- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Three years ago, the San Diego Chargers were devoid of any kind of spark. They were coming off eight straight seasons without a winning record, had been dissed by their top draft pick and played in one of the most undesirable stadiums in the NFL, making them a prime candidate for relocation.

Today, the franchise’s turnaround is nearly complete. The team spent the last five months stampeding its way to a franchise-best 14-2 record and the top seed in the AFC playoffs while moving closer to building a new stadium that will keep it in the San Diego area for good.

The champagne is still on ice, but it’s clear the winning team and recent progress on the stadium issue have merged to create a positive feeling residents of San Diego haven’t known in more than a decade.

“There’s a fair degree of optimism now,” said Chris Neals, an attorney and chairman of a committee devoted to keeping the Chargers in the San Diego area. “There’s a general belief that things are better than they were three years ago, and the success of the team has just been icing on the cake.”

The Chargers will play just their second postseason game in 11 seasons Sunday and are a favorite to reach the Super Bowl for the first time since 1994. Once a team lacking in both talent and hope, the franchise now can boast of having the NFL’s MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson, who established an NFL record by scoring 31 touchdowns this season. And they have a Pro Bowl quarterback in Philip Rivers, who was acquired when 2004 No. 1 overall pick Eli Manning refused to play for the Chargers and was traded to the New York Giants.

Of course, all of this success has come while playing in Qualcomm Stadium, one of the most outdated and aging stadiums in the NFL. Built in 1967, Qualcomm was not meant for football and no longer is a candidate to play host to the Super Bowl. Forbes magazine last year valued the Chargers at $731 million, ranking them 30th out of 32 teams, at least partially because of Qualcomm’s inability to produce revenue similar to most other NFL stadiums.

The Chargers contend a replacement for Qualcomm is essential to their financial success.

“As stadiums go, it’s getting past its useful lifetime,” said Mark Fabiani, special counsel to the Chargers and the team’s point man in negotiations for a new facility. “The stadium itself was built for baseball. Football is a use the stadium accommodates but not very well.”

Buzz over a new facility for the Chargers began when the Padres moved into a baseball-only stadium in 2004. But by most accounts, real movement began in earnest when the Chargers renegotiated their lease of Qualcomm Stadium with the city later that year. The renegotiation eliminated an unpopular clause requiring the city to buy any unsold tickets and a provision that could have allowed the team to leave San Diego at any point.

While the new lease also allows the Chargers to seek relocation, the team was permitted to speak only with cities in San Diego County until last week. Officials in San Antonio and Las Vegas have been in contact with the team in recent days, but Chargers officials have declined their advances. Talks regarding a stadium at the site of Qualcomm in downtown San Diego are dead — a victim of political upheaval, economics or personality conflicts — but the Chargers are in talks with Chula Vista, National City and Oceanside, located just south of San Diego.

“We told other cities that we appreciate their call but that we were going to negotiate with San Diego County,” Fabiani said. “There’s a lot of activity, a lot of interest. By any measure, we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress.”

Chargers owner Alex Spanos has promised to finance the stadium using no taxpayer dollars. Under his proposal, the host city would provide the team with public land, and the team would develop the land and use the development revenue to finance the stadium construction. Despite the lack of public money involved, officials from the team and region said any stadium proposal likely still would be put before voters as soon as this year, making the team’s on-field success an key piece of the puzzle. Voters in San Diego overwhelmingly approved public financing for a new Padres ballpark in 1998 after the team advanced to the World Series.

“I think you have to anticipate that in any location they have to put it on the ballot,” said Dan Shea, founder of the Fans, Taxpayers and Business Alliance, a group assisting the Chargers in finding a new home in San Diego County. “It’s the most politically sensible thing to do. But that’s a tough, uphill battle when you have a 2-14 team.”

The Chargers’ days of perennial losing may be in the past, but history shows that the fickle NFL, in which parity reigns, is hardly a place to grow complacent.

“It’s important that they don’t get blinded by the light of success,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It’s as if all of the discussion is based on the belief they will always be this good. Well, explain that to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”

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