The Pringle-Spanos Tango

Illustration by Matt BorsIn the long, torrid history of love affairs between politicians and pro sports owners, few match the intensity and length of the relationship between Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle and San Diego Chargers owner Alex Spanos. The courtship began in 1997, when then-California Governor Pete Wilson introduced Spanos to Pringle, who was finishing his term as Speaker of the Assembly. Things heated up the following year, when Spanos co-chaired Pringle's failed run for state treasurer and pumped in $500,000 of his own money. The two took a break until 2002, when Spanos patronized another Pringle campaign—this time for Anaheim's mayoral seat—by giving $49,000 to a Pringle support group and an additional $25,000 to the Orange County Republican Party. And the romance still burns strong: last April, Spanos forked over a thousand to Pringle's 2006 mayoral war chest.

What does Spanos gain from this long tango with Pringle? The answer might come in January 2009: that's shortly after the Chargers' current lease with Qualcomm Stadium (formerly Jack Murphy Stadium) expires. The Bolts will have inevitably blown yet another first-round playoff game, and—if the talk currently glutting the NFL gossip wire proves true—Spanos will announce he's moving the Chargers to a spanking-new football stadium in Anaheim.

That scenario got closer to reality last week when the city of Carson dropped its bid for an NFL franchise, and the new owner of the Minnesota Vikings—a team long rumored to have an eye on Los Angeles—announced he would keep the Vikings "in the Minneapolis area forever." Those developments had direct repercussions for Anaheim—whose proposal is now one of three remaining that seek to attract an NFL franchise to Southern California (the other two are led by groups favoring the Los Angeles Coliseum and the Rose Bowl)—and Spanos.

Pringle wants a football team in Anaheim to anchor the Platinum Triangle, a project that would turn the area around Anaheim Stadium into a mix of homes, shops and pedestrian walkways. The Chargers' interest in Anaheim, meanwhile, goes back as far as 1997, when they threatened to play that season in the Los Angeles area unless San Diego forked over millions to renovate what was then Jack Murphy Stadium. Ultimately, San Diego spent $78 million to expand the Murph, and the Chargers remained.

But that didn't quell the Chargers' lust for Anaheim. In 2001, team president Dean Spanos (son of Alex) told the San Diego Union-Tribune he would fight any team thinking of moving into the area because, "We do have a pretty good season-ticket base in Southern California, Orange County. Right now, nobody is up there or trying to move into that market, and selfishly we would like it to stay that way."

Shortly afterwards, the Chargers ran ads in The Orange County Register and Orange County Business Journal and even hired a salesperson to focus specifically on the county. "There are football fans [in Orange County]," the Chargers' chief marketing officer told the Union-Tribune at the time. "There is a very affluent, high-level-income type of people we can bring down." In 2003, the Chargers became even more aggressive: they joined the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce and hosted a luncheon at Downtown Disney's ESPN Zone that included coach Marty Schottenheimer.

Many NFL observers aren't surprised that the Spanos family would want to flee San Diego despite a loyal fan base and temperate weather. Qualcomm Stadium, built in 1967, is in such bad shape that NFL officials have threatened never to hold another Super Bowl there—despite its fancy renovation—but the San Diego City Council has refused to back the team's pleas for a new stadium and training facility. This has irked the Spanos family grandly, especially because the city enthusiastically backed PETCO Park, the new home of the San Diego Padres that opened last year to nationwide praise. As a form of retribution, the Chargers moved their training facilities from idyllic La Jolla to smoggy Carson in 2002 for two years—or was it to scope out a possible new home?

Both the Chargers and Pringle refuse to entertain speculation on their Anaheim football ambitions—through Anaheim spokesman John Nicoletti, Pringle "respectfully declines [the Weekly's] request for an interview on this topic at this time," and the Spanos family has repeatedly told anyone within hearing distance they're committed to San Diego. But on one point, one side is already trying to cover up its dalliance with the other: in August of last year, Pringle told Register columnist Frank Mickadeit his relationship with Alex Spanos had ended "because both men knew they could be accused of violating NFL tampering rules. Since that time," according to Mickadeit, "[Pringle] has spoken to Spanos only once . . . when they hugged briefly at the Schwarzenegger inauguration." Pringle, though, didn't reveal to Mickadeit the $1,000 Spanos contributed to his 2006 mayoral campaign just last April. But that's understandable. Lovers don't express their intentions to the world until everything is certain—and in the charged dance between sports and politics, that's the best step of all.


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