In 2000, the Green Bay Packers asked voters to approve a half-cent sales tax increase to renovate historic Lambeau Field.
Given the Packers’ ties to the community, its success was a foregone conclusion, no?
It would be hard to find a community more passionate about its football team than Green Bay, after all. The waiting list for season tickets is years long. In winter, fans endure freezing temperatures to pack home games. They wear those cheesy cheese foam things on their heads.
So that vote?
The measure got serious blowback and barely passed, garnering 53 percent support. The team was so concerned that the measure might fail, it had to run a major campaign to lobby for its passage.
“You wouldn’t think a ‘Yes’ campaign would be necessary in an area with the National Football League’s deepest roots,” noted The New York Times at the time.
Oh, but it was.
As we all know, the Chargers are pushing for an increase in the city’s hotel tax to build a $1.8 billion stadium and convention center annex downtown.
As it stands now, because it’s a proposed tax increase, the measure need two-thirds approval — 66.7 percent — to pass. So we are left with one big question: How will the Chargers achieve what appears to be the impossible?
The Chargers collected enough signatures to get the measure on the November ballot, and campaigning is in full swing.
But getting it before the voters appears to have been the easy part.
Consider: The sales-tax hike in Green Bay only recently ended, and Packers President and CEO Mark Murphy told USA Today that he doesn’t think a similar tax would pass today, even in Green Bay. The political climate has changed, he said.
Let’s look at other places where public votes took place for NFL stadiums. Few were slam dunks, and at least two failed.
In 1996, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted a new stadium, and a half-cent sales tax was floated. Hillsborough County voters approved it, also by 53 percent.
In 1997, a vote was taken to decide the fate of a new stadium proposed for the Seattle Seahawks. The state’s voters made it razor close, approving it with 50.8 percent of the vote.
In Arizona, in 2000, Maricopa County voters narrowly approved a new stadium for the Cardinals. It got 52 percent of the vote. An earlier effort was shot down by voters, 60 percent to 40 percent.
Green Bay is not the only diehard football town to show tepid support for stadiums. In 2004, Arlington, Texas, voters approved a tax for a new Dallas Cowboys’ stadium with 55 percent of the vote.
Denver-area voters approved a new stadium in 1998, with 57 percent of the vote, one of the better results for a pro-stadium effort. However, the Broncos had just come off a Super Bowl win and were 8-0 at the time.
Um, the Chargers are not coming off a Super Bowl win. They were 4-12 last season.
Even in football-crazy Pittsburgh, an initial effort to fund a stadium for the Steelers and a ballpark for the Major League Baseball Pirates fell flat in 1997. A proposed half-cent sales tax increase in 11 counties in the region was shot down by 58 percent of the voters.
A second plan — without a sales tax increase and with more funding from the teams — helped build two new venues.
The proposal with the most support was in Cincinnati, where voters approved new stadiums for the Bengals and the MLB Reds with more than 60 percent of the vote.
Still, no vote got 66.7 percent.
Much attention has been placed on a recent appellate court ruling that would allow projects such as the Chargers stadium to require a simple majority to win. However, the state Supreme Court blocked that ruling and is reviewing it. The city has asked the court to speed up its process, but it’s unknown if the ruling will come before November.
Additionally, the Chargers are up against a crowded ballot, one that includes another initiative that would raise the hotel tax. The Citizens’ Initiative wants to raise money to go to the general fund, while paving the way for a Convention Center addition that would be built away from the waterfront.
How other teams have won at the ballot box
Some of these stadium votes were trailing in the polls or getting lukewarm support until teams put up concerted efforts to win support. They normally outspent opponents, running aggressive media campaigns. And nearly all warned they would be forced to move the team elsewhere if the initiatives fell short.
Even the Green Bay Packers did so.
That team is publicly owned, a model many argue is the best for fans because teams can’t be held hostage by a single owner. However, then-Packers President Bob Harlan warned the team could move to Milwaukee if Green Bay didn’t pass the sales tax increase.
At the time, he told a local radio station that Milwaukee is within the team’s regional boundaries and it could get NFL permission to relocate there.
D. Richard Parins, president of the Brown County Taxpayers’ Association, told media outlets at the time that the threats frightened taxpayers into accepting the sales tax increase.
But Harlan was surprised and concerned by the anti-tax fever. “It’s a huge debate in Brown County, much more than I anticipated,” he told the Chicago Tribune.
In most cases before stadium votes, teams only made veiled threats of relocation.
San Diego’s case is a bit different — and arguably more toxic for a vote. All of last season, the Chargers seemed bent on moving. They had reached a deal with the Oakland Raiders to build a stadium to share in Carson — a development they kept secret for months.
They later filed for relocation.
However, their plans were foiled by NFL owners, who backed Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke’s move from St. Louis to Inglewood instead.
The stadium vote comes when the Chargers have a framework for leaving in place. The NFL has agreed to let the Chargers become tenants in the new Rams stadium as a consolation prize if the team wishes.
Jim Steeg, a former executive with the NFL and Chargers, told KPBS that the Chargers’ decision to stay at least one more season offered a “fresh start.” However, he also warned: “There has been a lot of ill will created.”
