By Vince Vasquez
Despite our national economic challenges, San Diego’s enthusiasm for professional sports has continued to thrive; downtown bustled with activity during the Chargers’ run in the playoffs last season, and PETCO Park saw its highest Opening Day attendance this past Monday as Padres and Dodgers fans convened for a spirited match-up. However, below the radar of many sports boosters is the local support for competitive soccer, which, if new public-private partnerships emerge, may bear strong economic and community benefits for our region.
When it comes to soccer, San Diego has served more as a host than a competitor; the Mexican national soccer team has played in America’s Finest City 18 times since 1993, to the clamor of a bi-national support base. As recently as 2008, two major international “futbol” matches were hosted at Qualcomm Stadium, including a wildly popular match-up between the national teams of Argentina and Mexico. However, the City of San Diego does not currently have a professional team under Major League Soccer (MLS), and is among the handful of America’s largest cities that lack an MLS team. However, a future opportunity appears to have emerged, as the league is now seeking to aggressively expand its 15 team roster, with two open slots currently available for 2012. Whether San Diego could meet existing deadlines for entering a bid is peripheral, as residents and community leaders should be more broadly focused on discussing the viability of a future team.
What obstacles would the City of San Diego face on the road to an MLS franchise? Demographically, San Diego has a soccer-friendly populace that would likely make filling a standard 20,000 seat MLS stadium an easy chore. Last year’s Argentina v. Mexico match brought out 68,498 paying attendees, a new Qualcomm record. However, MLS rules require expansion teams to secure a “soccer-specific stadium,” which would be challenging for the city, as there are few options available for a greenfield site. Sports boosters have mulled options in Chula Vista and San Ysidro, with little headway made beyond the drawing room floor. One city sports facility has been overlooked which, in this era of financial constraints, could be a prime location for housing soccer success.
Positioned alongside San Diego High School, Balboa Stadium is a multi-sport recreational facility owned by the City of San Diego and leased to the San Diego Unified School District until 2024. Historically, Balboa Stadium held large public crowds, first for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and was later expanded to a 34,000 seating capacity when it served as home to the San Diego Chargers in the 1960’s. Today, most of the historic edifices and bleachers from Balboa’s heyday are gone, and as a requisitioned high school stadium, it is now in bad need of repairs, as chronicled by the San Diego Union-Tribune. Regardless of the ultimate outcome of an MLS bid, planning a comprehensive stadium redevelopment would benefit the local students, as well as community members who use it on weekends and evenings.
Important community issues can be addressed through redeveloping Balboa Stadium. The location’s infrastructure would be ideal for transporting large soccer crowds, as the City College Trolley Station is a short walk away, and car-driving fans can be routed to the nearby Padres Parkade and Tailgate Park, employing shuttles and one-way roads to reach the Stadium. San Diego High students would have continued access to the facility, and a joint-use agreement between a MLS team and San Diego Unified would not be unprecedented. For example, the Kansas City Wizards share their stadium with high school and community college sports teams and the San Jose Earthquakes share Santa Clara University’s soccer stadium throughout their season.
Besides legal and regulatory hurdles, stadium financing is perhaps the largest obstacle to overcome - some of the newest MLB stadiums built cost in the range of $115 to $200 million. Comparatively though, a new soccer facility is cheaper than the massive arenas required for other professional sports teams; PETCO Park came at a cost of $454 million, and the price tag of a new Chargers stadium is expected to top more than $1 billion. Capital project dollars from Proposition S, a $2.1 billion school bond measure passed last fall could be used to cover some of the costs; Prop. S funds have already been earmarked for other high school stadium improvements, including University City High, Scripps Ranch High and Mission Bay High. Balboa Stadium also falls within the jurisdiction of the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC), a non-profit agency which oversees downtown redevelopment. CCDC could be a strategic partner in the development of a stadium; $95 million in redevelopment tax revenue was put towards the costs of PETCO Park, and CCDC has recently agreed to pay $56.6 million towards ballpark bond debt. Naming rights to Balboa Stadium could also be sold, and a significant portion of redevelopment costs should be shouldered by private investors to reduce public financing.
If financial and facility obligations are secured, what kind of team would emerge from our community? An MLS team affiliated with a professional Latino soccer team could attract fans from Baja and throughout Southern California; Spain’s FC Barcelona recently explored a partnership to bring a “sister team” to Miami in the latest round of league expansion, and Los Angeles’s Chivas USA team is affiliated with one of Mexico’s most popular professional sports team, Club Deportivo Guadalajara. Hosting a sister team for Club America, Chivas’ Mexican rival (which is also actively searching for an MLS sister team), would compliment San Diego’s rivalry with Los Angeles as well as its demographic trends. San Diego County is home to more than 940,000 Latino residents, a figure that is projected to rise to 1.5 million by 2030.
Many more issues stand in the way to a major league soccer team, and the public must be heavily involved with any bid or stadium proposals that are brought forward. However, now is the time we must allow ourselves to dream big, and envision the future city we want to live in. Soccer is here to stay in San Diego the question we must ask ourselves is how we can channel our fan support in a way that improves our quality of life and has a enduring positive community impact.
Vince Vasquez is the senior policy analyst at the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.