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Last week I wrote about how bringing in an NBA or NHL team, playing in a standard arena that seats 20,000, could be what San Diego needs to rebuild the reputation of the city’s sports fans. But it’s worth taking a step back and examining why San Diego fans earned such a bad reputation to begin with.
The Southern California culture, and the nice weather that shapes it, are often tossed around as explanations for poor attendance. Those are both wrong.
There is no one large culprit. Rather, several smaller issues have led to empty seats at Qualcomm Stadium and Petco Park.
Let’s start with the quality of play.
Fans show up for winning teams, right? In 2012, the San Diego Chargers missed the playoffs for a third consecutive season behind a head coach and general manager that were roundly hated throughout the county. The team ranked 28th out of 32 NFL teams in home attendance, selling 59, 964 tickets per home game. In 2009, the last time San Diego made the NFL playoffs, the team ranked 18th in home attendance after selling 67,543 tickets sold per home game.
The San Diego Padres have seen a similar drop-off in attendance as they’ve routinely missed the MLB playoffs. In 2012, the team ranked 21st out of 30 MLB teams in home attendance with an average of 26,218 tickets sold per game. In 2006, the last year that the Padres made the playoffs, they finished the season 12th in attendance with an average of 32,836 tickets sold to each game at Petco Park.
The facts don’t lie. Attendance for San Diego’s professional sport franchises lands somewhere between average and above-average when the teams are actually winning. It has been three years since a playoff appearance for either team, five years since a San Diego team has advanced to the second round of the playoffs and 14 years since one has made it to the final round of the playoffs. That does affect attendance some, but it’s not the whole story.
Part of the issue is that San Diego is a city full of residents who grew up somewhere else. Many people who live in San Diego moved here long after they had made a connection to their hometown teams, which is also a big reason why football and baseball games in San Diego are often well-attended by fans of opposing teams. Another reason is that fans looking to see their favorite team at an away game will often choose to see them in San Diego, precisely because of that SoCal sun that supposedly thwarts San Diego fandom.
The final issue is price, and it’s one that the two hometown teams differ greatly on in recent years. In 2012, the Padres had the second cheapest average ticket in baseball at $15.15. That coincided with having the largest price change year to year of any team in the MLB. But a lack of star players, repeated failed attempts to make it into the playoffs and an ownership situation that makes it seemingly impossible to field a competitive baseball team have still kept many of the fans away.
The Chargers, who have strong ownership, star players and the same core group that took the team into the playoffs regular in the last decade, have the ninth most expensive average ticket in the NFL at $81.39. They also have the NFL’s blackout policy on their side, which says that home games will not be televised locally if the game is not completely sold out. That keeps demand high, even among those who wouldn’t watch the game in person if television was an option, which leaves the team free to charge whatever they want.
At the moment, there simply isn’t a plan in action to bring fans to the stadium in Mission Valley, and the Padres aren’t going to be able to persuade fans to spend money on a team of unknowns that can’t compete.
The Chargers are making more than enough money, and poor attendance gives them leverage in fighting for a new stadium that they know the city wants (and maybe needs). The Padres needed an influx in cash to help them obtain and retain stars, which would create good vibes with the fan base. Unfortunately, it looks like that cash influx was supposed to come with the Fox Sports San Diego deal that went out the door with the previous team owners.
It may be a few more years before the stadium and ballpark in San Diego are filled — but it won’t be because of the nice weather.