Will It Be the Los Angeles 49ers?
by Glenn Dickey
Jun 20, 2005

THE LATEST flap about the 49ers, as they surveyed season ticket holders to ask about Personal Seat Licenses (PSLs) and increased ticket prices, is secondary to the really important question: Will the 49ers move to Los Angeles?

That’s not what the league wants. The NFL would prefer to move the Saints from New Orleans into a new stadium in the Los Angeles area to which the league would contribute. The NFL does not want the 49ers in L.A., nor do they want the Raiders to move back when their lease in Oakland expires in 2011.

But what the league wants, the league may not get. The 49ers lease at Candlestick expires after the 2007 season. San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom told me last fall that the lease would be extended if the Niners had a working proposal to build a new stadium by the end of this year, but no such plan is in place yet. Every time I talk to the principals involved with the 49ers and city, I’m assured they’re working toward a plan, but the same obstacle remains: financing it.

Any new stadium built on Candlestick Point (the likeliest venue, though it hasn’t been officially designated yet) would probably cost $550-600 million, because of the difficulty of building there.

Most stadiums are sunk into the ground, so that fans entering the stadium come in at midway and can go either up or down to their seats. The ground becomes a support for the building.

At Candlestick, the ground is barely above sea level, which is why the current park is all above ground. Piers have to be sunk for support, which adds another level of expense. The Giants had the same problem for their park, which cost considerably more than parks built elsewhere in the country.

The $100 million bond issue passed by the San Francisco voters in 1997 would pay some of the costs. The NFL has its G-3 program which will “lend” clubs up to $150 million on a 1-for-2 ration, which means the team must pay $300 million to get that much. (The money is currently re-paid through the visitors’ share of revenues, which effectively means that it’s a gift, not a loan.)

In the ‘80s, when the DeBartolo Corporation was riding high, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Now, it’s a much different matter. John York might be willing to spend the money but it is his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, who actually has it, and those who know her says she’s reluctant to put that much into a new stadium.

So, they’re exploring the PSL avenue to help close the financing gap. That’s nothing new. PSLs have been used for this purpose since Dick Gould did it to finance a tennis stadium at Stanford in the early ‘80s. Several pro teams have used it, including the Giants – though they use the term “charter seats.” The original 49er plan in 1997, put together by then club president Carmen Policy, called for PSLs to help finance the new stadium.

But, timing is everything. In 1997, the 49ers were just two years removed from their fifth Super Bowl championship. Now, they’re coming off a 2-14 year and awash in bad vibes because of the “training video.” They’ll be lucky to get their season ticket holders to renew under the old prices, let alone put up more money for PSLs and tickets.

THERE IS a solution for all this, of course: The Yorks could sell the team to a group which has the money to build the stadium, and there are at least three groups capable of doing that.

But John York doesn’t want to sell. He has said repeatedly that he and his wife want to leave the team to their children. Their oldest son is already involved in the team operation.

York is also heavily involved. Despite all the adverse publicity he’s received, he continues to enjoy being part of that small group called NFL owners. He thoroughly enjoys the owners meetings, which his brother-in-law, Eddie DeBartolo, hated; Eddie always sent Policy to represent the team at those meetings.

I have some sympathy for York, who is unfairly compared to Eddie. Conditions are totally different now than they were in the ‘80s, when four of the championship teams were put together. Eddie was spending corporation money, not his own, and there was no salary cap. If Eddie still owned the team, he couldn’t operate the way he did then.

Eddie could also be very difficult; he made Bill Walsh’s life miserable after losses. But Eddie never interfered with the daily operation of the team. Policy ran the club, Walsh and later George Seifert and Steve Mariucci ran the eam.

That’s the one thing York hasn’t been able to do. He couldn’t back off from trying to run everything himself. He’s effectively run off good people, from Peter Harris on the business side to Walsh on the football side, because he won’t take advice.

He may be learning, though. The re-organization of the front office and coaching staff has gone better than it might seem from the outside. Firing Terry Donahue had to be done. Though Walsh had groomed Donahue for the job, he was dismayed by the way Donahue handled it, relying too much on computer information and not working very hard. Dennis Erickson was clearly not the right choice to coach this team.

There are good people working in the front office now, from Ed Goins, who is doing the stadium negotiating with the city, to Paraag Marathe, who is functionally the general manager. Scot McCloughan gets good marks as the personnel chief and Mike Nolan has set a no-nonsense tone as the head coach that is very welcome.

But the stadium issue continues to hang over the team. Candlestick is inadequate for the fans, it’s inadequate for team ownership and it’s inadequate for the city because San Francisco can’t get the Super Bowls it would with a new stadium.

WITHOUT A new stadium, there are two unpalatable possibilities:

1) The team limps along, without the added revenue from a new stadium and unable to compete with better-financed teams.

2) The team moves to Los Angeles when its lease expires after the 2007 season.

Have a good day, 49er fans.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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