California was the first place in America I ever visited when I landed at Los Angeles International Airport in the mid-1980s.
In those days, if you hailed from the West of Scotland, Los Angeles bore an air of a futuristic universe, probably no better personified than by the arches which confront you as you step outside the airport.
Everywhere I went on that trip seemed to suggest modernity, from Los Angeles to Santa Monica, Santa Barbara to San Jose. There were buildings everywhere which screamed ‘we love to build things in California’.
Then I got to Palo Alto and took my seat inside Stanford Stadium. The grand old theatre – built in 1921 – was big, with some 84,000 seats but when you got inside, you discovered why the capacity was so big. The entire place was bench seating, and decaying wooden benches at that.
At the time, I thought nothing of it. I was engrossed in what was in front of my eyes not underneath my backside but as the years have passed and California’s professional football story has trodden a downward path to obscurity in Los Angeles and uncertainty north and south of the entertainment capital, it has started to take on some relevance.
Why is that this state - which if it were a separate country would, according to the World Bank, be the world’s eighth largest economy – is seemingly incapable of building a world-class football stadium when all around it in the NFL and in other parts of the world, football and soccer teams are putting up state-of-the-art venues which make the NFL stadia in California turn crimson with embarrassment?
Paul Tagliabue’s 17-year spell as commissioner was littered with great example of a rebuilding programme which generated fresh life in the places where NFL teams showcase themselves to the world. From the Edward Jones Dome in St Louis to M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and Reliant Stadium in Houston, the league has seen huge forward strides, which have been continued since Roger Goodell succeeded Tagliabue in 2006.
So why is it that in the place which loves to be so far ahead of the rest of the world, the place where high-tech is king and money grows on trees, they can’t seem to build a decent football stadium?
Just look at the recent history. Twenty-five years ago, the state had the 49ers playing in the north, the Chargers in the south and the Raiders and Rams in the City of Angels. San Francisco were – and still are – in Candlestick Park or 3Com Park or Monster Park or San Francisco Stadium at Candlestick Point as the naming variations have gone. Regardless of what they call it, it has remained a stadium built for baseball and unsuitable for football.
The Raiders moved from Oakland to Los Angeles for the very same reason. The Oakland Coliseum was not a football stadium. It was a baseball park and Raiders owner Al Davis got a much more attractive offer to shift the team south by 400 miles, which he jumped at over the objections, and subsequent court case, of his fellow owners.
The Olympic Coliseum he moved to was also unsuitable for football. Used for the 1932 Games, the improvements made for the 1984 version didn’t upgrade it too much and there was never a prayer that the Raiders would be able to fill 92,000 seats on a regular basis. Eventually, of course, Davis fell out with his new stadium bosses and moved back to Oakland, having first of all negotiated improvements to the stadium he had left in the first place.
And what did he end up with? The same old toilet with a fresh coat of paint and added luxury boxes he could make more money from but nothing like the modern palaces other owners were moving into.
In the same year as Davis moved out of Los Angeles, the Rams quit on Anaheim and took their business to St Louis and a brand new venue. Anaheim Stadium was another baseball field and yet again not great for football.
Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego – before it was shamefully renamed Qualcomm Stadium – was also used for baseball but at least it had the look and some of the feel of a football stadium. Well, almost. But it was as good as condemned by the NFL on the last occasion it hosted the Super Bowl. Tagliabue was asked at his annual State of the League address how good a job he thought San Diego had done with the big game and, having hosted twice in six seasons, whether or not he thought San Diego would be a contender for a future Super Bowl.
Without wanting to insult his hosts too much, Tagliabue praised their efforts but made it clear that the NFL would not be back until the pressing stadium issue was addressed. Again, money was spent to tart up the old place but almost 10 years after it put on that Super Bowl, there is no sign of a new stadium in San Diego (despite a lot of talk) and just as much hope of another Super Bowl there.
The last Super Bowl in San Francisco was that one in Palo Alto. Other than the 49ers habit of winning the trophy, that game at Stanford Stadium (won by the 49ers) some 27 years ago was as close as San Francisco ever came to hosting the game. At long last, they appear to be on their way to a new home, one befitting a team of their great Super Bowl tradition. And word has it they will also make a bid to host the 50th Super Bowl in 2016.
A couple of months ago, there was a ground-breaking ceremony and work has begun on construction of the new 68,000-seat venue in Santa Clara, California. And if seeing is believing, San Francisco fans, then you can watch live streaming of the early work on the 49ers website.
But, of course, this is California and the NFL so nothing ever runs smoothly and sure enough, there is a new spanner in the works. Santa Clara County officials have just told the 49ers that $30million in tax funds that they had agreed to pay as part of the stadium cost will now be withdrawn as they would prefer to spend it on things like teachers.
The tax fund amount was initially $40m, $10m of which had already been paid. The county official who proposed the motion to withdraw the rest of the financing told a 49ers attorney “let’s be real, the stadium is going to get built whether or not you get this $30m”. Which sounds like a fairly callous way of saying ‘you’ve started so you’ll have to finish, with or without our money’.
Nobody is doubting for a moment that the money would be well spent on teachers or police or fire-fighters or public transport and in the grand scheme of things, $30m out of a stadium cost of $1.2billion is not a huge amount, certainly not so much as to bring a halt to proceedings. It equates to 2.5 per cent of the cost.
But it is still $30m, it is still 2.5 per cent, it is still something that had previously been agreed. And when it comes to funding these stadium projects, there is no magic-wand benefactor who just waltzes in and pays for the whole thing. Financing of these builds is usually a long process of putting together a number of parties and stakeholders to fund it from different angles so when someone pulls their 2.5 per cent, it means finding that from somewhere else when you have already exhausted most avenues getting it paid for in the first place.
And while Santa Clara County will always be able to make the withdrawal argument with the public by using that teachers line, it also needs to remember that all the combined investment from it and other parties is providing not only employment right now locally in the construction industry, and not just a world-class entertainment venue for years to come, but highways and infrastructure to benefit the area, as well as a boost to the local community in increased game-day business and, hopefully, a Super Bowl in four years’ time. The tax dollars which will flow into the county’s pockets will provide a lot more than $30m before too long for the county to spend on all sorts of things, teachers included.
County tax collector George Putris, who made that statement, is right when he stated that this move – which likely will be challenged legally by the 49ers – won’t stop the stadium from being built but surely that is not the point.
The 49ers will move home in 2014 from Candlestick to Santa Clara and the county should want to start that relationship on a high not from a standpoint that would make the 49ers feel like holding the sort of grudge Al Davis frequently exhibited with whoever he was having to deal with on stadium issues.
I suppose at least the 49ers have one thing going for them that some people in Los Angeles would be prepared to pay a lot more than $30m for right now. San Francisco has a team and a stadium site, and work is under way. They have a start date and a plan to try to get a Super Bowl that the NFL had considered giving to Los Angeles to celebrate 50 years of the Super Bowl in the city where it all began on January 15, 1967.
The sagas in Los Angeles and San Diego go on. In fact, they two could become one if the Chargers agree to move to Los Angeles and take up one of the proposals on the drawing board up there. Oakland goes on with its problems unresolved.
But in San Francisco – tax revenue disputes and all – at least there may be an end in sight. The foundations are only just going in but perhaps two years from now, we will be able to say at last, that California has built a football stadium worthy of the modern NFL name.