MLS Expansion Profile: San Diego

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Earlier this month, twelve ownership groups submitted bids for MLS Expansion. San Diego was a late comer to this table, with news and traction really only hitting after the San Diego Chargers announced their move to Los Angeles. Let’s break down everything going on with the San Diego MLS bid.

MLS Expansion Profile: San Diego

Ownership Group and Stadium Plan

Unlike some of the other biding cities, we don’t know as much about San Diego’s MLS ownership group. They’re one of the only bids to not have an existing lower division team associated with the bid.

The group is led by Mike Stone and his investment firm, FS Investors. They also reportedly have a few other businessmen in San Diego involved, as well as Padres managing partner Peter Seidler.

FS Investors has a wide portfolio of investments, with some as big as $40 million. In the coming weeks and months, we could see more from this San Diego group and learn more about them and their vision for MLS in America’s Finest City.

The stadium situation is a bit more fuzzy. Again, unlike some of the other bids, the San Diego expansion buzz has been months in the making, while others have been years in the making. The bid itself has been in the works for more than a year though, this isn’t just a post-Chargers phenomenon. We have renderings for the soccer-specific stadium, and as usual, they’re amazing.

There’s no location set in stone, but all the initial reports are for the stadium to be on the existing Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley. All reports are that it will be privately financed (we’ll see about that).

Estimated costs are at around $300 million. It’s unclear whether that would be with demolition of Qualcomm or not. Local politicians are currently on board, but that is with the promise of private financing. Lack of (enough) public funding was part of why the Chargers chose to leave town. We’ll see what happens if the ownership group decides they want taxpayer funding later.

Stadium capacity has been hypothesized at about 30,000, with some as high as 40,000. That’s because there is a very real possibility that San Diego State University could be interested in having this stadium be their new home for their (American) football team. The SDSU Aztecs currently play at Qualcomm. SDSU would want something larger than 20,000 for a college football venue, hence the 30,000 number with potential room for expansion.

Mission Valley is probably the most likely site right now. The Chargers had been trying for years to get a new stadium site closer to downtown. That is a possibility for MLS given their stadiums are smaller than those of the NFL.

Current Soccer Environment

We don’t have a lot of data on this, and what we do have isn’t spectacular. Sacramento and Cincinnati have USL teams that are breaking various attendance records for the league. We don’t have anything in San Diego to compare it to.

Qualcomm hosted the U.S. Men’s National Team against Serbia in a friendly last month. Only 20,000 people showed up to that. San Diego hasn’t had that many big friendlies in the past either. Mexico sold out a pre-Copa America friendly against Chile last June. The city will be getting a Gold Cup match this summer as well.

That said, if San Diego was such a hotbed for soccer fandom, you’d think they’d have gotten a USL or a noteworthy NPSL club by now. There aren’t many rumblings from a #MLS2SD Supporter’s Group either. There are San Diego natives, GringoXolos, who support Club Tijuana just south of the border in Liga MX. That’s noteworthy, but would those fans jump from their existing Liga MX team to a USL or MLS expansion side? That’s uncertain.

Other Contributing Factors

As previously mentioned, San Diego really got traction once the Chargers announced they were leaving. With that, there is now a sports vacuum in the city. An MLS team would only be competing with the Padres of Major League Baseball, who are near the bottom in win percentage and attendance of late.

They’ve got an immediate potential stadium site in Qualcomm Stadium. Without an NFL team, the city doesn’t have much need for a 70,000 seat outdoor venue. For concerts and other events, 30,000 – 40,000 would suffice. They also have a potential co-tenant in SDSU football, who could be very interested in helping finance construction. Whether MLS would be ok with having an MLS team share a college football stadium is uncertain.

San Diego does have the market size to compete. They have the 8th largest metropolitan population in the country. Of the competing cities, only San Antonio and Phoenix are larger.

The other lurking question is does San Diego want to leave the NFL door open? The Oakland Raiders have a worse stadium situation than the Chargers did, and there’s a slim chance they could move south. The NFL wouldn’t approve unless there was a 60,000 seat venue for the San Diego Raiders (typing that felt weird) to play in.

If the Qualcomm site is already take with a new MLS stadium, that puts the city in a pinch. Would local politicians try to convince the ownership group to find a smaller and closer to downtown site so Qualcomm can be left available for an NFL team to move into?

