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The public thinks of pro sports as a game -- an athletic contest. The billionaire pro sports owners consider it a game too -- a high-stakes poker game, with the mainstream media helping the team pull off its bluffs.

The game has been going on for many years, and today, the San Diego Chargers are in the national limelight, along with the Florida Marlins, Sacramento Kings, New York Yankees, Washington Nationals, Minnesota Twins, and numerous other organizations seeking taxpayer-subsidized facilities.

Local media, which have an economic interest in seeing a team remain in their city, usually help to stack the deck in the team's favor. And many pro sports teams have a natural advantage at gambling tables: the owners are longtime high rollers and associates of gangsters, as the 1989 book Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football, by Dan E. Moldea, pointed out in detail.

On January 9, the Chargers announced that they will not ask voters in November for a go-ahead on a city-subsidized stadium. The team's lawyer/spokesman Mark Fabiani blamed the change in plan on city attorney Mike Aguirre. Potential development partners were turned off by Aguirre's alleged intransigence, insisted Fabiani.

The team wanted to construct 6000 condominiums along with hotel and retail buildings on 60 acres at the current 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site. The team would then build a stadium, it claimed, and a park. The 60 acres would be a gift of the city, although in reality, the gift would have been all 166 acres, not just 60, because under current development rules, the team would have had to provide a park or open space anyway, and it would be getting the rest of the stadium land too.

The Chargers' purported proposal never made sense. There is a gasoline plume on the site. Traffic in that area of Mission Valley is already bad. Condos are overbuilt citywide. The team never made an effort to submit a preliminary environmental impact report. The land is part owned by city water-and-sewer-fee payers, who by law would have to get fair market value. From 2000 to 2005, sewer rates soared more than 40 percent; from 2003 to 2007, water rates will zoom 30 percent, says lawyer Pat Shea. Mayor Jerry Sanders says more rate increases are coming. The acreage that was to be bestowed on the team could be worth half a billion dollars, says Aguirre. "It's unlikely ratepayers will want to give away that land," says councilmember Donna Frye, who voted against the recent water-rate boost.

In playing their weak hand, the Chargers sought help from local jock columnists and broadcasters. Until late last week, the team had not met with the city's negotiating committee. "The Chargers have been negotiating through the media," says Frye.

The team has received lots of dubious help. In an editorial on January 1 of this year, the Union-Tribune declared that the Chargers intended to build a stadium "at the team's expense." Really? When the city would chip in half a billion dollars' worth of land? The paper and other media did not report the critical information that Sanders in 2004 was listed among 14 prominent citizens on the "Chargers Championship Leadership Team" set up to promote the team's interest.

During his campaign, Sanders declared unequivocally, "The city cannot afford to provide any funding for the stadium project." He has backed down. He now wants "a plan that protects San Diego taxpayers and fulfills the needs of the Chargers." The mayor has met privately with the team. Some say the mayor was influenced by an unscientific opinion survey by the Union-Tribune asking any interested person to answer questions about subsidizing the Chargers. Supposedly, 84 percent want Qualcomm Stadium replaced, 69 percent want the city to donate the land to the team, and 80 percent think Aguirre has not acted responsibly on the matter. Such quizzes are not taken seriously because they can be rigged and hacked and because they are not random. Only people with an ax to grind participate. The mayor's spokesman refuses to comment. San Diego Libertarian activist Richard Rider jokes that such polls indicated that the Libertarian candidate would win the White House in 2004; the party's candidate got three-tenths of 1 percent of the vote.

Back in early 1997 when the Chargers were fleecing the city with the stadium-remodel lease, the Union-Tribune hired Marquette University's National Sports Law Institute to analyze the contract. Not surprisingly, Marquette concluded that the city was getting a good deal. The controversy over the 60,000-seat guarantee was "overblown," concluded the so-called scholars in a statement they would later regret. But the Marquette report did include one important bit of information: it raised a serious question about the so-called triggering event by which the team could demand renegotiation and ultimately terminate the lease and leave the stadium. "It is hard to understand why the Chargers should be given a break for such a triggering event," said the institute. "The city seems to be giving them an undeserved out."

But that "undeserved out," which turned out to be critical, got only slight (and distorted) mention in the Union-Tribune's report on the Marquette study.

The press is assisting team-poker players in other cities. Washington, D.C., will put up $535 million for a new ballpark for the Washington Nationals. But it wants Major League Baseball, which owns the team, to pick up cost overruns. Baseball is resisting. Steven Pearlstein, columnist for the Washington Post, explains, "Land turns out to be more expensive than expected." But that's good, because the land around the stadium will generate more tax revenue, he argues. Neil deMause of the website Fieldofschemes.com, points out the flaw of such alleged thinking: if land costs are higher, property tax receipts go up whether or not a stadium is built. Pearlstein also argues that since the city has spent $60 million in preparation costs, it might as well spend $600 million on the ballpark. Yikes!

As the Minnesota Twins lobbied for a huge handout last year, columnist Jim Souhan of the Minneapolis Star Tribune told taxpayers, "You'll pay less than you leave in the tip jar at Dunn Bros.," a string of coffee shops. But the actual cost would have been $320 per resident, economists calculated. Big tip.

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