San Diego Timing is everything. For self-employed journalist Evan Weiner, it was good. For Chargers football team owner Alex Spanos, it was bad.
Their chance encounter and brief conversation in the luxurious Breakers' hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, last month resulted in a scoop for Weiner and a public-relations snafu for Spanos and his staff. Spanos expressed his desire for a new stadium to replace the recently remodeled Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, and Weiner parlayed that into a news story for TodaysSports.com, an Internet news service.
Caught off guard, sports writers for the San Diego Union-Tribune and the North County Times scrambled to catch up. They speculated whether Spanos would take the Chargers to another city and noted the awkward timing of his remarks. The City of San Diego is on the brink of issuing $299 million in bonds to finance a new baseball stadium despite cost overruns of $74 million and a shortfall in hotel taxes that are supposed to support the project. Only three years ago, the city spent $78 million to upgrade Qualcomm Stadium for the Chargers. The city's commitment to buy unsold Chargers tickets exceeded $5 million this past football season.
That Spanos would say he wants a new stadium when the city appears overextended financially had at least one radio announcer wondering whether the 76-year-old multimillionaire was having "an elderly moment." A television broadcast suggested Spanos's comments to TodaysSports.com were "off the record," meaning not intended for publication. In a subsequent interview with the North County Times, Spanos said, "I was not taken in the right context." Chargers publicist Bill Johnston told the Union-Tribune, "Mr. Spanos feels bad about what happened. It didn't come out the way he meant it." Johnston did not return telephone calls from the Reader.
In further damage control last week, the Chargers published a full-page advertisement in the Union-Tribune featuring a letter signed by Spanos and his son, Dean Spanos. "The Chargers' mission to win may require us to build a new stadium that will generate the revenues needed to attract top players," they wrote. "Given the current climate, the Chargers do not expect the public to pay for such a stadium."
Weiner, who is based in Westchester County, New York, is a little taken aback with the reaction, which included congratulations from competitors as well as colleagues for being first with the story. A self-described "multipurpose media person," Weiner broadcasts "The Business of Sports" daily for Metro Source, which distributes radio programs nationally for Westwood One Radio. "It's amazing how a four-minute conversation has become a major issue in San Diego," he said. "But I'm well aware of the emotional impact sports teams have on communities."
Weiner is annoyed by the notion that Spanos didn't realize he was being interviewed by a journalist. "The National Football League and the San Diego Chargers tried to put a spin on this later," Weiner said. "I don't want to be in a position of defending Alex Spanos, but he's a very smart man. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was quite clear, quite firm, quite direct. He's not being spoon-fed at this age of his life."
One irony of Weiner's scoop is he didn't plan to question Spanos during last month's meeting of National Football League team owners in Palm Beach. However, his editor at TodaysSports.com instructed him to "get something no one else has." Because there was little on the agenda, Weiner thought he might cobble together a feature about one of his favorite topics, "money and stadium issues." He hoped to interview Tom Benson of the New Orleans Saints, Bill Bidwell of the Arizona Cardinals, Jeffrey Lurie of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Red McCombs of the Minnesota Vikings about their efforts to get new football fields.
"I talk with every owner I can just to see which way the wind is blowing, and Alex Spanos happened to be the first owner I ran into," Weiner said, recalling they crossed paths in the hotel lobby. "I was looking more for background than a story from him. I wasn't looking for him to deliver any kind of bombshells." One question led to another. "My line of questioning is never a line of questioning, rather a conversation." Weiner first asked Spanos whether they could talk. Then he asked whether the team owners might discuss stadium issues. When Weiner asked whether Spanos was happy with the lease for Qualcomm Stadium, the team owner unloaded.
"What got to me was Spanos was almost jealous of the Padres getting a ballpark," Weiner said. "When an owner says he wants a stadium, it's a story. It's up to the local media whether the story has legs. In my mind, the bigger story is Spanos saying, 'The Padres got a new stadium, and we didn't.' "
The reporting of Spanos's desire for a new stadium isn't the first scoop for TodaysSports.com, according to Mike Attiyeh, news director of the Internet service, which is based in Sacramento. TodaysSports.com and its predecessor, SportsExtra, have occasionally beaten the mainstream press on such news items as second baseman Fernando Vina being traded to the St. Louis Cardinals from the Milwaukee Brewers. The news service also discovered that Win Remerswaal was nearly destitute and in a coma in Holland and alerted Baseball Assistance Team, which provided financial help to the former Boston Red Sox pitcher.
The biggest coup of Attiyeh's career occurred in 1997, when he was the first to report that Padres star Tony Gwynn had a blood clot. At the time Gwynn was a spokesman for SportsExtra and submitted to weekly interviews conducted by Attiyeh. In casual conversation Gwynn let slip the information about his medical condition, and Attiyeh got permission to use it.
After posting the news and an audio feed of Gwynn's interview on SportsExtra's website, Attiyeh drafted and faxed a press release to radio stations, newspapers, and magazines. "It was important to me that our name get out and that we receive credit for such a scoop." Attiyeh's use of news to promote SportsExtra worked. Soon sports writers were calling to ask, "Who are you guys, and where are you located?"