Overall Chances

Like with all these bids, the stadium is the first and biggest domino to fall. If San Diego can make that work, they’ve got a great shot to be one of the next two cities to join MLS.

That said, pretty much every item MLS is looking for has San Diego on the outside looking in. They don’t have an established and notable fan culture. They can’t make the “we’ve got a lower division team drawing +10,000” argument. There’s a very real market saturation question. With LAFC next year, there will be four teams in California. They’re close to the Galaxy. They’re really close to Xolos. Would an MLS team even be the most supported soccer team in town or would it be Xolos?

If I had to guess, I’d say San Diego doesn’t get one of the next two spots. There’s too many questions. There’s not enough data to support an argument that it’s a soccer city. The stadium plan will have to be a home run for them to have a chance.

Previous MLS Expansion Profile Articles

Sacramento
St. Louis
Detroit
Nashville
Tampa/St. Petersburg
Phoenix
Raleigh/Durham
Indianapolis
Charlotte

9 COMMENTS

  1. must’ve been under some serious pressure to get this piece out under a deadline, because it’s almost like the author didn’t do any research.

    • Thank you for the comment Daryl. I was under a deadline for what that’s worth, but I do have several links that I used and read through. I’d love to hear areas you disagree with or details you think I missed out on.

      Thank you again for the comment. Be well.

  2. So, Matt Polard what do you have against San Diego? Or are you just that bad at researching your subjects? Almost all our points are grossly incorrect. Why such a loaded tone when it comes to private vs public funding? You can’t even do a quick google search to find out that mission valley is 100% confirmed and that it will indeed be privately funded? That’s the entire reason it can be approved by a council decision and not have to take it to a vote. This is awful.

    • Thank you for the comment James. Allow me to respond. I don’t have anything against San Diego as a city, I just don’t think they’re a front runner of the 12 bids. In hindsight, did that result in a negative tone at points in the article? Probably; thank you for pointing that out.

      “All reports are that it will be privately financed” makes it pretty clear that I know it will be privately financed. My “(we’ll see about that)” was a general comment about stadium funding in general. There are many examples of stadiums being built for teams where the initial reports are that they won’t need private funding or that they’ll only ask for $X from tax payers. Then it goes up, or there’s some toxic details in the contract with the city (see the Last Week Tonight segment for plenty of examples), or some back room deal is cut. In general, I’m skeptical about any stadium that is promised to be entirely privately financed until it’s actually built. The “(we’ll see about that)” was not specifically pointed at MLS stadium deals or San Diego but rather the general nature of stadium deals and finances changing. I apologize if that was ambiguous.

      Thank you for the comment. Be well.

  3. A few counterpoints

    – 20,000 for a USMNT b squad friendly in January is actually really good when you compare it to the crowds of similar friendlies.
    – There is nowhere currently for a USL team to play in San Diego outside the monstrous Q and 10k in a 70k stadium would look awful.
    – San Diego always has among the highest TV ratings for the World Cup.
    – San Diego is a hotbed for youth soccer.
    – I believe the San Diego bid announcement was the only announcement that Don Garber actually made an appearance at, so I think he believes in the market.

    I think it comes down to the stadium plan being approved. If it is, they’ll get one of the two spots.

    • Hi Al, thank you for the comments. You bring up a few good points. Allow me to respond.
      – In comparing other recent USMNT meaningless friendlies, 20k isn’t bad, you’re right. But going back a few years, the only significant event-like soccer match San Diego has gotten was a pre-Copa America friendly last year between Mexico and Chile. That sold Qualcomm out. That typical given the market and proximity to the border (Mexico’s sold out Jerry World in Dallas, almost 100k and least once). Now, compare it to other markets up for expansion and European friendlies, US friendlies, WCQs, and Gold Cup games they’ve gotten. Nashville had 40k plus in a friendly before last Gold Cup. St. Louis has had 40k crowds easy for several friendlies. Given that San Diego has been starved compared to their competition, this was their chance to go all out to make a statement. Other cities have done that with more in market soccer saturation. San Diego didn’t.
      – I agree a USL team in Qualcomm would be bad. That said, many USL teams play in high school football level stadiums (in terms of size, quality, etc). Bonny Field in Sacramento is 10k. Several USL teams play in baseball stadiums and they’ve made it look less bad over the years. I’m sure a San Diego USL team could have found a place to play. As other USL and NASL teams have shown, if you pack the stands, it looks good regardless of where you play (other than the minor league baseball stadiums).
      – I agree with you on the TV market. I mentioned San Diego being the 8th largest market in the US and 3rd among cities without an MLS team. I think that’s one of their bid’s best strengths.
      – I agree with all 12 bids it comes down to stadium approval. I don’t give Charlotte much of a chance, but if they get it approved tomorrow and break ground on Monday morning, they’d probably be a front runner.

