MLS Expansion Profile: San Diego

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From Last Word on Soccer, by Matt Pollard

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, San Diego has been months in the making, while others have been years in the making. 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

St. Louis
Tampa/St. Petersburg