Bleeding Blue And Gold Forget Ticket Guarantees or the Latest Ryan Leaf Saga; Chargers’ President Just Wants to Win
Behind Dean Spanos’ desk is a painting of the moment he relishes, the best time he’s ever experienced as president of the San Diego Chargers.
The scene is a snapshot from the final minutes of the American Football Conference championship, the game that put the Chargers into the 1995 Super Bowl. Former Chargers linebacker Dennis Gibson had just knocked down a pass from then-Pittsburgh Steeler quarterback Neil O’Donnell, effectively killing the Steelers’ chances and preserving San Diego’s amazing 17-13 victory.
“That play, that moment was to me the most important, most exciting, most significant play since I’ve been here,” says Spanos, who had the artwork commissioned from a frozen television still picture.
Spanos must have looked at the painting many times over the past three years and wondered if those good times would ever return.
In 1997 and 1998, the Chargers fell to 4-12 and then, 5-11. This year, the once-proud franchise did better than many expected with an 8-8 record, but still failed to make the playoffs.
Exacerbating the team’s poor performance was a bunch of public relations disasters that included a ticket guarantee controversy that has mired both the team and City Hall, the departure of much-admired coach Bobby Ross and the off-the-field escapades and tirades of quarterback Ryan Leaf.
An Expensive Guarantee
But above all, it is the ticket guarantee, a clause in the team’s lease contract with the city, that has brought heaps of public criticism on both the city and the team.
Last season, the city shelled out $6.1 million to purchase unsold tickets to satisfy the guarantee. The amount exceeds the actual rent the Chargers owed the city by about $400,000.
Despite all the flak, Spanos neither makes any apologies nor expects to renegotiate the deal.
“It was terrible timing on the part of the city. But in all fairness to the city, they knew it was a calculated risk going into it. Everybody did. I just don’t think anybody thought it would be this dramatic,” he says.
Has the mayor and other public officials approached him to renegotiate the contract, he’s asked. Yes, they have. And his answer?
“No,” he says, matter-of-factly.
Spanos goes into a long explanation covering the economics of sports stadiums, and why the Chargers are in danger of falling behind the competition in the National Football League.
About a decade ago, the difference between the highest revenue-producing teams and the lowest was only about $15 million. Today, the disparity is nearly $100 million, he says.
That’s because so many football teams have built or are building new stadiums that produce much larger revenue streams from luxury suites, advertising and other deals, he adds.
Spanos acknowledges the Chargers have the right to reopen the contract extension that keeps the team here until 2020 and field offers from other cities if a complex formula involving the team’s salary cap is triggered.
Staying In San Diego
That situation could occur as early as next season, but even if it does, it’s unlikely the team is going anywhere, Spanos says.
“Let me make this very clear: Our intent is to stay in San Diego. We intend to stay here. We want to be here,” he says. “If our intent was to leave San Diego, we would have never done this deal. We would have waited until 2003 (when the original contract expired) and asked the city to build us a new stadium or move.”
Spanos’ disposition brightens when he talks about the upcoming season, and a series of events to commemorate the team’s 40 years in San Diego.
As part of the celebration, the team plans such things as a “throw-back weekend,” when the team will wear its old powder blue and gold jerseys; naming the Chargers all-time team; and creating a Ring of Honor, or a series of banners around the stadium that include every member of the team’s Hall of Fame.
“It’s going to be a really fun time,” he says. “We want to show our appreciation to all the fans who have supported us throughout our time here, especially during the tough times.”
The 1997 and ’98 seasons are still fresh in Spanos’ mind, and he bristles at the suggestion that the Chargers didn’t do enough to market the team because of the guaranteed minimum average of 60,000 tickets the city had to make up.
“That’s such a stupid statement,” he says.
By putting fans in the seats, the Chargers improve their chances of winning games, which is the main focus of the team, Spanos says. In addition, the accusation doesn’t hold up because by not having those fans in attendance, the team misses out on dollars generated from concession and other sales.
Just like his father, Alex, the eldest Spanos son pulls no punches, has enormous loyalty for friends, and shies away from the spotlight.
“He’s one of the most misunderstood, high-profile people in San Diego,” said Ron Fowler, president and CEO of Liquid Investments Inc., and former chairman of the Super Bowl Task Force.
“Given his druthers, he’d rather be in the background and give others the limelight, but he realizes that because of his position, he has to be more involved and outgoing than what his true personality is,” Fowler says.
Like Father, Like Son
Spanos says he shares a good number of traits as his father Alex, but isn’t as quick to show his feelings publicly.
“I think I’m as aggressive and driven pretty hard, but I just don’t show (my emotions) as much as my dad does,” he says.
Alex Spanos, who purchased the majority interest in the Chargers in 1984, turned over the entire oversight of the club’s operations to Dean in 1994.
While his dad loved football, after some 10 years, the grind of running the team gradually wore him down, Dean says.
During the season, Dean will spend 60 to 70 percent of his time on the Chargers. But once the off-season begins, he’ll devote 70 to 80 percent of his working hours on the family’s construction business. Dean is the president and CEO of the A.G. Spanos Cos., which is headquartered in Stockton.
The company that was started by his dad in 1960 today is one of the nation’s largest apartment builders. Although the company did erect some 3 million square feet of commercial space in the 1970s and ’80s, over the past 15 years, its primary focus has been on apartments, Dean Spanos said.
Last year, the Spanos firm constructed nearly 14,000 apartment units, or about $800 million in value, placing it either No. 1 or 2 among the nation’s largest privately held apartment builders, he says.
Spanos learned about the construction industry from the ground up, beginning his career in his father’s firm by doing odd jobs on various construction sites near the family’s Stockton home.
“At 14, my dad had me working on construction sites,” he says. “My mom would take me to work at 5:30 in the morning and pick me up at 2:30 in the afternoon. I was sweeping out apartments, picking up trash, those types of things.”
The family firm’s success is something all the Spanoses are immensely proud of, and he never regrets following in his father’s footsteps, he says.
If he could change anything about his life, it would be fulfilling an early dream of becoming a professional golfer. Although he downplays his ability, it was good enough to get him on his college team at the University of Pacific, and on a handful of winning pro-am teams earlier this decade.
But today, the thing that truly ignites Spanos is watching the Chargers win.
“Winning is the most significant pleasure I get from running the franchise,” he says. “That’s the ultimate goal. That’s the bottom line. You’ve got to win.”
Then he recalls that 1995 game when he’s standing on the sidelines at Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, waiting for the clock to expire, and for the victory that he and every Chargers fan will never forget.