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If San Diego didn’t have any professional sports franchises, but was looking to get one, things would build backward.
Instead of getting a professional football team first, and a baseball team years later, the city would first have to prove itself capable of supporting a professional basketball or hockey franchise.
In the 1960s, sports weren’t as big as they are today. The crowds, and the dollars being thrown around, were smaller. One could argue that San Diego got its baseball team due mostly to logistics, a way for MLB to add more West Coast teams for the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers to avoid constant cross-country trips. The growth of the game mattered most; money was No. 2.
Professional sports are all about filling seats and getting television contracts these days.
In that regard, San Diego fits into the category of a “small market” despite being the 8th most populated city in the United States. That’s because the San Diego Padres ranked 21st out of 30 MLB teams in attendance in 2012, and because the San Diego Chargers ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in attendance in 2012.
Those paltry figures have led to many to argue San Diego will never have its own NHL franchise or another NBA franchise. Let’s do some quick math and see if that makes sense.
The type of arena San Diego would need to build to house one (or both) new teams would probably need to seat between 18,000 and 20,000 fans. NBA teams and NHL teams both have 41 home games per regular season. Therefore, a sell-out of a “larger” arena for every regular season game would equal roughly 820,000 tickets sold in a single year for one NBA or NHL franchise.
To put that into perspective, the Padres averaged over 26,000 tickets sold to all 81 of their home games in 2012. That is more seats than any NBA or NHL arena has. The Padres sold over 2.1 million tickets in all last season. The Chargers averaged just a hair under 60,000 tickets sold for their eight home games last season. That would sell out an NBA or NHL arena three times over. The Chargers sold roughly 480,000 tickets to their home games.
San Diego sports is missing a heart.
It’s one of the bigger reasons why those larger stadiums aren’t often filled to capacity. The heart and the personality of a particular city’s fanbase is often built in those smaller arenas. Place likes Oklahoma City and Portland have die-hard crowds supporting their local NBA teams, even if the sports fervor doesn’t run hot enough to support an MLB or NFL franchise. They don’t walk around with their heads hanging, wondering how to strengthen a stagnant fanbase. They are proud of their level of noise and the amount of sell-outs they have on record (similar to the crowds filling the 12,000 seat Viejas Arena).
Maybe it’s time for San Diego to start over with their fans.
Maybe it’s time to build a base, a die-hard crowd of 20,000 or so that shows up every night to give the home team an advantage. That base will carry over into the crowds at Petco Park and whatever the next Chargers stadium is, and soon everyone will want to be a part of the crowd at San Diego sporting events instead of wishing it would become something more on its own.
Maybe the only way to save San Diego sports, and its fanbase, is by giving it a lifeline with a smaller arena and a sport in which its current fanbase can compete with others.
John Gennaro is a contributor to Voice of San Diego. Next week, he’ll try and figure out why San Diego’s fanbase struggles to fill seats. Follow him on Twitter @jmglion or email firstname.lastname@example.org.