, the paper adopted a plaintive approach to Fabiani and his boss Spanos.

"All he has to do is offer some real encouragement that his financial experts will work closely with the mayor’s task force to develop a financing plan that works for the team and for the region’s taxpayers and that he will then go all out to help sell it to San Diego County voters."

By summer of 2015, the Union-Tribune had changed hands yet again, purchased from Manchester in May by Chicago-based Tribune Publishing, which also owns the Los Angeles Times, presenting a potential conflict of interest, some have observed, when it comes to covering the battle between San Diego and L.A. over the ultimate destiny of Chargers.

There was no more appreciation for Fabiani, just the desire that the Chargers would lose out to the St. Louis Rams in the race for L.A., giving local taxpayers yet another shot at coming up with sufficient cash to keep the team in town.

"If that happens, the Chargers are likely to be wooed by newly abandoned St. Louis, which is planning a heavily subsidized stadium sure to be more to the Spanoses’ liking than one with San Diego’s financing plan," said an August 10 editorial published under the newspaper's new owner.

"But it also seems likely that the team would then finally begin earnest, serious negotiations with the city/county group here to get the 21st-century, revenue-generating stadium the Spanoses say they need to compete at the highest level."

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An excellent recap of the matter, Matt. But now, with the paper's circulation and readership well off the peaks (whenever that was), does this coverage really make much difference with the local electorate? The clout the paper once had is nearly gone, and all of that boosterism didn't get a new stadium. Is the electorate going to be swayed by a newspaper that nearly nobody reads now?

The real question is just what medium can deliver a dedicated, motivated fan. Is it local TV? I doubt that. Is it sports magazines in print or on-line? Again, I doubt that. My take is that the paper panders to local sports nuts, and just keeps telling them what they want to hear. That helps keep generally-declining circulation up which in turn keeps retailers in the paper and willing to pay to run ads.

A string of conservative owners of the paper should all have opposed public financing of stadia, yet they did just the opposite. Was that all about keeping male circulation up to sell more papers by subscription and on the streets? That's about the only reason I can determine.

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