Thursday, Feb. 15, 2007 | When the Chargers first began their push for a new stadium, two words loomed large over the entire debate: Los Angeles. The city, long without professional football, appeared to be fully in the throes of pursuing a new football stadium.

The threat posed by the nation’s second-largest media market seemed real. So real, in fact, it dominated conversation and spurred the city of San Diego to renegotiate the team’s lease because of the possibility of the team negotiating with Los Angeles.

But today, Los Angeles appears farther away from snatching a football franchise than it did four years ago. And the two other cities most commonly mentioned as possible suitors of the Chargers, Las Vegas and San Antonio, each carry significant question marks — the former because of its vice and latter because of its size.

As such, the threat of the team shuttling out of town appears to be less pressing than it was toward the beginning of the Chargers’ stadium quest, a situation that could shift some leverage at the negotiating table and temper the sense of urgency brought about by a Jan. 1 deadline freeing the team to talk to cities outside of San Diego County.

“L.A.’s kind of a mess right now,” said Daniel Rascher, an economist and president of the Berkeley-based consultancy SportsEconomics. He added, “There’s no other city that would be a better place for the Chargers than San Diego.”

The team could officially be courted by outside cities beginning Jan. 1. So far, only Las Vegas has been known to contact the team, although the Chargers declined the overture, citing the progress it had made with three local cities. San Antonio says its door is open, but isn’t actively pursing anyone. Los Angeles continues to struggle politically in its attempts to rally behind a site for a stadium, and Anaheim’s talks with the National Football League cooled down last fall after heating up during 2006.

“It’s a very fluid situation, but if you look at it today, I think all the options outside of San Diego County are second-tier,” said a source who has dealt with the Chargers for years. The source was granted anonymity in order to speak freely on the topic.

Many in the industry believe NFL owners want an expansion team, not a relocation, to come to Los Angeles so they can share what is expected to be a $1 billion franchise fee. The fee, paid by a prospective owner to bring a new league into the team, is divvied up among the league’s other owners.

They also think the NFL won’t be the first professional sport to enter Las Vegas, where concerns about the proximity between players and sports gambling have long clouded the burgeoning city’s efforts. As for San Antonio, the city’s stadium is already aging and the market would likely be a step down for the Chargers. A spokesman for San Antonio Mayor Phil Hardberger said the city isn’t actively courting the team, but would be interested in talking if the team came to him.

“We have an open door to anybody who is interested,” said the spokesman, J.J. Saulino.

Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, said there doesn’t appear to be a strong market for relocation at the moment. “It’s all just so expensive now,” he said.

That isn’t to say that relocation isn’t a distinct possibility. Industry experts were quick to point out that situations can change rapidly — especially if the Chargers were to actively seek other suitors. The NFL has been battling for more than a decade to bring a team to Los Angeles. Las Vegas could offer something spectacular — and some argue the NFL couldn’t stop a team from moving there if it wanted to. And, as Shropshire pointed out, some owners have been lured to seemingly less-appealing markets — like the Rams from Anaheim to St. Louis.

“I think the Chargers leaving is a real issue,” said John McCann, the Chula Vista city councilman leading the city’s negotiations with the Chargers.

“If we don’t put any viable options on the table, they are going to start talking to other cities,” he continued. “I think Anaheim is the biggest competitor, it seems to make the most sense for what the Chargers probably want to do.”

Anaheim gave the NFL a deadline of May 2006 for exclusive talks on a plot of land near the Angels’ ballpark, but the deadline came without any action. The city has since solicited bids on the plot from developers and is considering three proposals separate from the NFL talks.

“We haven’t had much contact with the NFL,” said John Nicoletti, a city spokesman. He added, “The NFL continues to be a possible option for that 53-acre site. But it will now be considered alongside these other developments that have come forth.”

Any talks the Chargers would decide to have with outside cities would be well planned. It is expected such negotiations would alienate local fans and be an immediate economic drain in San Diego until the team relocated elsewhere.

In the absence of strong national competition, though, the Chargers have found plenty of competition within San Diego County, with Chula Vista, National City and Oceanside all jockeying for the chance to help build a stadium.

Rascher, the economist, said NFL owners are now seeing the success Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had in getting local cities there to compete against each other. Voters in the city of Arlington eventually approved a tax increase to contribute $325 million to the project. Rascher noted that the same approach is being used by the owner of the 49ers in San Francisco.

“I think the Spanoses are lucky to get three local cities competing,” he said.

Please contact Andrew Donohue directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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