San Diego is a city ripe with all the necessary ingredients needed for an MLS team, and the fact that they don’t have one is an absolute travesty, one that is only exacerbated by the MLS almost certainly awarding Sacramento and St. Louis expansion franchises slated to play in the next few years.
Fanbase in S.D.
Right off the bat, you may be thinking to yourself, “San Diego doesn’t have a strong fanbase for their teams. Look at the franchises that left.” Well, let’s clear some things up. The Chargers had many loyal fans and diehard supporters through their time in San Diego. They didn’t leave town for a lack of fan support or passion. They left because they couldn’t figure out how to replace their aging, ugly eyesore of a stadium. The city of San Diego and the Chargers’ owner, Dean Spanos, appeared to be at odds with one another and never figured out how to strike a deal; thus, the Chargers left for L.A. where a multi-billion dollar stadium awaits them (and the Rams).
Ok, what about the Padres? They lie somewhere in the middle of MLB’s average attendance and have one of the most fan-friendly ballparks. Yes, they may not sell out every game and don’t win too much, but the franchise, by and large, is considered successful. So what about hockey? Glad you asked.
San Diego is home of the San Diego Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks’ minor-league affiliate that has called San Diego home since 2015. And while an AHL hockey team in one of America’s most warm, surf-centric cities may not seem like a great idea, the Gulls have absolutely thrived in America’s finest city.
In their inaugural season in San Diego (2015-16), the Gulls finished second in the league in overall attendance, averaging 8,675 fans per game, over 3,000 more fans than the AHL average. In the 2018-19 season, the Gulls topped the AHL’s attendance charts, averaging a league-best 9,000 fans per game.
What does all this mean? That San Diego fans are supportive, interested, and (mostly) passionate about their teams. And with no NBA or NFL team, an MLS team would garner that much more support.
Fanbase in St. Louis and Sacramento
Now, with all due respect to Sacramento and St. Louis, these two cities have checkered histories when it comes to their fans, and giving them an additional team to root for may backfire.
Starting with Sacramento, the Kings, despite their new arena, came in 21st out of 30 in total home attendance. Not a great showing. Prior to securing their new stadium, Sacramento spent about a decade deliberating and debating whether or not to leave Sacramento. Ultimately they decided to stay, but having that conversation for so many years was indicative of a town not fully engaged with their lone professional team.
As for football in St. Louis, that city has lost two NFL teams. The first team to ditch St. Louis was the Cardinals, who left for Arizona in 1988. Then, in 1995, St. Louis was gifted the L.A. Rams, only to lose them after the 2015 season when the Rams moved back to L.A. That’s two teams, in America’s most popular and lucrative professional sports league, leaving town. Not good.
Now, let’s have a look at some data that shows why the MLS may have overlooked San Diego when choosing its next cities for expansion.
A simple, cut-and-dry metric, population sizes up just how big the city is. The bigger the city, the more potential fans, the more eyes on the tv, and the greater potential for profit, the ever-important concept that the MLS is not doing so well with.
San Diego has a population of 1.42 million people, and that number is growing steadily. According to the U.S. Government’s census, San Diego ranks eighth nationally in terms of population growth amongst large cities with populations of 50,000 or more between July 1, 2017, and July 1, 2018.
St. Louis has a population of roughly 305,000 people, a number that has been dropping year over year. According to the St. Louis Business Journal, the “city of St. Louis lost 5,028 residents from July 2017 to July 2018, a drop of 1.6 percent.”
Lastly, Sacramento has a population of about 500,000, a number that is growing, albeit at a rate slower than San Diego’s. Despite the growth, the city did not make the census’s list of fastest-growing large U.S. cities.
Out of all these three cities, San Diego has, bar none, the best, most desirable climate.
First, let’s have a look at the number of dry days per year and the least amount of rainfall per year by America’s biggest cities.
On the opposite end of things, there’s St. Louis, a city that averages, according to bestplaces.net, 42 inches of rain per year, 4 inches more than the U.S. average. St. Louis also ranks 50 out of 100 on the Comfort Index, which is below the U.S. average of 54.
For reference, San Diego scored an 85 on the Comfort Index.
So, why is the weather so important? From a soccer point of view, this means that people can play year-round, in the best climate, virtually uninterrupted. As for the fans, this ideal climate would provide an optimal viewing experience, and a perfect viewing experience would, naturally, draw more fans. Simple enough.
San Diego’s proximity to Mexico
San Diego is on the Mexican border. On a good day, the drive from downtown can take as little as 25 minutes. It’s a stone’s throw away, at most. But why does that proximity to Mexico matter? For starters, the most popular sport in Mexico, by a wide margin, is soccer. Yes, baseball and bull riding and other sports are popular, but none even come close to dethroning soccer’s mass appeal.
With San Diego being so close to Mexico, the city has a major Mexican population and influence. According to the city of San Diego, Hispanics of any race comprise about 31 percent of the city’s population. And according to these results from Pew, San Diego’s Hispanic origin is 90 percent Mexican.