On the website Bolts From the Blue, a writer put it this way: “It does not take a lot to ruin a long-term relationship, especially if it is a ‘business’ relationship. The earth may be too scorched for the team’s current owners to get anything done with the fans and political leadership.”
The Republican Party had a poll done in April to determine support for the stadium. It found that only 20 percent of those polled called themselves “big fans.” Forty-one percent said building a stadium was not important. A more recent poll done by The San Diego Union-Tribune and Channel 10 showed that 67 percent of those responding disapprove of the way the Chargers have gone about their stadium quest.
Only 30 percent said they would vote for it, with 40 percent opposing it and 30 percent unsure.
Arguably, the only comparable example to what the Chargers face is what the Seattle Seahawks went through. They blew up most of their goodwill when they moved their off-season workouts to Anaheim in 1976. The owner at the time, Ken Behring, was upset with the current stadium, the Kingdome. He announced he was leaving.
Fans thought it was over. The relationship between Behring and fans, already tenuous, was poisoned.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen came to the rescue — sort of. He said he would buy the team if a new stadium was approved.
Despite the promise of new, local ownership, the measure only managed that slight majority of 50.8 percent. And the big difference here: San Diego doesn’t have a new owner in play, though many fans wish that were the case.
Because of the team’s push to move and its on-field woes. The Chargers even had problems getting their first-round draft pick, Joey Bosa, under contract. No other teams had a problem signing their top picks. Only the Chargers.
In a survey done by Bolts From the Blue, 73 percent of the nearly 3,000 respondents said Chargers Chairman Dean Spanos should sell the team rather than working out a deal with the city or moving to Inglewood.
“Selling the team would possibly allow for the city to make a better deal with someone who hasn’t poked them in the eye so much,” one commentator wrote. “So there is that hope.”
Not really. Spanos has shown no signs of selling.
Why governments have supported stadiums
Many times, teams have partnered with local governments to push initiatives. It makes sense. For one, elected officials don’t want to lose teams to other cities. They also team up to work out financing deals — with the sports franchises picking up part of the tab — to woo wary voters. In Wisconsin, the state Assembly voted 80 to 19 to approve the half-cent sales tax referendum and bring it to the voters.
“It’s fiscally responsible to taxpayers, and I think it helps put the Green Bay Packers and northeastern Wisconsin in a very competitive situation for the future, Rep. John Gard, R-Peshtigo, said.
Then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, in his 2000 State of the State Address, urged residents to support the measure. After it passed, he signed it into law in a ceremony on Lambeau Field.
In Seattle, it was political leaders who talked Allen into purchasing the team if a new stadium were approved. Allen was hesitant. The politicians were persistent.
In San Diego, there's not quite the same support. San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer floated a proposal to keep the Chargers by building a new stadium at the current Mission Valley site. The land is available, and the costs are lower.
However, Spanos dismissed that option, saying he wanted the stadium to be downtown. The team started the referendum drive without the support of Faulconer and most city politicians.
Faulconer finally came out in support of the project after getting assurances from the Chargers on a number of issues. However, other politicians, such as City Councilmember Chris Cate, are actively opposing the plan.
Cate is a member of a group called No Downtown Stadium, which calls the plan too risky and unsuitable for the neighborhood.
Many community leaders in East Village, where the stadium would be located, have spoken out against it. They believe that it’s too big and that there are better uses for the land, which is a key, lucrative piece of property.
Experts have questioned the worthiness of putting football stadiums in urban areas. Greg Meckstroth, an urban planner from Indianapolis, criticized Lucas Oil Stadium in a piece on the website Greater Greater Washington.
“The building’s sheer size and failure to incorporate any ground-floor retail or other use hampers active street life, especially unfortunate given the few times the stadium is actually used throughout the year. The result is a relative dead zone in an area of Indy that is in desperate need of good urban form to reactivate the area.”
That’s what stadium opponents fear will happen in San Diego.
However, the project does have the support of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which is headed by former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders.
“We take pride in being an action-oriented business organization that works to continually move our region forward,” Sanders said in a recent news conference announcing the Chamber’s action.
Soon after, San Diego City Council member David Alvarez came out against the plan. We appear to be a city very much divided.
Some have wondered why the Chargers are bent on doing what appears to be a considerable long shot.
One speculation is that maybe they will defy all odds and win. And whatever investment the team is making for the effort would be rewarded quite handsomely.
Chargers front man Fred Maas has said the vote could be bolstered by the presidential election, which attracts more voters. These so-called low-propensity voters could help the effort, he told the Union-Tribune.
“Our research tells me they are huge Chargers supporters,” Maas said. “It blew me away.”
If the Chargers start the season with wins, it could also help.
The Chargers keep noting that local taxpayers are not footing the bill, since the money is coming from a hotel tax that tourists pay. However, stadium opponents note that the money is still public money, which could be used for other city needs, such as infrastructure improvements.
For Spanos, the risk arguably isn’t that great, since by staying in San Diego this year, he gets to play in a virtually rent-free stadium and put off paying a $550 million relocation fee for another year.
Plus, it could give him political coverage. If the stadium gets voted down, he can shrug his shoulders, make a sad face and woefully note that San Diego failed to pony up.
But, still, no NFL team has ever achieved what Spanos hopes will happen come November. Not even close.