San Diego Chargers Are NFL's Blackout Grinch

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Welcome to San Diego, the one place in the U.S. where National Football League team owners still think that keeping the home team off of local television will get them a new stadium.

After we took the time to congratulate owners on 12 weeks without an NFL blackout and the UT San Diego ran an editorial demanding public support for a new Chargers stadium, the Spanos family that owns the Chargers threw out all that goodwill with the Thanksgiving leftovers by taking the team's Sunday game against the Cincinnati Bengals off the air. The Chargers were 5,300 tickets short of a sellout as of Thanksgiving afternoon, which automatically triggered the NFL blackout rule that demands games be sold out 72 hours before kickoff if they are to be televised.

Don't blame the NFL and its backward blackout rule for this one, however. Blame the Chargers and the Spanos family for engaging in a spite war with their hometown and flat-out refusing to use the tools that would allow them to avoid such blackouts.

The Spanos clan is fully aware that it or one of its team's sponsors can buy up remaining tickets at a third of face value and give them away to charities to keep the game on air. Despite the fact that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, Jacksonville Jaguars, Carolina Panthers and other teams have used that loophole this year -- and that ESPN and local sponsors helped buy up 8,500 tickets earlier this season to keep a Monday Night Football matchup between the Chargers and Indianapolis Colts on the air in Southern California -- the Spanos clan has been loathe to embrace that option.

"We're in one of the oldest stadiums in the league, and don't have opportunities that other teams have to increase revenue with things like a bigger naming rights deal or digital signage," executive vice president and CEO Alex Spanos told the North County Times a few years ago before blacking out a preseason home game. "We rely heavily on ticket sales as a primary revenue stream. This market has shown an ability to sell out games over the last 10 years, and we need to take advantage of that."

What the Chargers won't take advantage of is an optional blackout rule put in place by the NFL last year that would allow the Chargers to declare a game "sold out" with just 85% of the team's non-premium tickets sold. The Oakland Raiders, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings took the NFL up on that offer, but the Chargers passed. Keep in mind, that would have lowered the Chargers' blackout cutoff from 56,500 seats to 48,000 -- or 8,500 seats. That would have not only kept Sunday's game on the air, but would have kept ESPN from shelling out to keep the Chargers on Monday Night Football and perhaps thinking twice before scheduling San Diego in that spot again.

But no. The Spanos family is throwing a fit because the Chargers are still playing in Qualcomm ( QCOM) Stadium, where they've played since 1967. Only the Oakland Raiders' O.Co Coliseum, Green Bay Packers' Lambeau Field, the Chicago Bears Soldier Field are older, and the latter two have undergone significant renovations in the last decade. The stadium got its last facelift in 1997 just in time to host the Super Bowl in 1998 and hosted yet another Super Bowl in 2003, but the NFL has stated bluntly that San Diego will need a new stadium if it wants to host another Super Bowl any time soon.

That may have been a great pitch back when the team sold out 48-straight games through 2010 and made the playoffs on a regular basis, but the team's slide beneath mediocrity and the economy's own slump has San Diego way of spending big money on a stadium. It has flat-out refused to pay for half the stadium costs and to hand over more land for the stadium's construction and those pulling for a new stadium in San Diego want it built on the current Qualcomm site at a lesser cost to taxpayers. The Spanos family, meanwhile, hasn't been shy about fielding other offers. Chula Vista and Escondido have made overly optimistic pitches, but the Chargers have been linked to at least two Los Angeles stadium proposals and spent a season there in 1960 before moving to San Diego a year later.

Unfortunately for the Spanos clan, neither Los Angeles offer is particularly promising. Billionaire sports mogul Phillip Anschutz had a standing offer to build a $2 billion Farmers Field stadium complex downtown, but that deal was tied to Anschutz taking an ownership position with any team that accepted it. The Spanos family has shown no interest in allowing that to happen, nor does it seem particularly excited about planting its team in real estate mogul Ed Roski's proposed facility in City of Industry. Even when the Jacksonville Jaguars were blacking out games regularly, which hasn't been the case in years, former owner Wayne Weaver basically told Roski he'd rather tough it out than take his team to City of Industry.

That leaves San Diego as the Chargers' most realistic option, which is going to require the Spanos family to rein in its expectations a bit. First, the owners have to hope that the winner of next year's mayoral race is friendlier to their stadium's cause than deposed, disgraced Mayor Bob Filner, who flatly referred to the Spanos' demands as extortion. Meanwhile, Republican Kevin Faulconer is considered the most stadium-friendly candidate and had this to say to a local CBS ( CBS) affiliate in November:
I'm less concerned about where a stadium may or may not be located. What I'm primarily concerned about is any financing plan has to protect the taxpayers.

That bodes ill for the Spanos family chipping in only $100 million for what initial plans indicate is a $1 billion to $1.5 billion project. It looks even more grave when Faulconer's opponent, Democrat David Alvarez, says he wants a multipurpose facility and doesn't want a whole lot of tax money spent on it.

Before the season began, we indicated that the Chargers were one of the teams most likely to black out home games this season and that they should probably just move already. With nowhere to go, the Spanos fan is using the last, most punitive weapon it has to squeeze as many tax dollars out of its fans as possible.

However, with taxpayers unwilling to make a sizable donation to the Chargers' wealthy owners and blackouts only further disenfranchising fans already disappointed by the product on the field, the Spanos family has negotiated itself into a corner. With each blackout and hollow threat, the Chargers owners lose yardage in the drive toward their dream home.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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