Thursday, June 28, 2007 | As National City shifts its focus from recruiting the Chargers to attracting an NBA team, city officials have reached out to a handful of potential investors, hoping to lay the groundwork for professional basketball’s return to San Diego.
City officials have previously acknowledged that they’ve spoken with Ernie Hahn II, the general manager of the San Diego Sports Arena. But they’ve also reached out to the Jacobs family — the Qualcomm executives — as well as Jerry Colangelo, the former Phoenix Suns owner.
According to e-mails obtained by voiceofsandiego.org through the California Public Records Act, a city consultant has broached the topic with Colangelo, though the Phoenix businessman, now managing director of the USA Basketball men’s team, has not yet met with National City representatives.
Gary Husk, a sports consultant working for National City, e-mailed Colangelo in mid-May to request a coffee meeting to discuss the city’s pursuit of a team and arena. Colangelo said he was happy to meet.
That excited National City officials.
“I hope you’re ready to roll with the NBA!” Husk told Chris Zapata, National City’s city manager in a May 15 e-mail. “COLANGELO is ready”.
In an interview, Zapata declined to say whether Colangelo’s potential role would simply be advisory. He would not rule out Colangelo’s involvement as a potential investor or owner.
“Mr. Colangelo has proven what he can do in multiple major league sports,” Zapata said, referring to Colangelo’s previous involvement in Arizona’s professional baseball and hockey clubs. “If someone like him would jump on a San Diego venture, it would add instant credibility to the effort.”
Colangelo could not be reached for comment.
National City is in the early stages of a push to bring basketball to the region. The city has identified a potential arena site, but the land is currently owned by the Unified Port of San Diego and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad. The future of the 52-acre parcel highlights a serious issue facing National City. City officials say their budget is structurally unbalanced — with more expenditures than revenue.
National City officials have been scrambling to find ways to bridge the gap. Some want to address it by relying on growth in the maritime industry. Others see visitor-related business as the future, following the example being set on Chula Vista’s bay front.
Last June, National City voters passed a one-cent sales tax increase in order to temporarily close the budget gap. The increase concludes in 10 years, and the city government has been looking for ways to boost the treasury beyond that. The financial trouble was a driving force behind the city’s pursuit of the Chargers as well as its ongoing interest in a possible replacement to the South Bay Power Plant.
When National City bowed out of the Chargers search last month, officials there immediately said the city had turned its attention to the NBA.
Professional basketball has a long and troubled history in San Diego. Four teams have played here and then bolted or folded. The Rockets played in San Diego from 1967 to 1971 before leaving for Houston. The Conquistadors, an American Basketball Association team, lasted three seasons from 1972 to 1975. The Sails, another ABA team, stuck around for just 11 games.
The San Diego Clippers played seven disappointing years at the Sports Arena before moving to Los Angeles after the 1984 season.
While San Diego’s teams have flopped or fled, their failures wouldn’t automatically prejudice the NBA against a return to the city, said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute.
“In sports business circles, that was generations ago,” Carter said. But bringing a team to San Diego would be a lower priority for the league, he said, with existing teams struggling to finance new stadiums.
“They have far more pressing markets and issues on their hands to worry about than San Diego,” Carter said.
An NBA spokesman said the 30-team league is not planning to expand, though several franchises are viewed as potentially available. An Oklahoma City businessman bought the Seattle SuperSonics last year and residents there are bracing for the team to move. The Sacramento Kings have failed to garner public financing for a new arena. The New Orleans Hornets just finished a two-year stint playing in Oklahoma City. The long-term viability of professional sports in Katrina-ravaged New Orleans remains uncertain.
But the San Diego region faces a major hurdle in any effort to recruit an NBA franchise: The team would need a home. And most agree that the 40-year-old San Diego Sports Arena has neither the seating capacity nor the luxury box accommodations needed to be attractive.
So the question becomes this: How do you recruit a team without an arena? And how do you build an arena without a team?
Hahn, the sports arena’s general manager, has unsuccessfully pushed to build an arena to lure an NBA franchise. Hahn said an arena — estimated to cost at least $250 million — would have to be built before an NBA team committed to San Diego.
“I do feel very strongly that the NBA could be very successful in San Diego,” Hahn said. “But the key there is the right development. And right up there as well is the right ownership group.”
Hahn, the grandson of Ernest Hahn, the developer of Horton Plaza, would likely need other investors to help finance the costs of the arena and the franchise, estimated at $300 million. Hahn said he’d had conversations with the Jacobs brothers, Paul and Jeffrey, both executives at Qualcomm, the wireless company founded by their father, Irwin. National City officials have not yet spoken with the Jacobses.
“They’re good friends and big basketball fans,” Hahn said. The Jacobses are in a position to “take a look at something like that, but right now there’s too much unknown to think too hard about it. There’s got to be clarity about cities, location and ability before you’re going to get major players to put skin in the game and go out publicly in support of something.”
The Jacobses could not be reached for comment.
Kansas City has a leg up on San Diego and other cities hoping to attract NBA teams. The $276 million Sprint Center, an 18,000 seat arena, is scheduled to open in the fall — without any professional sports tenants. The city is now trying to recruit the NBA and NHL.
Kevin Gray, president of the Kansas City Sports Commission, said the promise of college basketball tournaments was enough of an anchor to convince voters to support $143 million of public financing.
“People around here treat college basketball and the Big 12 Tournament like franchises,” Gray said. “The problem with an NBA or NHL franchise is that you have to give them all of the money. We wanted the arena to work without the NBA or NHL.”
Kansas City voters’ support for the public subsidy highlights a fundamental difference in the acceptance of tax dollars for sports facilities outside of California. With exceptions such as Petco Park, Californians generally oppose funneling public dollars to private sports franchises.
“In California, the appetite for committing public dollars, crossing your fingers and hoping someone will play there just isn’t going to work,” said USC’s Carter.
Gray suggested that the region should first make sure the Chargers have a new home before turning its attention to the NBA, and Hahn acknowledged that the football team’s search complicates a basketball franchise’s short-term prospects. If the Charges leave, though, the departure could free up valuable corporate sponsorships for an NBA team.
“Right now, it’s tough,” Hahn said. “We’ve got an NFL team that can’t get a new stadium built. At some point there will be a new building built in San Diego. I think it’s just tough timing here.”
(Correction: The original version of this story erroneously identified Ernie Hahn II as the son of Ernest Hahn. He is actually Ernest Hahn’s grandson. We regret the error.)