Stadium Issues Not a Worry for San Diego: The argument for a soccer specific stadium is impeding the growth of the game in the San Diego region

(Written by Ryan Ginard @RyanGinard)

It was last weekend when our coach broke it to us that the annual post-season cup tournament would not be going ahead this year, and this would be our final game of the season until we kicked off again later in the year.

Granted this was a blessing in disguise for everyone’s ageing hamstrings, but the reality was that there was no more recreational outdoor soccer for a good 6 months, which is a lifetime for those that understand the fun and camaraderie of amateur soccer played every weekend across fields nationwide.

So why was it cancelled you may ask? Well surprisingly enough it wasn’t the prevailing issues of cost or lack of grounds, quite the opposite. The reason for the postponement was that coaches throughout the league had refused to participate due to the quality of the fields. The fields!

Kids worldwide are playing on dirt patches, dangerous streets and the worst favelas with the ongoing risk of violence and buried mines, and we are complaining about a grass field a stone’s throw from Ocean Beach in San Diego. But let’s put the hardships of other nations to one side, that’s a whole other discussion.

The main culprit of many injuries and shanked shots from 2 yards out is that of Robb Field. It’s a field that has long been neglected and ravaged by gophers and thousands of people, and playing sports there daily is funnily enough a great analogy for soccer in America’s Finest City.

Sure there’s plenty of potential and lots of talk about fixing the problem, but no one stumping up the cash to get it done.

And that’s where we begin our soccer specific stadium (SSS) argument and provide reasons for a reality check for many local supporters that believe that it is the instant fix for soccer in the area. Like every major piece of infrastructure, building strong foundations are paramount.

Also, before we continue, let’s get one thing straight. There is no chance a team can plug and play in MLS from San Diego.

The old adage ‘Build it and they will come’ is an immature and naïve approach to soccer in the region and very problematic. The evidence of this worldwide is there for all to see.

The Australian A-League, which is similar to the U.S. in its growth and direction, has seen 3 expansion clubs become defunct with one of those (Gold Coast United) having a billionaire owner and a brand new 25,000 seat stadium, which could only attract a home crowd average of 3,300. To put that into perspective, this is what the PASL Champion San Diego Sockers gets for indoor games.

Soccer is not a get rich quick scheme. It’s a unique business model that requires a professional approach.

The National Premier Soccer League (NPSL), while being a great option for ambitious clubs because of its low barriers to entry, also has a big problem that is often masked by its steady influx of new teams. NPSL teams are coming and going at an alarming rate (over the past 5 years over 29 clubs have folded) and this ongoing issue continues to erode the reputation of the league.

We mention the NPSL as this is our highest representation of teams here in San Diego. Our current clubs believe that a new stadium is indeed the key to growth. San Diego Boca has even gone as far as a community petition and working with consultants to create an artist’s impression of what it will look like, while the San Diego Flash have long mentioned on social media that they have everything in place for a stadium except for the land to build it. These are both examples of putting the cart before the horse.

And herein lays the problem. These clubs have scared off any other players in the market with big plans and ideas, and years have passed with them being no closer to achieving their dream. In fact it isn’t even on the horizon, with the council committed to sorting out the home of the Chargers before it looks into any other stadium proposals.

This has ultimately left San Diego in the wake of other soccer markets in its ongoing development. We all know the progress of the New York Cosmos and the Orlando franchise with their financed and council approved locale. While people have always known the next franchise was destined for the East Coast, San Diego thought it had to be the next cab off the rank, but sadly this is not the case.

It was just this week that Sacramento has been added to the mix. Elk Grove Council have voted yes on the acquisition of land and a potential $100 million stadium and has now positioned themselves as the next viable Californian team to enter the upper echelons of pro soccer in the U.S.

The harsh reality is that these stadiums cannot happen without the money to build them, and these clubs currently don’t have the capital to make it happen, regardless of their vision. It is optimistic at best to think that a multi-millionaire backer will appear and cough up the funds and not want full control of the club and its direction, or that crowd funding is going to be a potential x-factor.

That’s where the Flash is in a bit of a quandary. If this big backer joins the club, he isn’t going to want to listen to another 50 investors. There model is indeed unique and they are probably the best placed team to make pro soccer in San Diego a reality, but they have now been around for a number of years, still play in the fourth tier and haven’t articulated their plans past the NPSL. If they haven’t made it now with the influence and extensive contact list at the disposal of their trump cards Warren Barton and Eric Wynalda, every year that goes past has been a missed opportunity.

It’s the clubs and not the stadiums that are most important issue at this time. Regardless of what people say, we have more than enough stadiums to get the ball rolling.

Firstly let’s move away from high school venues as an option. If clubs are serious of moving to USL PRO or the NASL, they need to go big or go home. We have the Torero’s Stadium at USD which has a capacity of 6,000. Heck, why not go the whole hog and use Qualcomm Stadium? The ageing home of the San Diego Chargers was only 2 years ago confirmed as a venue for the U.S. World Cup bid for 2022. Using just the Field and Plaza levels will open up to 30,000 at the very least and it’s available!

So that negates the stadium issue for the immediate future. Next.

Devoid of politics and the strange urge of franchises to get the team on the park to make money, what San Diego needs is an investment/leadership group that focuses on soccer for the region yet supplements the big picture with comprehensive business plans, funding models and continued growth of the game at the local level. Perhaps following the lead of future NASL franchises in Ottawa, Indianapolis and Virginia, by establishing the business side and delaying its on-field introduction is a more viable option for a local entity.

As mentioned above, soccer is a unique business model and engagement is a two-way street. A team needs to capture the imagination (and support) of clubs, parents, fans and administrators region wide to have an impact. Based on current evidence this will not happen via an NPSL route, but through a franchise that utilizes the potential of the city through action, not through words, including finding a way to fix Robb Field.

San Diego has everything a club needs already. Sadly, it just hasn’t found a way to connect all the dots.

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