Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Where’s the love for San Diego MLS?

Many sites have publicized the record ratings the world cup has drawn on the ESPN family of networks. 20.0 million for the US v Ghana match, 18.1 million for the US v England match, overall ratings up 68% over the 2006 world cup. Fewer website are reporting a more startling piece of ratings information, San Diego is the hotbed of soccer watching in America.

SoccerNation.com had the lead story which local media continued on this topic yesterday, “San Diego once again topped the country in viewership for the USMNT world cup game against Ghana, this time pulling in a 15.4 Nielsen rating.” The article goes on to say that, “San Diego had previously led the nation in viewership of the Americans’ matches against England (11.5), Slovenia (8.5), and Algeria (8.9).” San Diego with a population in the metro area of roughly 1.36 million people is the 8th largest city in the country. Impressive considering the start times of 7:00 am for Slovenia and Algeria’s matches and 11:30 am for England and Ghana.

So the real question is with such a groundswell of support for soccer in San Diego how come the city is never mentioned in discussions of expansion in MLS? Below is a brief look at some of the issues that San Diego will face in gaining the support of MLS.

1. Existing Professional Team – In recent years MLS has chosen to “promote” second tier professional soccer teams as opposed to starting a new franchise. Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal are all proven products, a no-brainer for MLS to sign-off on those expansion teams. Toronto and Philadelphia both were new franchises, but both had fairly strong grass roots movements by fans to get teams that ultimately resulted in success. San Diego is a different animal where the closest thing to a professional team is the Flash which is currently playing a charity exhibition season in hopes of joining a second tier league in 2011. That’s pretty unlikely in our eyes considering the on-going battle for identity as the official second tier league of USSF between the USL and NASL. Neither league will have a west coast presence in 2011 with Portland and Vancouver both moving to MLS. It doesn’t make much financial sense to have a team 1,300 miles from its nearest opponent (Austin Aztex). A more likely goal should be having the Flash join the PDL’s Western Conference Southwest Division where there are no less than 5 teams within a 3 hour drive of San Diego.

2. Venue – Per capita, San Diego has an unusually high number of soccer fields than most major metro areas in the country. The catch is finding a facility that is capable of handling 18,500+ fans and is in the metro area. The Flash and the former San Diego Spirit of the defunct WUSA played at Torero Stadium on the campus on the University of San Diego. Torero has a capacity of 6,000, new lighting, new scoreboard, and real grass with field dimensions that meet MLS regulations. The stadium is great for a PDL or even a USL/NASL team, but the location and lack of parking would make it difficult to expand seating to the MLS minimum. So the next logical choice would be to use Qualcomm Stadium, the current home of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. The stadium holds roughly 71,000 fans and has been used by FIFA and CONCACAF to host international friendly matches and tournaments in the past. Mexico host Argentina in June 2008 and drew 68,498, so the stadium is capable of putting on major soccer events. The Flash could go the route of the Sounders and successfully use an NFL stadium or the route of the Revolution and use more tarps than fans to fill seats. Our suggestion for the venue issue is thinking outside the box, a new venue at Qualcomm. Locals might remember that AEG setup a 12,500 seat concert venue on the old Chargers practice field in the southwest corner of the Qualcomm parking area. The space is currently being used for maintenance space for Qualcomm’s public works group, but this is the ideal location for a new 18,500 seat soccer-specific stadium. The Flash could play their first two seasons in Qualcomm as the stadium is built before making the move to their permanent facility. An added benefit is the site is adjacent to the Fenton Parkway Station for the San Diego light-rail system (SDMTS), tying it into people from downtown who don’t want to drive to Mission Valley. Additionally, getting a company like AEG onboard again would allow the venue to be used for concerts, offering a closer venue to downtown than the current concert venue of Coors/Cricket Wireless Amphitheatre in Chula Vista. It would be great to find a piece of property in downtown or in Mission Bay to support a stadium, but the lack of parking space and permitting for building near the water would only extend the construction schedule for a new stadium.

3. Fan Support – Just going on the viewer support for the world cup you would think San Diego has plenty of support for a professional soccer team, but we’re fearful that the ratings are a façade to the actual fan support levels. I lived in San Diego a few years back and call Orlando home now; both of these cities have a common connection, beautiful weather. There are so many existing entertainment options in San Diego, from recreation to shopping to nightlife, its hard for a professional soccer team to fight for a piece of the pie. Orlando, Miami, and Tampa also suffer from the same problem where the weather allows for so many other options that professional sports are not as high a priority as in other parts of the country. We will also include the fact that San Diego (along with the Florida cities) suffer from having a transplant population, people from all over the country that move to the area and live in awkward harmony. Typically these people already come with franchise affiliation to the teams they grew up watching in their original home part of the country. Perhaps that was the reason for the Miami and Tampa MLS franchises folding in the 1990’s, maybe not, but it does exist and is a valid concern. However, San Diego has a unique opportunity, which MLS has already dabbled in, that being the Mexican audience. MLS attempted to tap into this with Chivas USA in LA, but wouldn’t it make sense to put the American version of this Mexican club team closer to the border? Chivas is about middle of the pact as far as attendance goes with 14,446 people per game on average this season. The catch is the Home Depot Center holds 27,000 fans and it is shared with the LA Galaxy which draws close to 20,000 per match. I think it would be hard for Don Garber to move a team drawing nearly 15,000 fans per match to an unproven market, but that would be our recommendation if San Diego has the fan support for a franchise.

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