If not for Los Angeles, San Diego might never have gotten a pro football team. Now, more than 50 years later, maybe L.A. can inadvertently get us big-league pro soccer too.
In 1960 the owner of the Chargers, Barron Hilton, watched his football team play its inaugural season to sparse crowds in the cavernous Los Angeles Coliseum. The franchise, Hilton’s entry in the new American Football League, shared the stadium and competed for fans with the Rams of the NFL.
“We were averaging 13,000-14,000 people,” Hilton said, “and that looked pretty ugly in the Coliseum.”
An influential figure in San Diego took note of the ugliness. As the L.A. Times described it:
Hilton quickly realized that taking on the Rams in L.A. was like beating his head against the wall. Down the freeway, San Diego saw the dilemma, and the sports editor and columnist of its leading newspaper, the Union, led a public campaign that convinced Hilton he should move. He did in 1961, and the Chargers played in Balboa Stadium until 1967, when the team moved into a new stadium that the city paid for and eventually named after the sportswriter who had led the charge.
And so it was that Jack Murphy paved the way for San Diego to poach a team from Los Angeles, one that was competing in the same sport, in the same building, with a popular, well-established franchise.
Now a similar opportunity may be presenting itself. On Thursday, some big news from our big neighbor to the north came down:
— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) February 20, 2014
Major League Soccer purchased the team from Jorge Vergara and Angelica Fuentes, also the owners of Mexican soccer team Club Deportivo Guadalajara. The announcement of Chivas’ takeover was stunning, though not surprising in light of controversies surrounding the franchise, coupled with its consistent failures on the field and at the box office.
The MLS announcement included a statement regarding the Goats‘ status in L.A. “In the coming months, the league will resell the club to a new ownership group that will be committed to building a new stadium and keeping the team in Los Angeles,” the statement read. “The league has had initial discussions with a number of very qualified potential owners and intends to finalize an agreement with a new group sometime this year.”
Sounds like a firm pledge to remain in Los Angeles. Except, if there are so many “very qualified potential owners” in L.A., ones who are committed to building a new stadium, why didn’t one of those owners buy the team from Vergara and Fuentes? The statement could be read as PR damage control that puts the best face on a bad situation. Or it could just be part of how the single-entity MLS operates to rescue a foundering club.
While the fútbol worm twists and turns up north, here we abide in San Diego with a deep soccer history and stadium challenges of our own. By its own word, MLS wants to keep the Chivas franchise in L.A. Still, there are parallels to be drawn with that long-ago relocation of Hilton’s Chargers to friendlier environs.
Chivas USA started play in 2005, nearly a decade after the L.A. Galaxy’s inaugural season in the then-new Major League Soccer. The Galaxy is one of the elite clubs in the league, overshadowing its “crosstown” rival Chivas that shares the same stadium, the StubHub (formerly Home Depot) Center in Carson.
Less sports-fixated than the late, great Jack Murphy, but no less sincere, is Voice of San Diego’s own Scott Lewis. Two years ago, Lewis proposed that San Diegans crowdfund the purchase of an MLS franchise, a team that would be publicly owned like the Green Bay Packers. The enthusiastic response from a sports-hungry public registered as a blip on the national radar, but alas, did not generate a groundswell of support leading to a first-division pro soccer team in our fair city.
With the MLS essentially taking Chivas USA into receivership, a new window of opportunity has opened just a crack. San Diego has the history, demographics and fan interest to make pro soccer thrive here.
What we currently lack is a rich person or persons with a publicly expressed desire to bring a team to town. All the crowd-funded goodwill from San Marcos to San Ysidro won’t be enough to sway MLS, a growing league that received a $100 million expansion fee for its latest franchise (a second team in New York) and multiple cities in competition for future teams. Someone has to lead the charge with cash money and a stadium plan.
Have that someone or someones already been kicking the tires? During a Thursday conference call to discuss the Chivas USA sale, MLS Commissioner Don Garber mentioned a handful of cities as potential candidates for expansion, including a new entry in the category: San Diego.
“There have been some discussions in Southern California, in San Diego,” Garber said.
With whom in San Diego has the MLS had discussions? Chargers ownership has to date shown little or no interest in combining soccer with their effort to build a new stadium, a strategy once executed to ringing success in Seattle with the NFL Seahawks and the eventual MLS Sounders. Ron Fowler and his partners are still getting their feet wet as owners of the Padres and are unlikely to jump into a new effort for an MLS team.
Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs (son of Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs, a Voice of San Diego benefactor) was part of the group that purchased the NBA Sacramento Kings last year. Jacobs has stated and proved his excitement for basketball. Assuming he might have any interest in soccer, how much time and discretionary capital would he have left for bringing a team to San Diego? Jacobs and his fellow Kings investors will have their hands full for years in their effort to build a basketball arena in Sacramento.
Ownership variables aside, fertile ground remains in a vital city with a great soccer heritage. The local fanbases of the indoor Sockers, the outdoor Flash, women’s pro soccer, college soccer and the Tijuana Xolos are an existing foundation of supporters. Natural rivalries with the Galaxy and the Xolos would be instantly marketable. Balboa Stadium, the Chargers’ first home all those years ago, sits in obsolescence. The site could make for an excellent soccer-specific stadium, as various proposals have inferred.
A team may be available. A potential stadium site lays waiting. Fortune, as they say, favors the bold.
Will a rich San Diegan who likes soccer please stand up?