Carlos Juarez, a U.S. National Team scout under Jurgen Klinsmann, told socceramerica.com that in 1994, CYSA (California Youth Soccer Association) was about 8 percent Latino. Today, Juarez believes that number hovers around 40 percent. In addition, Juarez estimates that the number of Hispanics attending the USSF coaching course has roughly quadrupled over the last two decades.
And according to a study done for The Atlantic, “Major League Soccer has the highest share of Hispanics by far” at 34 percent.
USL in San Diego
While the MLS is not yet coming to San Diego, soccer legend Landon Donovan and Warren Smith are bringing a USL Championship (United Soccer League) to San Diego. Smith, the founder and former president of the Sacramento Republic FC, a wildly successful USL team, believes “the Millenial growth [of San Diego] and the Hispanic growth is a perfect market.” He continued: “The nice thing about our country is we’re a melting pot. I can tell you in Sacramento the numbers of Hispanics were pushing 30 percent from a ticket buyer standpoint.”
Smith also plans to build a successful partnership between San Diego’s USL team and the Xolos (based in Tiajuana) of the Liga MX, Mexico’s highest professional soccer league. “We look forward to having a relationship with them. One where we can play each other, hopefully, every year,” said Smith.
Obviously, correlation does not mean causation, but the numbers are clear: Latino participation in soccer is skyrocketing in America, and their enthusiasm with the MLS exceeds every other sport by a substantial amount. Thus, a logical conclusion for the MLS would be to seek out a city that has a large Hispanic population interested in soccer, a requisite San Diego easily meets.
San Diego Surf
Another compelling reason for the MLS in San Diego is the city’s successful youth participation, spearheaded by the city’s most popular youth soccer club, The San Diego Surf. Per the Surf website, the Surf was “the recipient of the IMG award for most successful club in the nation for moving players to the next level of play.” They continued, “100 percent of the girls on our first team, and close to 100 percent of the girls on our second team at U18 received scholarships to play soccer in college in 2017.” In addition, U.S.Youth Soccer ranked the San Diego Surf as the 12th-best youth girls soccer club in America.
Done digesting those stats? Good. What all the above information means is San Diego’s youth is both very interested in soccer and good at it. And what does that mean for the MLS? A San Diego team would have a young, passionate fanbase that would only grow.
So, what exactly do Sacramento and St. Louis have that San Diego doesn’t’, at least from the MLS’s point of view?
San Diego ranks higher than Sacramento and St. Louis in mostly all departments — from weather to population size and trends — but, to the other city’s credit, they do have some great things going for them.
Sacramento won the hearts of the MLS powers that be when its ownership group decided to privately fund the $252 million stadium that will seat 22,000 fans. To boost the stadium plan, the city of Sacramento offered to throw in an additional $33 million to help develop the area surrounding the stadium. To boot, the stadium plans have already been approved by all of the required city departments, meaning once Sacramento is given the green light by the MLS, construction will begin — unhindered.
Sacramento, prior to being awarded an MLS team, proved itself as a soccer-first city. With only one professional sports team for a large metro population, Smith said, “Sacramento really proved that it was a soccer market” and “proved that they could build downtown urban-core stadiums and have financing for such.”
In St. Louis, the MLS-expansion effort was backed by the Taylor family, a prominent St. Louis family and owners of the Enterprise Holdings. Plans for expansion were further sped up when the stadium proposal was almost unanimously approved by the board of the St. Louis Housing, Urban Development, and Zoning Committee.
Smith also believes geography, not weather, had a large role to play with the potential for MLS in St. Louis. “If you look at the MLS, they have a lot of teams on the East Coast and a lot of teams on the West Coast,” Smith explained. “So it helps solve a problem for them. And that is to fill in the middle of the country.” When it comes to watching the World Cup, few cities are more enthusiastic than St. Louis. “St. Louis is a very strong soccer market like San Diego,” Smith said. “A lot of people watch, a lot of people play, and it’s always in the top ratings for World Cups like San Diego.”
As for a San Diego, its hopes for an MLS team were crippled when the SoccerCity initiative was easily defeated at the ballots by an SDSU expansion and stadium proposal. Had the measure passed, the first hurdle in removing SDCCU Stadium — the former home of the Chargers — would have been cleared. But it didn’t, and the MLS is not interested in cities that can’t fund and build soccer-specific stadiums.
As for concerns regarding San Diego being a city that is more interested in beaches than its sports teams, Smith doesn’t seem too worried. “All we can really do,” he said, “is focus on ourselves and where this game is growing, the speed of which it’s growing, the amount of people that are coming to it.”
San Diego has dubbed itself “America’s finest city,” and for good reason. The city is loaded with great restaurants, bars, and beaches — all accompanied by some of the best weather in the country. The soccer culture in San Diego is strong, and its fanbase is passionate and growing at a steady rate. The only thing missing is an MLS team, something the city deserves, so long as they can do what the Chargers couldn’t: figure out how to build a new stadium.