Saturday, October 27, 2007

The bigger picture: the San Diego Chargers and the National Football League

There will be a football game played at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium Sunday afternoon, just 48 hours after the home of the San Diego Chargers served as a disaster shelter for those left homeless as a result of the Southern California fires that have left thousands in the San Diego area homeless.

There is no easy answer as to whether or not the National Football League and the Chargers made the right decision in playing Sunday’s scheduled game against the Houston Texans. The game could have been moved to Monday or possibly Tuesday night but that would have represented a band-aid solution to the tragic events that have cost Southern Californians hundreds of millions of dollars. Thursday the City of San Diego told the Chargers the stadium would be ready, ‘punting’ the decision back to the football team. The real question that needs answering -- will Sunday’s game represent another example of how big a business the sports industry has become or will Sunday’s game represent some relief for a region that has suffered a terrible loss this week?

Chargers President Dean Spanos addressed how appropriate playing the game in the midst of the deviation was, and made it clear a great deal of thought and planning went into the decision.

“I think everyone feels very good about being able to play the game. The Mayor, top City officials and I think just about everyone really want to get things back to normal as quickly as possible. Obviously the players and the organization want to get back to normal as quickly as possible. San Diego has gone through a terrible tragedy this past week. To get to this point, it really shows how resilient the people, the fans, our organization and everybody in San Diego are following this disaster.”

“Contrary to what people might think, this wasn’t a decision the Chargers could make on our own. The NFL Commissioner in his sole discretion has the ultimate right to decide where and when a game will be played. With that in mind, please understand it wasn’t as easy logistically as a lot of people thought it might have been. We formally got the go-ahead late Thursday from the City that Qualcomm Stadium would be ready Sunday. Unfortunately the Commissioner and most of the NFL officials who would be involved in the decision-making process were in London for the game between the Dolphins and the Giants. So by the time we heard from the Mayor, it was in the middle of the night in London. So we all stayed up until after midnight and had a conference call with the Commissioner and other League officials when they woke up on Friday morning in London. During that call it was determined by the League that the game should be played as scheduled based on the Mayor’s and the City’s position that Qualcomm Stadium would be ready to go by Sunday.”

The text book hasn’t been written yet when it comes as to how professional sports franchises attempt to deal with natural disasters. With National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell in London for Sunday’s Miami Dolphins – New York Giants game (and most of the NFL’s front office staff in London with Goodell) NFL reaction to Friday’s decision to move with the game in San Diego was left to Anderson, executive vice president for football operations for the N.F.L who spoke with the New York Times.

“Going through New Orleans and Katrina underscored the necessity to make sure you’re talking to all the people who may be impacted,” said Ray Anderson, executive vice president for football operations for the N.F.L. “From local and state government officials, to the participating teams, to the players and their families — and you have to consider the fans.”

For the Chargers playing the game was a lot more than dollars and cents as Spanos pointed out at

“There were a lot of concerns. In fact, we waited as long as possible to even contact the Mayor and his top aides, because we knew how many very difficult issues they were managing this week. And once we did contact them, we were always sensitive to Mayor’s paramount priority of protecting the public’s safety. Of course, we were always mindful of the people that who there at the stadium using it as a safe haven until they were able to return to their homes. Putting on an event for 70,000 people, we were extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of the fans who would be attending. So we wanted to give the Mayor has much time as he needed to evaluate the situation. Eventually, as you know, we were assured by the Mayor that proper public safety personnel would be available and it would be possible to play football at Qualcomm on Sunday.”

The real question – will the game serve as an opportunity to make those left devastated by what took place this week feel better? San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders told The San Diego Union Tribune Friday evening: “I think the city ought to feel real good about the way it's responded to this crisis already. And I think a lot of people in the city and county of San Diego have done an incredible job working together to house and feed and do a lot of things. I certainly think a football game would be nice, but I don't know that that's the only thing people are focused on at this point.”

What’s important to note – the Chargers and the City of San Diego according to Spanos where on the same page when it came to making the decision to play the game?