      Thank you again for the comments. Be well.

  4. I’m biased, sure, but this is a terrible article. Seems obvious that the author has some personal bias. The proposal has been in the works for years, not months. The attendance at the Serbia match was actually pretty decent for a January friendly. And San Diego has a great soccer environment. Just because they don’t have USL team doesn’t mean people don’t like soccer here. And the Galaxy/Xolos proximity is one of the worst excuses that I keep hearing regurgitated. LA is nothing like San Diego, and Xolos keeping people from supporting an SD MLS team? Simply doesn’t make any sense.

    • Thank you for the comment Josiah. Allow me to respond. I don’t have anything against San Diego, I just don’t think it’s a favorite for this round of expansion. You’re right about the bid going back more than a year. That was an oversight of my proof reading. I was referring more to the buzz of expansion bid. San Diego didn’t really get on the radar for expansion until late 2016. Optics aren’t everything, I will admit that.

      On the friendly attendance: You’re right, compared to other recent friendlies against meh opponents, 20k is a good crowd for the USMNT. That said, going back years, the only real event style friendly San Diego has gotten was a Mexico-Chile friendly before Copa America last year. That sold out Qualcomm, as expected given the two teams and the city’s Mexican population and proximity to the border. But compare it to the other expansion cities. Many of them have gotten more of these friendlies (European club teams, US friendlies, Gold Cup, etc) and they’ve gotten better crowds. They’ve done that with much more soccer saturation in market than San Diego. The Serbia game had the potential for San Diego to go all out and prove they support soccer and are starving for more games like this.

      USL/Galaxy/Xolos: I agree with you a USL team isn’t everything. That said, the league is handing out expansion bids to cities like candy on Halloween. Now, some of those potential San Diego USL supporters could all just be Gringo Xolos. Very possible. I don’t think the Galaxy/Xolos proximity as a primary argument, but is there and should be taken into account. The state of Wyoming’s most supported NFL team is the Denver Broncos because they’re the closest to them. That’s not too dissimilar from San Diego natives driving south of the border to go to a Tijuana game. I don’t think it’s a large number, but there are probably San Diego natives who like soccer who root for the Galaxy cause they’re the closest MLS team. ~15% of Chargers season ticket holders were based in Orange County a few years ago cause that was their closest NFL team. Now, are these two teams stopping SD people from rooting for a home town MLS team? Other than when they play each other in competition, no. That said, what if the games are on at the same time? If you’ve only got $50 of leisure money to spend, they might now have to choose which team they spend it on. MLS officials also came out and said that proximity to existing MLS teams matters for this expansion round. It goes both ways. Regional rivalries matter, but they also want to expand to markets they didn’t previously had. Yes, SD and LA are completely different markets. But how much more does MLS expand its foot print with a fourth or fifth California team? Part of why Atlanta was an easy sell is cause MLS had almost no footprint in the South and in Georgia. League officials said that matters to them. San Diego is a much bigger market than Indianapolis. But MLS already has a good grasp on California. Would it be better for them to expand with Indy XI and get a presence in an entire state they previously had little visibility in? I don’t know the answer to that question, but MLS is looking at that.

      Thank you again for your comment. Be well.

  5. There is A LOT of information missing in this article. Like for example, the biggest part of the bid! The fact that Univision Deportes CEO is part of the investment group. The power and influence behind TV is noteworthy and this alone makes San Diego the number one candidate. Another thing to consider, on the day the applications were due MLS Commissioner Don Garber was at the San Diego press conference to receive the application in person and in front of the cameras. He was not in Cincinatti, Phoenix, Sacramento or any of the other 11 cities. Next, the stadium plan; initial estimates have the stadium costing $200million, half of which will be put up by the investment group and the other half by SDSU. After 5 years investment group would donate their half to the university. Investment group would also develop the Mission Valley land including a river side park which is something San Diego natives have wanted for years maybe decades. They would also develop the land to hold housing, restaurants and bars. They would also leave enough space for an NFL size stadium to be built if an NFL team should ever want to return to San Diego.

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