If the Chargers Leave, What Are We Left With?

Take a lesson from another city that's lost the NFL

NBC 7's Derek Togerson offers this commentary on what would happen if the Chargers leave San Diego.

Forget, for a moment, what is going on with the San Diego stadium debate. Forget about the task force and the Chargers and the squabbling and the uncertainty. Put all that aside, clear your mind, and ask a simple yet crucial question:

What would happen if the Chargers actually left San Diego?

How would the city look? What would our financial situation be? Perhaps most important, how would the community feel? There is a precedent for this situation. Someone has been through it before. All we have to do is look across the country. Let me tell you the cautionary tale of Baltimore, Maryland.

San Diego and Baltimore have a lot of similarities. San Diego is the 28th-largest media market in the America. Baltimore is 26th-largest. Both cities are coastal communities with a large Navy presence. Both have two major professional sports franchises, an MLB team and an NFL team. If things keep going the way they are, both cities will have lost their pro football teams.

From 1953 to 1984 the Colts were a Baltimore institution. Then they just up and left.

“It was a complete emotional disaster for the region,” said WBAL reporter Jayne Miller, who covered the move and the aftermath. “It was kind of like losing a child. I mean, the mayor cried. It was a complete disaster. “

“It was funereal, literally,” said Baltimore Stadium Authority Chairman John Moag. “People drove to work the day the team left with their lights on. It was a bad scene. Everybody remembers exactly where they were when they got the news. It wasn’t any fun.”

Moag is a friend of former Padres owner John Moores and was loosely involved in the construction of Petco Park, so he has seen how things work in both places.

“Baltimore is a big small town, not unlike San Diego in that respect,” he said when asked to compare the situations. Then he offered another sobering observation.

“It was an enormous, enormous blow to our culture.”

Miller also sees a likeness in what San Diego is now experiencing.

“We went through this song and dance with Bob Irsay when he was the owner of the Colts. This constant jerking around; it went on for years," said Miller. "The mayor at the time, William Donald Schaefer, tried everything possible to keep them in town. The legislature was looking at declaring them a matter of eminent domain, but they pulled out in the middle of the night.”

And what was the big sticking point? What was the massive obstacle that neither the city nor the team could overcome? Moag remembers that part well.

“Bob Irsay wasn’t asking for anything more than a loan from the state of Maryland to add bathrooms and some escalators and kind of spruce the place up," he said. "We lost a team over our unwillingness and our fighting over that issue, which was ridiculous.”

The Colts got a better deal from Indianapolis, so they packed up a slew of moving trucks and slipped out of town in the middle of the night.

“The emotional impact was absolutely enormous,” said Moag. “I think we kind of lashed out and blamed it on anyone we could blame it on, which was, I think in retrospect, wrong. We really had nobody but ourselves to blame for it.”

“The profound reaction was twofold,” said Miller. “One, the region felt like it had been screwed. At the same time, there was an almost immediately an effort to restore a football team here, one way or another.”

The economic impact of losing an NFL franchise is massive. In San Diego’s case, the list of organizations the Chargers support is lengthy. Here are just a few:

•    San Diego Unified Schools, largely in Physical Fitness and Athletics for K-12
•    Chargers Champs committee supporting the
•    San Diego Blood Bank
•    StarPal
•    Susan G Komen
•    Marines/Military, including the Armed Services
•    SD County Adoptions Calendar Project
•    Make-a-Wish Foundation
•    Youth Football Organizations Across San Diego

If the local NFL team is not helping them, who will?

Baltimore figured that out the hard way. So, they started working to get the NFL back. Local businesses organized drives to sign up season ticket holders, even without a team. The NFL expanded, but chose to place teams in Charlotte and Jacksonville instead of the traditional market in Baltimore.

Finally, 11 years after losing the Colts, the city got the Browns to come over from Cleveland (a team that was replaced by another expansion franchise of the same name a few years later). That was when they realized how much money they had been missing out on.

“It’s a big industry, and you can’t underestimate that,” said Moag. “When we did the deal moving the Browns here, I think we estimated at the time that it would have about a $150 million a year impact on the town and the estimates are roughly quadruple that now. It’s big. It’s a big impact.”

Then you can account for all the construction jobs created in building the facility over at least a two year period, and the sustainable jobs at the facility: broadcasting, concessions, cleaning crews, police doing overtime, cooks … the list goes on.

And that’s just the money side.

“There is a calculable benefit, meaning, what does this team do for the community financially? And, consequently, how much do we lose?” said Moag. “And, by the way, the amount that you lose keeps increasing because payrolls go up, etc., so it’s a permanent loss and an increasing loss.”

That loss, says Moag, is almost as great as the other loss.

“It’s obviously a lot harder calculation, but what does it really mean? What does it do to your city and its reputation and the quality of life and everything else, if you lose it? That’s a tougher calculation, obviously, but it’s an important one and one that we found out the hard way. No one liked Bob Irsay. He had effectively fired Johnny Unitas, who’s a home town hero. Nobody wanted to do a damn thing for the guy. But, we never did the calculation of what it would cost to lose it. It’s a shame that we didn’t. We didn’t like him so much so we just threw up road blocks to him and eventually we lost.”

More than a little bit of that sounds familiar here. So, Baltimore used public funds (via selling bonds and a special sports-themed Maryland state lottery scratcher) to construct what is now known as M&T Bank Stadium, one of the nicest in the NFL.

“Building this football stadium downtown, that was a big deal,” said Miller. “We have a publicly financed football stadium right next to our publicly-financed baseball stadium, and they’re both beautiful.”

Baltimore let the NFL walk and suffered for more than a decade. Regardless of how you feel about the Chargers, or the ownership, or the use of public funds, once again take emotion out of the equation and look at the numbers.

Is the risk of losing (using the Baltimore numbers) around $600 million a year over the next 50 years a good trade for spending $1 billion now?

I know we all get paid in sunshine here, but it’s not going to make up that kind of a deficit.

Contact Us