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Sports Takes Lead in San Diego Mayor's Race

Politics: One candidate suggests city sue Chargers because low turnout costs millions.


SAN DIEGO — With sports emerging as the top issue in the mayor's race, one mayoral contender said Wednesday that City Hall should consider suing the local pro football team because poor play and low attendance are costing the city millions of dollars.

Superior Court Judge Dick Murphy said the winless San Diego Chargers are not doing enough to increase attendance through marketing and may be violating their lease at city-owned Qualcomm Stadium.

Under the lease, the city pays the Chargers for unsold tickets. After only two regular season home games, the city already is on the hook for nearly $5 million, with six games remaining.

"This is an intolerable situation and the city must take action," Murphy told reporters.

Murphy's opponent, Supervisor Ron Roberts, immediately accused Murphy of being a Johnny-come-lately to the ticket issue. For months, Roberts has been demanding that the city audit the team's books to see if it is spending enough on marketing.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 29, 2000 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Transposed photographs--Photographs of San Diego mayoral candidates Dick Murphy and Ron Roberts were inadvertently transposed in Thursday's Times.

"I have a much longer history of criticizing this deal," Roberts said.

The Chargers, feeling gang-tackled by the two candidates to succeed Mayor Susan Golding, issued a statement defending the team: "This issue has been raised before and reviewed by the city. . . . We are in full compliance with our lease."

The Charger ticket deal was struck as part of a bargain in which the city would expand the stadium and the Chargers would remain in San Diego. At the time, the Chargers were fresh from a 1995 Super Bowl appearance and playing to capacity crowds.

Now, the team is winless and increasingly friendless, with despondent fans wearing bags on their heads in protest and shouting vile words to players as they exit the field. Attendance is nearly the worst in the league.

Although issues such as growth and transportation have been relegated to second string in the mayoral race, Roberts and Murphy, both Republicans, have disagreed over the city's efforts to build a downtown ballpark for the last-place Padres.

Unless the Padres and city officials can agree on a private financing deal, construction on the ballpark is set to halt Monday. The City Council cannot sell bonds while one member is being investigated by the U.S. attorney's office for a potential conflict of interest.

That issues of sports and money should dominate a mayor's race and much of the day-to-day energy at City Hall has struck some as bizarre.

"It's ridiculous," said Ric Grenell, Golding's press secretary. "We didn't get into politics to deal with sports and now it's all we're consumed with."

Former city planner Mike Stepner said the ticket controversy shows the risk involved in cities subsidizing sports teams to boost the civic image and economic growth. When the team nose dives, so does the city, he noted.

"It's like betting on the stock market--it's not a sure thing," said Stepner. "You can't hitch your economic future to sports."

Yet Alan Hoffman, a land use and transportation consultant who has studied the San Diego voting populace, said sports is a ready-made partner for politics. Sports, he said, has the robust appeal of drama.

"And when you're talking politics, you're talking about pure theater," he said.

Neither Roberts nor Murphy is a favorite of Chargers' owner Alex Spanos.

In the March primary, Spanos spent $10,000 on behalf of a mayoral candidate who defended the ticket deal. That candidate lost badly.

Both candidates are surprised, even chagrined, at how sports has dominated the campaign.

"There have been other cities that have problems like this," Roberts said, "but to have a doubleheader (the ticket deal and ballpark project) going on is very unfortunate."

Murphy said that extensive local media coverage of the sports issues has diverted attention from other issues.

"I guess it's hard to run a story every day about growth and traffic," he said.

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