Why San Diego Is The Chris Wondolowski Of U.S. Soccer Cities

Watching the MLS All-Star game in the heart of the Gaslamp District – which for those playing the game at home is downtown San Diego – the question was asked why San Diego isn’t considered for any of the ‘showcase’ games of U.S. Soccer?

Surely a city that is the country’s eighth largest, has the country’s biggest youth soccer market and sits on the border of the soccer crazy nation of Mexico was worth a shot of hosting a game or two?

Soccer in this country is continuing to grow at a strong pace and a number of commentators have identified that non represented Major League Soccer markets such as San Diego are integral to the expansion of our leagues and the exposure of the sport in general. Take NASL Commissioner David Downs recent comments for example;

…In the U.S., nine of the top 25 markets don’t have any [pro] soccer at all. These are markets that could or would support soccer. M.L.S. is at the short-term limits of its capacity. There’s talk. Long term, it seems logical there’s opportunity to expand to some really attractive markets. San Diego, Sacramento, Phoenix, Cincinnati. Many places with populations in excess of two million. Our league conceivably could have 10 teams by 2013 or 12 by 2014, and maybe 20 long term…

Source: http://goal.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/01/q-and-a-n-a-s-l-commissioner-david-downs/  

Mr Downs sure wasn’t the first and definitely won’t be the last to acknowledge the potential of San Diego as a lucrative market for soccer $$$.

Now before I continue I don’t want you to be concerned. While it has all the pre-argument hallmarks of another “San Diego should have an MLS team blah, blah, blah” we are not going down the road of another blog post that sings the same old song to a tune played by the world’s smallest violin.

What we are trying to expose here is the lack of confidence in the city to showcase major soccer events (excluding junior competitions – shout out to the $25 million per year generating Surf Cup).

For story telling purposes let’s get some of the important facts out there;

  • San Diego is the number 4 TV market for MLS on ESPN in the country (behind only Portland, NY and Norfolk, VA)
  • According to Nielsen, San Diego was the top market for watching the USMNT games and delivered an astonishing 15.4 rating for the Ghana round of 16 game.
  • San Diego was selected as one of the host cities for the 2022 U.S. World Cup bid.
  • 72,000 people are registered to play soccer in San Diego.
  • Has one of the largest adult leagues (the San Diego County Soccer League has 5 full divisions with promotion and relegation)

So that’s some of the pros. But playing devil’s advocate on our own argument we should acknowledge two skeletons in our closet, you know, those two chances we got to prove we deserve world class soccer in San Diego.

1999 All-Star Game. San Diego was indeed the last non MLS city to host the All-Star game. All was going well, pre-sales were strong and organizers were expecting a large walk up crowd. The game was going to be shown on ABC but then a terrible accident involving one of the Kennedy clan happened, the game was bumped off the major network and the rest is history. 23,000 people at the 80,000 seat Qualcomm Stadium is not the best of advertisements for the local soccer market.

Real Madrid vs Chivas. 2011 saw the World Football Challenge come to San Diego. A real coup for the city but the event was poorly advertised, tickets were priced poorly and it all resulted in another black mark against the San Diego faithful.

The biggest argument against San Diego however is that of a non-existent soccer specific stadium.

One would be naïve to think this issue will be discussed seriously in the boardrooms of power (both MLS and the local Council) until the ongoing saga of the Chargers NFL future is put to bed. Furthermore, and I hate to break it to you kids, you only get an MLS franchise if you have a ton of cash and a nice shiny home to call your own.

The stadium is the key to soccer flourishing in the city and would fast become an icon of the future. It is a significantly less expensive option than the Chargers plan, would drive new revenue streams for the city and help drive stronger outcomes for the sport from the grassroots right up to whoever would be the team at the top of the local pyramid.

But until then I would encourage fans to rally around the teams that are already there fighting for your attention. San Diego is represented by three pro outdoor teams. The San Diego Flash and San Diego Boca, both of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) and the San Diego Sea Lions (WPSL).

Both the Flash and Sea Lions had terrific seasons on the field and both fell agonizingly short of representing the city in a National Championship. Yet crowd numbers continue to be mired in the hundreds, not thousands and the awareness of these clubs is negligible.

On the eve of San Diego welcoming the 2012 National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) National Championships it’s time to ask ourselves why America’s Finest City is going through an identity crisis. It’s like Chris Wondolowski, scoring goals regularly and not getting the recognition he thoroughly deserves.

While the NPSL is the country’s fourth tier division, the quality is top draw. Not only did the U.S. Open Cup prove this with the Cinderella story of Cal FC, but also the fact that players from the San Diego Flash (under the guidance of former England International and Fox Soccer Lead Analyst, Warren Barton) have made the successful step up from NPSL to MLS. It was only last year that Flash player Ryan Guy signed a contract with the New England Revolution and two players from the recently completed 2012 campaign (Captain Adrian DuBois and midfielder Sergio Valle-Ortiz) had tryouts with the current MLS Western Conference leading San Jose Earthquakes.

So what is missing? That’s a difficult question to answer. But like all new franchises it takes time to build up the brand and the Flash are the ones leading the charge.

Not only are they hosting the NPSL Finals this weekend (July 27-29) but they are also rolling out a number of innovative programs tasked at growing the game at the grassroots and driving new collaborations with the youth soccer market. They also recently sent an expression of interest to David Downs of the NASL (yes, the same David Downs that mentioned San Diego as a potential market) with a view of joining the second tier of U.S. Soccer.

Couple this with their fan ownership model, their high profile partners (Barton, Hall of Famer Eric Wynalda and MLS starlet Temryss Lane) and the fact they are due to become publically traded soon, the future looks bright for San Diego pro soccer (www.sdspsoccermarketing.com).

The reality is that San Diego is a soccer city. However it’s a two way street, not only is it up to administrators, associations, promoters and local clubs to foster new relationships with the fans and thriving youth market but it’s also up to the fans to reciprocate their advances and support them before we run out of chances to reach our potential.

That can all start this weekend by heading up to North County (Del Norte High School) and watching the NPSL National Championships. Support the Flash in their endeavors to bring top quality soccer to San Diego and our chance to show the rest of the U.S. that we deserve more soccer events in the future.

It was rather fitting that Wondolowski scored yet again, and hopefully San Diego takes its chance to shine this week too. There is no doubt both deserve every success.

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