wning a professional sports franchise in, say, San Diego, is like being CEO, mayor and head of household to 3 million fanatics. So, when the news breaks that that franchise is leaving for a much bigger, much wealthier home, one can imagine the reaction. It’s sports divorce. But these days, for better or worse, it’s all part of the game. Just ask Dean Spanos, owner and chairman of the newly minted Los Angeles Chargers.
After trying for 15 years to obtain financing for a downtown football stadium and garnering just 43 percent voter approval, Spanos, afforded an unprecedented opportunity in Los Angeles, made the decision to relocate the Chargers. He and his staff are now entering the second-largest sports market in the country and preparing to woo a fan base that has six professional franchises and a handful of collegiate powerhouses to root for. How does an organization get comfortable with a new landscape like this and carve out a piece of the action?
“This is a new beginning for us, a new chapter, and we have been so welcomed, from Orange County to Inglewood and downtown L.A.,” said the 66-year-old Spanos, in a warm, surprisingly stress-free voice. “From the mayors to the city councils to the boards of supervisors and the fans, everyone has been most gracious. And that really makes you feel good. At the end of the day, we can’t wait to get to work.”
The work is well underway, much of it at the team’s brand new, state-of-the-art 100,000-square-foot practice facility in Costa Mesa. A 10-year lease gives the Chargers ample time to find their footing, establish a strong local presence and, ultimately, scout potential locations for an even larger permanent campus. Just up the road, the team is putting the finishing touches on modifications to the 30,000-seat StubHub Center, where season tickets have already sold out for the upcoming season.
The Chargers’ geographic transition parallels the one taking place in the front office. New head coach Anthony Lynn is known for his insistence on mental toughness, grit and personal accountability, while defensive, offensive and special teams coordinators Gus Bradley, Ken “Whiz” Whisenhunt and George Stewart are knitting together their unique styles. Add to the mix the talent and experience of quarterback Philip Rivers, and Spanos believes that the team will enter the 2017 season competitive and prepared to win its division and aim for the playoffs.
“When you don’t win enough games and you believe, as we do, that you have a good team, it could be because of a hundred different things,” said Spanos, “You need to be injury-free and you need to be lucky and you need to be good.”
It’s also about leadership, Spanos added, noting that the players look to their coach as their leader. “Anthony has a little swagger to him, which I really like, and I think the players see that, too. Sometimes you need to bring in a new perspective.”
Perspective generally comes with time and experience and, fortunately for the Chargers, Dean Spanos has had the benefit of both. In the 1970s, his father, Alex, who just 20 years earlier had been an unemployed father of two with no money and no prospects, became fixated on buying an NFL team. Having founded and nurtured a real estate and construction empire known as A. G. Spanos Companies, the entrepreneurial Spanos tried to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers expansion team and then the San Francisco 49ers before his best friend, Baron Hilton, offered to sell him a 10 percent stake in the Chargers. Spanos jumped on it and, four years later, in 1984, bought the team, lock, stock and barrel. Over the years, the family has become synonymous with the Chargers, as Dean Spanos took the helm from his father in 1994 and entrusted the day-to-day leadership to his sons, A.G. and John, in 2015.
“My dad has always loved the competitiveness of the game; it was an emotional thing for him,” said Spanos, who described his father as the tense, vocal parent. “He wanted a team and he went after it.”
At 93, the elder Spanos suffers from dementia, but Mrs. Spanos, who at 91 is still known as “The Quiet Boss” of the family, remains a diehard football fan.
“She calls me every Monday after games, win or lose. Following a loss, it’s at least 20 minutes of questions about what happened and did you talk to the coach and what did he say,” said Spanos. “After all of that she tells me not to worry about it and to go out and just win next week.”
The family’s long tenure in San Diego will be remembered, not only for its investment in a local NFL team and inviting new business to the city’s downtown, but also for its dedication and generosity to local middle and high school academic, physical fitness and extracurricular sports programs.
Spanos, whose father set the bar high for philanthropic involvement, has every intention of continuing to support such endeavors in Los Angeles. Recently, he brought on Charger great and Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson as a special assistant to help jumpstart that effort. Tomlinson will help the team connect with school systems, youth football programs and local charities to formulate a plan for the family foundation.
Room for Golf
In between football business, Spanos manages to squeeze in time for his second sport: golf. In fact, his imminent move to Orange County will allow him easy access to two of his favorite tracks: the North and South courses at Pelican Hill Golf Club.™
“I’ve played a lot of golf in the last 60 years and still enjoy the game,” he said, “especially when I tee it up with my two sons, who are excellent players. When I beat them I know I’ve accomplished something,” he said. “But they still don’t give me enough strokes.”