San Diego's Not-So-Super Bowl

Times Staff Writers

The Navy and Marines have been pulling out for weeks, just as boatloads of swaggering pirates pulled in -- looting this city's treasured hospitality and giving little back in return.

At least that's the view of many locals, who feel that Sunday's Super Bowl has failed to serve up an economic and emotional boost that this city badly needs.

Not only did the hometown Chargers again fail to make the NFL playoffs, but as portions of the area's large military contingent leave for possible war, the team's owners are making noise about leaving for alternative pastures themselves unless the city kicks in for a new stadium.

Local business leaders moan that sunny Florida and its Tampa Bay Buccaneers (pirate team No. 1) are delivering few fans to San Diego. And fans of the Oakland Raiders (pirate team No. 2) are apparently waiting until the last minute to make the daylong drive from Oakland. That means they aren't in town spending pregame money, either.

Missing is a team (the Philadelphia Eagles, say) from the frozen north, whose fans could be expected to flock to sunny Southern California. San Diegans are left pining for the quicker arrival of the rowdy Raider faithful -- a grim prospect, given that the Oakland and San Diego football teams are archrivals.

Many of the San Diego area's 51,000 hotel rooms were still vacant at midweek, even though room rates reportedly have been slashed by 20% from 1998, when the Super Bowl was last played here.

Individuals who had hoped to make an easy $4,000 a day renting their private ocean-view homes to football fans were complaining that they had not found any takers.

Even those closest to the Super Bowl action -- no, not at Qualcomm Stadium, but at the downtown tourist district called the Gaslamp Quarter -- were singing the blues.

"No, I don't want another 102-case order. Where am I gonna put it all?" asked Victor Banham, manager of the Ferris & Ferris Market on 5th Street, of a Budweiser beer salesman Thursday afternoon.

In 1988, "by this time, we'd have sold out the cooler," Banham said. "But this year -- Raider fans don't have to come early, the military's shipping out, tourism is down -- this Super Bowl is slow."

Across town at the Old Town Mexican Cafe, there was no line for seats, to the dismay of manager Matt Hzalde.

"I think it hurts us that there's only a week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl this year, not the two-week break that happens sometimes," Hzalde said. Fans found out only last Sunday that their teams were coming here. "By the time they take care of air fares, hotels and tickets, it's Thursday."

To boost business, he planned to give away two game tickets Saturday and a big-screen television on game day.

Things were even more bleak east of downtown, in the city's Mission Valley section, where aging Qualcomm Stadium was off-limits to locals.

Its parking lot was filled with private party tents rented by corporations that will entertain important clients at invitation-only Super Bowl blowouts on Sunday. Nearby streets were posted with signs warning that they would be shut down during the weekend.

Shirt kiosk operator Joshua Osterhaus was standing in a nearly empty mall. "We're in a downturn -- businesses are crashing. I was hoping the Super Bowl would help. But it's a wartime economy," he said.

San Diego took a hit last weekend when two amphibious assault ships and five other Navy vessels carrying 10,000 locally based Marines and sailors shipped out for the Persian Gulf and possible Iraq war duty.

"We're sad to see the military go. It definitely hurts the economy," said Diane Mulligan of Santee. She was shopping at the mall with her husband, Steven, who was wearing an old Raider jacket and a newly purchased Raider Super Bowl hat.

And the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service put a further damper on the local proceedings by rounding up more than 100 foreign-born security guards and drivers working around the Super Bowl, saying they presented a security risk.

The missing Super Bowl fever is understandable, said Steven Mulligan, an insurance salesman. "San Diego is normally mellow. And Charger fans here mellowed out even more when their team didn't make it" to the hometown Super Bowl.

Charger owners have hinted at moving the team, perhaps to Los Angeles, if San Diego doesn't at least split the cost of building a $400-million replacement for Qualcomm -- known in the old days as Jack Murphy Stadium. A new baseball stadium is under construction near downtown for the major league Padres.

Amanda Nichols, whose watch repair shop at the mall has not benefited from Super Bowl business, said she was ready to say goodbye to the Chargers and pro football.

"Go. We don't care. We're building a ballpark for losers," said Nichols, of El Cajon. "Nobody comes out here to see the Chargers anyway."

Floridians who have come to San Diego to see the Buccaneers play for the NFL championship have come prepared to spend money, however.

Pete Johnson and Pamela Henley-Johnson arrived on a 400-passenger charter flight from Tampa on Thursday, having already made an $8,600 investment (two $2,500 tickets for upper end-zone seats and two tour packages at $1,800 each).

"I think we'll probably spend something like $500 to $1,000 before we leave," Henley-Johnson said outside an Old Town shop. "But then again, I just spent $100 walking from the hotel to here."

The Johnsons said they have been greeted warmly by San Diegans, many of whom view the Raiders with a mixture of dread and disgust. Charger fans point to Raider fans' notorious reputation, including brawls in the stands at Qualcomm and the stabbing of a Charger fan at the stadium after one game.

But Raider fans are welcome at Seau's the Restaurant, the Mission Valley establishment owned by Charger star linebacker Junior Seau.

"Hey, they're loyal fans," said Robert Asimovic, manager of the restaurant. "Their team has made it to the big dance. My doors are open to them."

And what would Junior say? "Bring 'em in," Asimovic said.

But bring your wallet. Signs on Seau's doors warn of a $20 cover charge that "will not guarantee you a seat" for the Super Bowl. Patrons watching the game on Seau's televisions will be required to spend at least $25 on food and drink. And "due to the nature of this special event, a credit card is required for all tabs."

At the Mission Valley Hooters restaurant, customers will be charged $50 per seat to watch the game. Waitress Natalie Peterson hinted that may go for combat pay.

"Raider fans are a lot more aggressive than other fans," she said. "I've never worked a Super Bowl here, but when I heard Raider fans rioted in Oakland after winning last week, that worries me."

But Charger fans could experience a loss bigger than the possibility of watching the hated Raiders celebrate a world championship on their turf.

Two days after the game, the City Council will decide whether to give a task force until March 1 to come up with a stadium proposal to keep the Chargers in town after the 2003 season.

If the team does leave, San Diego's chance of having another Super Bowl will go with it.

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