“There was never any acrimony. The Mayor’s Chief Operating Officer, Jay Goldstone, did a fantastic job juggling this issue with all of the other, more pressing public safety issues he and the Mayor were confronting. We were always mindful of the pressures the Mayor was facing, and we never wanted to put any pressure on them to make a decision. We informed the Mayor that we would be fully cooperative with whatever decision he made – and were okay with whatever timetable the Mayor chose to make his decision. The Mayor and Jay Goldstone were under a tremendous amount of pressure, along with everyone at the Fire and Police Departments, and we were quite willing to wait patiently.”

That issue raised by those behind is interesting; especially given the Chargers believe they need a new stadium in the not too distant future. Did that play any role in moving forward with Sunday’s game? There is no indication it was even considered but when you’re going to go to the taxpayers for financial support its always a good idea to remain in everyone’s good books and Spanos made it clear he believes the community wants to see the game played Sunday.

“We’ve had overwhelming support from our fans and the community. People seem to want this game played and it’s something they’re looking forward to. People are excited about it. I think following a disaster like this, the thing that helps the community the most is to get back to normal – to get things running as they usually do. I think it can have a calming effect to get back to our normal routines. It’s amazing when you look at the magnitude of this disaster, and it’s unprecedented what happened here, that within a few days San Diego has done an amazing job of getting back on its feet. You really have to admire the courage of the firefighters, police officers and sheriffs, and all of the protectors of the people of this community. For the second time in four years, they have faced a major disaster and put their lives on the line for all of us.” But we also understand that for many in our community, it will be very difficult to ever get back to normal, and our hearts go out to them and to everyone harmed by these fires.”

Members of the Chargers have been affected by the fires. The team left earlier this week to train in Phoenix. Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers (one of the teams’ acknowledged leaders) did his best to talk about the game within the game that will be played Sunday in the San Diego Union Tribune.

“I think that’s very important for us,” quarterback Philip Rivers said. “We want to look at it like that. Anytime you can entertain people, its always going to take their minds off of what’s going on. Even for three or four hours, if you can entertain them, they’re going to take their mind off of whatever is going on in their world. That’s what we want to do.

“People in the county are going through a tough time ... To play a game, hopefully back there, hopefully that can lift people's spirits. Because this is gong to be something the county is going to have to deal with for a long time.”

Spanos believes his team will respond Sunday afternoon on the football field.

“I was in Phoenix on Wednesday on my way back from the NFL League meetings in Philadelphia and the team was very upbeat. From what I could tell, they all seemed somewhat assured that their families and homes were okay. I think the biggest and best thing for them was to get to a place where they could be with their teammates and be confident that their homes and families were cared for. It gave them a chance to further come together as a team. In some ways, it was taking a negative situation and making it a positive the best that we could. They’re a resilient group of players. I didn’t hear any complaints at all. I think they’re just anxious to get back and play a great game for everyone on Sunday.”

It what is at least an interesting announcement, the Chargers are at least prepared to help season ticket holders who can’t attend the game.

“Yes, we are offering the opportunity for those that cannot attend due to problems created by the wildfires to receive refunds by coming to our ticket office over the next two days.”

That’s interesting for a number of reasons. If someone lost their home as a result of the fire will they be interested or have the time to travel to the Chargers offices to get a refund? What happens if the tickets were in someone’s home and the tickets where burned in the fires? And what about those who may have purchased game day tickets (not season tickets) and can’t attend the game?

If the optics of the little things matter, than the Chargers should do the right thing and make it clear anyone with tickets that weren’t used for the game their money back at a later day. Sticking a deadline in the face of a disaster is not only silly, it’s insulting.

At the end of the day the National Football League is a business that generates close to $7 billion annually. The logistics in moving a game at the 11th hour are daunting and costly, but in the face of a disaster none of that matters. Sunday afternoon the San Diego Chargers will see if they made the right or the wrong decision. At best they can hope they made the best decision they could given the information they had.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report:, The New York Times and The San Diego Union Tribune

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