Chargers owner Dean Spanos rarely speaks at league meetings. Throughout drama of the past year — Would the Chargers join the Rams in Los Angeles? Would they not? — Spanos mostly deferred to team executives when the Chargers gave updates before fellow owners. Nobody blamed him; he felt like he had been stabbed in the back last January, when many owners assured him that he had the votes to build a stadium to be shared with the Raiders in Carson, California, before the proposal went down in flames, aided by a last-minute alternative voted on in a secret ballot. And so last month, it was striking that Spanos took the floor before owners at the league meetings at the Four Seasons in Irving, Texas — and it was not a good sign.
“Thank you,” Spanos said, according to sources in the room. “This has been a tough time for me and my family.”
He paused, then admitted what everyone already knew: “Please keep it here. I don’t want to go to L.A. I want to stay.”
Was this a last-minute plea for help? Was it a State of the Chargers address, from the owner’s mouth? Maybe it was something owners aren’t used to hearing in meetings: desperation. A beloved owner, Spanos had first rights at moving to L.A. to be a tenant in the Rams’ new stadium, a consolation prize after last year’s contentious and spontaneous decision by owners to allow the Rams to move and to give the Chargers a year to decide whether they’d join them. A year had passed, and not much had changed. Voters soundly rejected a local stadium referendum. In what was viewed by team officials as a disingenuous stunt, four city council members wanted to offer the Chargers a 99-year, $1-annual lease for Qualcomm Stadium.
In the meeting, Spanos told owners that fans were showing up at the Chargers practice facility and leaving $1 bills. Some owners quietly laughed, but most of the room was quiet. It became clear why Spanos was speaking: He was telling them what Adam Schefter reported Wednesday night, that he was planning to move to L.A. It was sad and dire and unprecedented in Roger Goodell’s decade as commissioner: An owner unwillingly moving a team to a city that doesn’t seem to want it, sharing a stadium with an owner, Stan Kroenke, who doesn’t want to split it, witnessed and engineered by a group of owners whose sympathy only goes so far.
“I have no choice,” Spanos said.
Now a weird year for the NFL just got weirder. If the Chargers do indeed move, and if owners approve the Raiders’ move to Vegas in March, three teams will have relocated in a 14-month span. There will be plenty of blame to go around. Goodell will be the face of it, but internally, owners and executives will wonder if NFL executive Eric Grubman, the point man on stadiums, did an effective enough job of negotiating with San Diego officials. The owners will be viewed as vessels of greed; Spanos will be the one who in the end decided to pull the plug on a cherished home, his legacy a sunburned version of Art Modell’s. But the lingering conflict goes beyond the relocations, beyond the logistics and into an area that is tougher to navigate if not solve, because there is no clear solution: What if the NFL simply matters less?
It’s a question that goes beyond the ratings issues of 2016, a crisis that wasn’t — but still shook some owners as a premonition that the league’s cultural supremacy might be at stake. All stadium deals are different, and it’s especially difficult to build one in California, but given the stakes, it was revealing that the Chargers’ November stadium ballot measure went down so badly, with only 43 percent in support of it. The city had a choice and it made it.
Now Los Angeles, which for two decades watched the weekend’s two best games on TV, will watch the Rams and the Chargers. Owners publicly are bullish about Los Angeles as a two-team town; privately they’re not so sure — especially because owners don’t want the one team that would do best there, the Raiders, to return to their old home, owning to Al Davis’ burned bridges and the co-opting of real apparel by gangs. “How are the Chargers going to market themselves?” one team executive says. “‘We didn’t want to be here, but we’re here, so buy some PSLs?'”
Professional football is not only accustomed to power; it’s accustomed to being vital. And it’s accustomed to exercising its power because it is so vital. The NFL is still powerful and vital, more than any American sports league. But it won’t be the same if and when the Chargers move, and nobody knows what it’ll look like. The Chargers are moving for a lot of reasons, but most of all because it was deemed permissible — by the league office, by the owners, and finally, by the citizens of San Diego — for them to do so.
We are reminded every time a player is cut that the NFL is a business, and now it seems the citizens fully realize it and are exercising roster options of their own. Whatever happens next with the Chargers, it’s not a sign of strength for professional football. The NFL is likely force-feeding a pair of bad teams to a market that was fine without it for two decades; it is consolidating at a moment when its primary goal is global expansion; it is deeply empathetic for Spanos’ wounds, self-inflicted or not, just a little bit less than it is concerned about itself. It’s going to lead to an uncertain landscape for professional football, which concerns more owners than they’ll ever admit publicly. This wasn’t an act of hubris. It was an act of desperation, and it led Dean Spanos to finally speak before he left the room, and left home.