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Spanos family quarrel is another setback for Chargers in L.A.

Los Angeles Chargers owner Dean Spanos walks on the field before an NFL game.
Dean Spanos is pictured at a 2019 Chargers game. His sister has filed a court petition arguing that debt has imperiled the family’s finances and the only solution is to sell the team.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

The allegations leveled by the sister of Chargers owner Dean Spanos in a Thursday court filing are stunning and sobering. The document, which aims to force a sale of the team, paints a bleak picture of the family finances and internal conflicts.

Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the document is the included signed letter from Spanos to his siblings in which he vows to retain an investment bank within 30 days of the end of the 2024 season — the team’s fifth at SoFi Stadium — to sell the club.

Surely we’ll hear different interpretations of that letter, and whether it refers to a total sale of the team or an investment bank determining the price of the team to allow the sister, Dea Spanos Berberian, to cash out her sizable stake.

As has been the case in recent family fights over ownership of the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints, there will be high-priced lawyers on both sides parsing the language and arguing over interpretations.

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But in a larger sense, serious turbulence seemed inevitable when Spanos made the risky and controversial decision in 2017 to leave San Diego for Los Angeles, even though there was no groundswell of support to lure them north. L.A. always was known as a tough market, and there was no evidence it would be an easy ride for the Chargers.

Despite intermittent success on the field, and some budding superstars on the roster — along with a sweetheart stadium deal that Rams owner Stan Kroenke was required to give them as part of his own relocation — the Chargers have struggled to gain traction in L.A.

They have made some progress. The Chargers point to their merchandise sales more than doubling in the last five years, and that they were No. 1 among NFL teams in fan engagement on Twitter. They made Joey Bosa the highest-paid defensive player in history, Corey Linsley the highest-paid center, and have the reigning offensive rookie of the year in quarterback Justin Herbert.

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But now fissures have been revealed within the Spanos family, and that’s a serious concern when it comes to hanging on to the team, even as the Chargers say the other two of the four siblings support Dean and his desire to keep the team.

It’s notable that the attorney representing Berberian, Adam Streisand, is no lightweight. He represented Steve Ballmer in his purchase of the Clippers, and Jeanie Buss in her successful fight to cement control of the Lakers.

This filing probably could have happened a year ago, as it indicates longstanding concerns, but that was when everyone was heading into the pandemic, uncertainty reigned, and the value of NFL teams was in question.

But the petition was filed now, with the NFL fresh off the announcement of media deals worth nearly twice as much as the previous ones. The value of NFL franchises has never been higher. The iron has never been hotter.

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With 17-game NFL season approved, Chargers get Vikings in extra game. Preseason is cut to three games.

The Chargers have some big bills coming due, including a $650-million relocation fee to be paid over a decade, so moving to L.A. came at a steep price, even though the team is playing essentially rent-free at SoFi. What’s more, the league attached a “flip tax” to the deal, to exact a financial penalty if Kroenke or Spanos were to move to L.A., immediately sell his team, and reap the rewards.

It would be interesting to see if NFL owners waive or reduce that flip tax in the case of the Chargers, because that franchise represents a massive headache right now. This was not the vision for a return to the nation’s second-largest market.

Do these developments guarantee a change in Chargers ownership? No, there’s lots of fighting to come, and it likely will get messy. But, at a minimum, it’s another big and embarrassing setback for the NFL and a franchise struggling to find its footing.

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The Jacksonville Jaguars are widely expected to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick, but who will the Jets and 49ers select next?

The universe of people who could afford an NFL franchise is small, but there are billionaires who could do so, among them Ballmer — who has an ever-expanding footprint in L.A. — and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, capable of buying the entire league without blinking.

Then there’s the thought of buying the Chargers and moving them back to San Diego. Maybe a billionaire such as Alibaba co-founder Joseph Tsai, who owns sports franchises both big (Brooklyn Nets) and small (San Diego Seals of the National Lacrosse League), would step up to do that. Tsai was part of an ownership group that bid on the Carolina Panthers, so the interest is there.

Ownership change is miles down the road, but the filing Thursday was a big step in that direction.


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