Dean Spanos: The Man Who Saved Football in San Diego

When an NFL team owner dies in America, what often follows is eye-roll-inducing, disingenuous hagiographies, obituaries that straddle the border of credulity. After all, it’s just a rich guy who owned a football team. Well, this is not one of those. (REPEAT: This is not one of those). This is about Dean Spanos. This is about his legacy.

For one, he’s still alive. And two, it might be appear to be a stretch to say he’s The Man Who Saved Football in San Diego. After all, there’s still SDSU, USD and high school ball here. But, it’s not a stretch.

See this is a man who thinks outside himself. It can be said, without hyperbole, that most NFL owners see only dollar signs. When Dean Spanos set out to build – BUILD – a new football stadium in San Diego, he spared no element.

A first point: Dean Spanos wanted it to be all about San Diego. In fact, he wanted Spanos Stadium to be a celebration of football in America’s Finest City. That meant a revolutionary, all-natural surface that could accommodate year-round events – including early- and late-season high school matchups (those Friday night, Spanos Football festivals that we all now love), as well as San Diego State, college bowl games and, of course, the Chargers. It has also become a semi-regular home for World Cup and Liga MX games (the partnership with the Xolos is nearly unprecedented in its cross-border marketing), and numerous other entertainment options. (Also: Let it be noted that he never wanted his name on the stadium).

To the second point: when local politicians didn’t (or seemingly couldn’t) work with him, he worked out an agreement to have the city cede the land to the Chargers. And, he built it HIMSELF. When nearly any other NFL owner would have threatened to move (especially to the hated Los Angeles market), employed bulldog P.R. tactics or gone silent (hello, Stan Kroenke), Dean Spanos didn’t do that. He brokered a bigger G-4 loan from the NFL, leveraging the goodwill of the Chargers fans he’d recently earned in a creative fashion to squeeze money from the NFL coffers (no easy feat, that).

It should be noted, importantly, that Dean Spanos even broke from NFL ownership convention and, after some scholarship on the issue, refused to take city or county tax dollars, even when a small percentage was offered. Was it morals, an eye on his legacy, or simply wanting to be on the right side of history? We’ll never know. He will always be applauded for it, however (in the face of many, even locally, who decried him as naïve). But, Spanos, like an old-school salesman, rolled up his sleeves, selling sponsorships to local investment groups and businesses in a city where many told him it couldn’t be done (unlike San Francisco, where the Giants privately financed AT&T Park thanks in part to nearby Silicon Valley). He had a vision and refused to deviate from it in the face of adversity. Tell Dean Spanos something can’t be done, he digs in his heels.

Regarding the third point: Dean Spanos listened to the fans. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But he did. Held forums. Took polls. Mailed out thousands of questionnaires. And the groundswell of goodwill turned out to be priceless. (Especially when the city and state kicked in for new road and freeway construction, and politicians went to bat for the team on environmental reviews and permits). And since it was privately financed, the team was in control of the stadium construction, which is now a year-round entertainment hub – complete with restaurants, bars, retail options and, of course, the Bolt Hotel (a hit among tourists and locals, alike). There’s even some open space left for park areas that are popular for tailgating in the fall and has become the unofficial fan get-together spot in the offseason (including the twice-annual Bolt Bash).

Ending up, meaning, Dean Spanos took the high road. He did the right thing. Faced with adversity, he stayed true to the town which nurtured his father’s high-profile business and where his children have grown up. He truly believed this business of football was greater than one owner, or even one league. Oh, he’ll still make his dollars, after all, he let slip a glimpse into his motives in one of his speeches during the groundbreaking: “It’s not just about money, although that’s important. It’s about community. Our community. This community. About coming together, as an ownership group, front office, players and fans. And the memories we can create, here together. Together we own this team; I am merely its steward.”

That’s the legacy of Dean Spanos, where, here in San Diego, he is a beloved man.

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