Fate of Chargers’ ownership at stake as Dean Spanos’ sister asks court to force sale

Chargers players celebrate
Quarterback Justin Herbert (10) of the Chargers celebrates with wide receiver Keenan Allen (13) and running back Austin Ekeler (30) after a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs at SoFi Stadium on Sept. 20.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

In an attempt to force the sale of the Chargers, a sister of controlling owner Dean Spanos filed a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court on Thursday. In it, she argues that mounting debt has imperiled the family’s finances and that the only solution is to put the NFL franchise on the market.

The petition by Dea Spanos Berberian, who serves as co-trustee of the family trust along with her brother, alleges the trust’s debts and expenses exceed $353 million. In addition, according to the filing, the trust doesn’t have a plan to pay more than $22 million it has pledged to charities.

“Every day that passes increases the risks that the charitable beneficiaries and the Spanos family legacy will suffer irreparable financial and reputational damage,” the petition says.


When the Chargers moved to Los Angeles in 2017 after 56 seasons in San Diego, they faced the daunting task of paying off a $650-million relocation fee to the NFL and building a fan base in a market crowded with college and professional sports. They now have an emerging superstar at quarterback in Justin Herbert and share the $5-billion SoFi Stadium with the Rams.

Dea Spanos’ petition to force sale of Los Angeles Chargers.

April 2, 2021

But the 156-page filing raises questions about the future of the franchise owned by the Spanos family since 1984 and reveals a family dispute that until now has played out in private.

In a November 2019 letter included with the court filing, Dean Spanos vowed to his three siblings that he would retain an investment bank at the end of the 2024 season in an effort to find a new owner. Berberian contends the situation is too dire to wait.

According to the filing, Berberian “attempted numerous times and numerous ways” to resolve the dispute. That included mediation with a retired L.A. County Superior Court judge that didn’t work.

“Dean refuses to consider a sale of the Trust’s Interest of the Chargers, insisting that the Co-Trustees continue to borrow more and more, and to force the charities and beneficiaries to wait for years and to ‘hope’ while Dean speculates further on a football team,” the petition says. “Dean has failed to present any plan to address the Trust’s bleak financial picture, because there is no other plan than the one urged by [Berberian]. Dean simply refuses to discuss it. … His plan is hope.”

In response to the filing, Dean Spanos and two of his siblings released a statement Thursday pledging to keep the team in the family. They said that, if necessary, they were prepared to buy their sister’s stake in the franchise.


“For the three of us, the Chargers is one of our family’s most important legacies, just as it was for our parents,” the statement said. “Unfortunately, our sister Dea seems to have a different and misguided personal agenda.”

They added: “Operations of the Chargers will be entirely unaffected by this matter.”

The fortune Alex Spanos amassed over six decades began with bologna.

March 8, 2017

Adam Streisand, the attorney for Berberian, declined to comment. Streisand previously represented Steve Ballmer in his $2-billion purchase of the Clippers and Jeanie Buss in the family legal fight that cemented her as controlling owner of the Lakers. An NFL spokesman also declined to comment on the petition.

Although Forbes valued the Chargers at $2.6 billion last year, Berberian’s petition describes the team as a “rare trophy asset” and notes that “the price a buyer is willing to pay is often not dictated by any economic metric.” The NFL recently finalized massive new media rights deals that could be worth more than $10 billion per year, something the filing asserts “will certainly attract potential buyers.”

The petition notes reports that founder Jeff Bezos, worth an estimated $180 billion, is interested in becoming an NFL owner, and the legal filing says “the Chargers could be a perfect opportunity.”

Nearly four decades ago, the family patriarch, Alex Spanos, purchased a majority interest in the San Diego Chargers for $40 million.

Each of his four adult children — Alexandra Spanos Ruhl, Michael Spanos, Dean Spanos and Berberian — owns 15% of the Chargers. The family trust controls 36% of the team, with the remainder owned by non-family members. After Alex Spanos and his wife, Faye, died in 2018, Dean Spanos, the oldest of the four children, and Berberian were left as the sole co-trustees.


The stake in the Chargers makes up 83% of the trust’s holdings. The petition paints a bleak picture of its finances, estimating an annual shortfall of $11 million with little cash flow or reason to believe the numbers will improve. The debt includes $164 million “associated with the Trust’s Interest in the Chargers” and at least $75 million in estate tax.

“Rather than seeking to monetize illiquid assets in order to pay debts and liabilities, and make distributions to beneficiaries, the Co-Trustees have principally been borrowing, including borrowing money from one bank to pay another,” the petition says. “Meanwhile, the trust is so heavily concentrated in owning a minority stake in a professional football team that beneficiaries have no choice but to depend almost solely on the rise or fall of the Team.”

Letter from Chargers controlling owner Dean Spanos to his siblings

April 2, 2021

The petition asks the court to order Berberian and Spanos to take steps to sell the trust’s share of the Chargers and invoke a provision of trust law that would require the team’s other shareholders to do the same.

Patrick Goodman, a probate law expert who teaches at UCLA, believes the petition raises serious issues.

“A trustee for the trust owes a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries regardless of how co-trustees might sentimentally view the asset,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how attached the co-trustees are to the idea of owning a football team if that will cause the beneficiaries to lose their money.”

Dean Spanos has controlled day-to-day management of the Chargers since 1994. His sons have key roles too. John oversees the team’s football operations and A.G. heads the business side.


“Dean will likely contend that if he is only allowed to use his position as a Co-Trustee to be a speculator … to double and triple down on bad decisions of the past, he can turn things around because there are positive developments at the NFL level that should benefit the Chargers as well,” the petition says. “He also has support from other family members and beneficiaries (though not all).”

Before the Chargers moved to L.A. — the relocation led one columnist to brand Dean Spanos as the “most hated man” in San Diego — he kept a copy of his father’s autobiography in his office. A page was dog-eared for quick reference. It underscored the importance that family played in his decisions.

“A solid family foundation: This is the basis of everything,” the essential passage said. “Without family, you will be left emotionally empty, no matter how fabulous your accomplishments.”

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.