Did San Diegans get it right a year ago, rejecting subsidy for Chargers, NFL?

A year ago this week, San Diego voters took a stand.

They said said no to subsidizing the NFL and its local team, the Chargers.

A Chargers ballot measure seeking $1.15 billion in hotel tax money toward a football stadium and a convention center annex downtown met defeat.

Team owner Dean Spanos, whose team had benefited from public money previously, was unable to get a subsidy in line with what many other NFL owners got from their cities, all but one of them outside California.

The response came two months later, when Spanos availed himself of the L.A. option that his NFL colleagues had provided him a year earlier and relocated his family’s football team from San Diego, its home since 1961, toward a football palace in Inglewood that is being built largely though private financing. Until the L.A. stadium opens, the team plays its home games in a Carson soccer stadium. There in recent weeks, it went winless in three games within an 0-4 start.

Were San Diegans right to reject the NFL and Team Spanos?

Perhaps not, you might say, if you are one of the nearly 238,000 San Diegans who voted for Measure C.

On the other hand, almost 307,000 of your neighbors voted against the measure. The “nays” surpassed the “yays” by 56.36 percent to 43.64 percent.

What was rejected was a loooong-term commitment to beyond 2050. Sorting out the what-ifs and what-might-have-beens will take awhile.

However, since Measure C was defeated, two developments elsewhere have challenged the NFL. President Donald Trump has attacked the NFL as no president has, and the brain-science community has reported increasingly lopsided statistics linking football to the degenerative brain-disease CTE.

Trump has encouraged Americans to boycott NFL games and telecasts, until players who protest social injustice are suspended or fired for kneeling or sitting during the national anthem. This isn’t the president of a lacrosse league taking on the NFL. Trump received 63 million votes last November, including nearly 478,000 in San Diego County. And, he has other means to hit the League. Tax reform, for example. The GOP plan announced last week would eliminate federal tax breaks on bonds typically used to fund construction of NFL stadiums.

When San Diegans voted against Measure C, they couldn’t have known that Donald Trump, presidential candidate, would become Donald Trump, antagonist to Roger Goodell and the NFL’s billionaire team owners, many of whom donated to his campaign.

Trump has up to seven more years on the job

Solving the brain-science problem looks even tougher.

Call it nearly impossible, unless football is altered beyond recognition or gains a breakthrough in brain-protecting technology.

“The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains," longtime sports broadcaster Bob Costas said this week, per USA Today

Costas, who narrated NFL telecasts for several years, called the potential decline of football the most significant story in American sports.

“The cracks in the foundation are there,” he said. “The day-to-day issues, as serious as they may be, they may come and go. But you cannot change the nature of the game. I certainly would not let, if I had an athletically gifted 12- or 13-year-old son, I would not let him play football.”

(If the NFL’s long-range health is threatened due to safety reasons, college football would be in trouble as well. That’s more fodder for San Diego voters. In 2018, they could see two land-use initiatives that, to varying degree of likelihood, would provide a long-term venue for the San Diego State football Aztecs.)

TV ratings for NFL telecasts are down about 5 percent this year, but it’s the brain-health issue that NBA team owner Mark Cuban singled out when he recently doubled down on his harsh forecast for the league.

“They still have bigger strategic problems in that people don't want their kids to play football," Cuban told the Dallas Morning News. "That's huge. That impacts how much football kids will watch. And how much football families watch.”

Cuban isn’t entirely right about youth football’s decline. Participation rates have actually risen in the country’s Southeast, although they’ve dipped in many other regions.

When Cuban famously predicted the NFL’s ratings decline three years ago, he said the league had become too “hoggy” in the TV market. This month, CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus supported that forecast, saying the decision to add Thursday night and London games to the NFL schedule has weakened CBS’ Sunday ratings.

Despite what has been a rough year for the NFL, it’s far from clear that San Diego voters brilliantly sold high on the league. This is still a $12 billion industry that projects $25 billion in revenues by late next decade.

Cuban said it would behoove all the major leagues, including the NBA, to work together to bolster TV audiences for the major sports. He noted that football ratings still outpace ratings of basketball, baseball and hockey.

However, he didn’t walk back his 2014 prediction, that the NFL “was 10 years away from an implosion.”

"You just get the sense that they don't really have a grasp of how to connect to people in the broader population," he said.

Tom.Krasovic@SDUnionTribune.com; Twitter: SDUTKrasovic

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