Last month, a Union-Tribune sports columnist lamented that San Diego had been “verbally abused, manipulated, ignored, given the silent treatment, cheated on” by the Chargers football team as it plotted to escape to richer Los Angeles environs. Almost a year earlier, the newspaper’s editorial page had denounced the anti–San Diego statements of Mark Fabiani, the Chargers’ spokesman and strategist.
Two things are wrong with the U-T’s caterwauling. First, Fabiani has sometimes been right — for example, when he said that the mayoral task force’s Mission Valley stadium scheme was cockamamie. It was.
Second, the U-T apparently does not understand that the Chargers’ manipulation and dishonesty was a Machiavellian ploy to ruffle San Diegans’ feathers so the National Football League would conclude that the city really did not want the team. “Fabiani deliberately alienated San Diego,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California San Diego. “Unfortunately, it backfired” because the team’s plans for a stadium in the Los Angeles area (Carson) were shot down by a 30-2 vote of team owners. Now the Chargers have returned, begging for a subsidized stadium.
That’s a seemingly insuperable public relations problem. “Who wants to have a long-term relationship with a partner who is rudely insulting, unfairly critical, constantly negative, and frequently flirting with other partners?” asks Bey-Ling Sha, professor of public relations and director of San Diego State’s School of Journalism & Media Studies. “No one. Or maybe people who need relationship counseling.”
Bad as it was, the abuse the Chargers heaped on San Diego as it maneuvered for Los Angeles paled by comparison with the abuse the team is spewing now. Upon the Chargers’ return, team strategists came up with a public relations plan that is intellectually insulting to San Diegans.
First, Chargers chairman Dean Spanos claims that, all along, the team preferred to stay in San Diego. Huh? The team’s courting of L.A. was a major local news item for a year. “Dean Spanos in particular has a credibility problem,” says Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University. “To say that the team preferred to stay in San Diego all along is like a husband having a long-term affair, then having his mistress tell him to take a hike, then [coming] back to his wife of many years and [saying], ‘I’ve only loved you all along.’ Spanos and company are insulting San Diegans with their current rhetoric.”
Glen Broom, emeritus professor of public relations at San Diego State, addresses his critique to the Chargers: “Your actions speak so loudly that I cannot hear what you are saying.” Deeply committed Chargers fans may believe Spanos’s whopper, but most citizens will find it “not credible at all,” particularly when the team would have increased its value by more than $1 billion by moving. Spanos claims he has sacrificed that windfall because the family now realizes how much it loves San Diego.
Harrumphs Art Madrid, who was mayor of La Mesa for 24 years and has been a Chargers season-ticket holder for 31 seasons, “Transparency was lacking when their initial desire to move to L.A. failed, and now they are trying to embrace a jilted lover in San Diego.”
After tossing out this falsehood, Spanos committed a second staggering public-relations gaffe. In interviews, he will only talk about the future, not the past — believing, apparently, that he has shielded himself from any questions about the team’s wide-open quest to get to L.A. “That’s pretty clever,” says Broom. “He is trying to create a whole new scenario.”
“The Nazis should have used that strategy in the Nuremberg trials,” hoots Alan Miller, former U-T editorial writer, now a college-journalism instructor and commentator for the Sacramento Bee.
“I can’t imagine a worse set of public-relations blunders,” says Erie. “They burned their bridges in San Diego and then had to swim back and say they wanted to stay in San Diego from day one. Anybody believing that is a candidate for buying the Brooklyn Bridge.” Refusing to discuss past actions worsens the team’s lack of credibility, says Erie.
Says Nelson, “When Dean Spanos says he wants to talk only about the future and not the past, can you blame him? If he is held accountable for his past remarks and actions, and those of Mark Fabiani, then he is going to have to explain why he was so willing to move. He wants to control the narrative, which I understand. If the news media do their job, they won’t let him control the narrative. The media are acting on behalf of the public, and they should demand accountability.”
In my opinion, local mainstream media will not act on behalf of the public. As past experience has shown, mainstream media lead cheers for the team and proselytize for a stadium subsidy. Sports advertising is quite profitable for these media. The U-T columnist who complained that the city was being “verbally abused” and “manipulated” urged the city to forgive and forget and embrace the prodigal son returning in rags.
Still, if there is a vote, it doesn’t look now like it will go for the Chargers. “Only the super-hyper diehard fans whose lives revolve around ten games” will support the team, says Madrid.
So will “gullible people, low-information voters,” adds Erie. “Short of divine intervention, I can’t see how they can get a majority vote. They have alienated the fan base. Their poor performance on the field is reason enough; then they poured gasoline on the fire with their press relations.”
Says Nelson, “I was at the San Diego Gulls hockey game when the announcer tried to get the fans to chant ‘Save Our Bolts!’ Within seconds the fans in the arena were booing so loudly that the announcer was drowned out and they took the graphic off the scoreboard. I’ve never seen anything like this sustained hostility.”
Since 2002, the Chargers’ spokesman and strategist has been Fabiani, the “Master of Disaster” who is lauded for concocting public-relations miracles for the likes of cheating, lying bicyclist Lance Armstrong and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. I emailed Fabiani and asked if he advised Spanos to claim he always wanted to stay in San Diego and to talk only about the future, not the past. I asked whether he, Fabiani, deliberately antagonized San Diegans so the 31 team owners would conclude that the team was unwanted in its current home city.
Adhering to the Chargers’ public relations strategy, Fabiani did not answer my email.