In the last decade alone, San Diego has added two professional soccer teams, the San Diego Loyal SC and San Diego 1904 FC, and is set to welcome a professional women’s soccer team in 2022.
Despite the recent rise in soccer culture, however, one noticeable league is still absent: Major League Soccer.
Rumors of an MLS team coming to San Diego have swirled for years, but never materialized. The region is clearly an attractive place for professional soccer, but two of the biggest obstacles remain a venue that meets the requirements of MLS and the substantial costs associated with bringing a team here.
Unlike other major sports leagues, every team within MLS is technically owned by the league itself. Groups of so-called “investor-operators” can contribute certain amounts of money in exchange for ownership of a team. For example, Anschutz Entertainment Group, otherwise known as AEG, owns the Los Angeles Galaxy.
For ownership groups to expand into new cities like San Diego, two options exist. One would be to take an existing team and relocate it to San Diego. The other would be for the MLS to partner with a group of investors to create a new one, otherwise known as an expansion team.
Most discussions about bringing MLS to San Diego revolve around the latter option, which is the same process most cities go through to get a team. It’s the option a group called FS Investors attempted to push through when it pitched the so-called SoccerCity plan in Mission Valley in November 2018, but voters instead chose a plan backed by San Diego State University supporters to build a stadium on the same site.
Financially, the process of bringing an MLS team to a new city is complicated. For one, the costs for ownership stake in a new team is substantial and climbing. The value of the teams themselves is also climbing – Forbes reported in 2019 that the average value of an MLS team has reached $313 million.
Dike Anyiwo, a San Diegan and former editor-in-chief of SoccerNation.com, said the expansion fee alone can cost upward of $215 million, “and that is not counting payroll, contracts and any marketing or operations of a club. If you factor that in, and you start to think about the average salary and roster size, that’s hundreds of millions of dollars at the very least. It is not a small outlay.”
Another key financial factor for an MLS expansion into San Diego would have to include venues.
With the former Qualcomm Stadium gone — the old home of the Chargers — San Diego currently lacks a venue with amenities to fit an MLS franchise. That doesn’t mean it would be impossible.
In Mission Valley, San Diego State University is just over a year away from completing construction of the 35,000-seat Aztec Stadium. The university says the new venue could be a home for professional soccer one day.
SDSU officials confirmed that they have been in talks with MLS but only to share updates about site development.
“Throughout this process, from the very beginning, we have continued to provide updates (to MLS officials) on project details on where we are,” said Executive Associate Athletic Director of Mission Valley Development Derek Grice.
MLS representatives did not respond to requests for comment.
Speculation about MLS coming to San Diego has only been fueled in recent months by the news that a billionaire pulled out of a proposal to bring an expansion team to Sacramento.
As of now, it is unknown whether SDSU is also talking to an ownership group to bring an MLS team to play in Aztec Stadium. But it’s no secret that the university built the stadium with professional soccer in mind.
SDSU is incorporating certain MLS field and stadium requirements into the stadium design, the Union-Tribune reported.
The university envisions Aztec Stadium being used 365 days a year for events, including professional soccer, Grice said.
“We’re building a stadium that’s going … to be a great venue, not only for San Diego State, for soccer, for concerts, for family entertainment, local and other professional sports including rugby lacrosse,” Grice said. “You name it, we’ll host it.”
Despite the possible opportunity in Mission Valley, some local soccer experts like Anyiwo believe that the chance of an MLS team coming to play there is slim.
For one, MLS has “a weird requirement,” Anyiwo said, that ownership groups “control their own venues and facilities. So unless … a potential ownership group comes in with a stake or some level of revenue controls for their facility, I don’t think what is … being built in Mission Valley makes San Diego’s (soccer) market more exciting.”
Anyiwo believes it may take some time to get a franchise to San Diego.
“There’s opportunity, there’s appetite, there’s like all sorts of ingredients in the San Diego region for an MLS team to come here and be successful.” he said. “But you don’t … just come out of the womb sprinting. You crawl and walk, then you run.”