SAN DIEGO -- In our romanticized view of football, all a team really needs to play a game is a field, a ball and an opponent. Everything else is gravy.
In the big-money world of the NFL, however, it's the gravy that pays the bills.
If all an NFL team needed to be lucrative was a solid field, nice uniforms and good weather, the San Diego Chargers would be the most profitable team in the league.
Sadly, perfectly trimmed Bermuda sod, crisp powder-blue-and-gold uniforms and sunny 75-degree afternoons don't pay the bills in the NFL. State-of-the-art stadiums complete with luxury suites, club seats and plush corporate lounges do.
Qualcomm Stadium, which opened in 1967, isn't just outdated; it's an obsolete relic that should have been put out of its misery years ago.
For nearly a decade, the Chargers have unsuccessfully tried to get a new stadium built in Chula Vista, Escondido, Oceanside or Mission Valley. Each proposal fell apart before a formal plan could even be put before voters. The Chargers' latest and likely last attempt to keep the team in San Diego has them building a largely publicly subsidized, retractable-roof stadium in downtown San Diego that would be a part of a convention center expansion.
Judging from the reaction of fans during the Chargers' exhibition game against the San Francisco 49ers on Thursday night, the latest proposal probably will meet the same fate as the previously doomed proposals.
It's not that Chargers fans want to see their team leave town, it's just that many of them don't see the need for a new stadium and most of them don't like the idea of a new roofed stadium in downtown, let alone the idea of the public paying for even a portion of the stadium.
"I like Qualcomm Stadium, I don't think there's a bad seat in the place," said Alan Anderson, a 61-year-old season-ticket holder from Orange County. "I know they want luxury boxes and club seats but that doesn't affect me. They're not going to get another stadium in San Diego."
Anderson, who has made the one-hour-plus commute to San Diego on game days for the last six years, doesn't care about having a shorter drive to Los Angeles to watch his team play but doesn't see any way the team will be able to stay in San Diego as long as it insists on getting a new stadium built.
"I don't want them to go to Los Angeles, but I don't think San Diego will pay for a new stadium," Anderson said. "They were talking about a hotel tax, but we come down here for long weekends and the hotel tax in San Diego is ridiculous enough as it is. I don't know how much more they could raise it."
League officials need only one hand to count the number of NFL stadiums they believe need to be replaced or completely refurbished after 21 new stadiums were built for 22 teams since the Raiders and Rams left Los Angeles in 1995. Three of them are in California with Oakland, San Francisco and San Diego making up three of the four oldest stadiums in the league. Lambeau Field is technically the oldest, but it got a $295 million face-lift in 2003 and will get another $143 million expansion next year, making it a virtually new facility.
The last time Qualcomm Stadium got anything close to a face-lift was in 1997, when a $78 million expansion brought the total seating capacity to 71,500 and the total number of suites to 113, along with four club-level lounges. The upgrades helped San Diego get the Super Bowl in 2003, but before the game, when then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue looked at the stadium, which had just been refurbished five years earlier, he was far from impressed.
"I'm surprised that we are here this week," Tagliabue said before the Super Bowl. "If it weren't for [Chargers owner] Alex [Spanos] impressing upon the committee and upon the membership the importance of coming back here from his perspective, I don't think that San Diego would have been on the top of the list of most owners who were considering Super Bowl sites. So I don't think the outlook is promising. ... I think it's unlikely that there's going to be a Super Bowl in the immediate future in San Diego."
Tagliabue was right; nearly a decade later, the Chargers are still trying to get a new stadium while the Super Bowl is being held in newer stadiums in cities like Detroit, Jacksonville, Houston and Indianapolis instead of San Diego.
Qualcomm is a concrete eyesore to anyone who has covered the league for the last decade and seen the billion-dollar football palaces recently built in New York and Dallas. The Chargers' home locker room is inferior to the visiting locker rooms at new stadiums, and the outdoor press box is on par with something you might see at a high school stadium in Texas. The cracked concrete floors and walls, creaking plastic seats and leaking pipes in the stadium show the signs and stains of a facility well past its prime.
"Nobody thought this would be going on nine or 10 years, I certainly didn't when I started," said Mark Fabiani, the Chargers' special counsel to the president, who is heading up the team's efforts to get a new stadium. "When I took this job, I thought we'd work on it for a couple of years and if we couldn't get a deal done [Chargers president and CEO] Dean Spanos would move the team. I really believed after working on this for a couple of years he would move the team. I never anticipated Dean and his family would do what they've done, which is stick with this thing through all sorts of ups and downs and difficulties."
The difficulties have only increased over the years with a worsening economy, a drastic increase in the cost of building stadiums and a refusal from citizens to publicly subsidize a stadium.
"I think they should get a new stadium if they want one, but it's disappointing that we build these stadiums and by the time the bonds are paid off and they are free to use, they want to tear them down and build a new one," said Roque Chiriboga, a 54-year-old season-ticket holder from Carlsbad, Calif., who has been coming to games with his 15-year-old son, Devin, for the last six years. "The owners want to make more money from suites and club seats, but it's going to be hard to convince fans to pay for that."
Much has been made recently about the Chargers potentially moving to Los Angeles and playing at Farmers Field after the city and AEG agreed on the financial framework of a deal for the $1.2 billion privately financed stadium. If the Chargers did move to Los Angeles, it wouldn't be so much to play in the country's second biggest market as it would be to drastically increase their revenue streams through premium seat sales.
Conventions Sports & Leisure International, a consulting firm that analyzed the Farmers Field deal for the Los Angeles city officials, estimated the annual operating income for an NFL team at Farmers Field would be $53 million, which would be more than double what Forbes' current estimate ($24.7 million) is for the Chargers, which places the team 24th out of the league's 32 teams.
The firm also said the Chargers have the potential each year to raise $29.5 million in revenue through premium seats at Qualcomm Stadium but could raise $122.5 million at Farmers Field. The NFL average, according to the firm, is $40.5 million.
Although the math makes sense to Chargers fans, the Chargers' math for building a stadium with public funds doesn't. In their minds they want the Chargers in San Diego, but not if they have to pay for their new home.
"We want the Chargers to stay and we want them to get a new stadium but not if they ask us to pay for it," said Jennifer Paderewski, a 30-year-old season-ticket holder from San Diego whose family has had season seats since she was born. "They make enough money. Maybe they should have all the people who will sit in those luxury boxes pay for the stadium, not us."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.