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In January 2017, a group of investors that came to call themselves SoccerCity made a verbal agreement with then San Diego State University President Elliot Hirshman. They had only days left before Major League Soccer’s deadline for expansion applications. They wanted to partner with the university to build a new stadium and pay for their entry to the MLS with the profit from other things they would build.
They spent the weekend negotiating with Hirshman.
The Chargers had just decided to leave San Diego for Inglewood and the aging stadium in Mission Valley was destined to rot. The future of SDSU’s football program was in jeopardy.
Hirshman seemed content with his solution. His negotiations had led to a better deal. The university would not have to bear half of the costs of constructing a new stadium. It would get a couple of plots of land to use for university purposes.
It was a better deal than had been discussed. But a group of university supporters had decided the deal was no good. There was no reason SDSU would have to agree to anything. They understood that this was, ultimately, a political decision. And what entity could possibly have more political support in San Diego than its oldest university? The university where the mayor at that time was once student body president?
It was city land. Why did the investors have more right to it than the university based just a mile away? How could they have more leverage?
They didn’t. That’s what Jack McGrory, Christopher Kit Sickels, John Kratzer and others had recognized. If they had to go to war, politically, so be it. The university could control this land, gain an incredibly valuable asset that it could develop over decades and promise the region everything it wanted.
That is, everything except soccer.
The investors had Major League Soccer. That was their leverage. Yes, they had money. They had the largest shareholder of the Padres, Peter Seidler. But the only real leverage the investors had was the exclusive right to bid on a new Major League Soccer team in San Diego.
And lots of people wanted soccer. With the Chargers gone, there was a hole. MLS is nowhere near the NFL in reach and popularity. But San Diego has long been a soccer hub. Hundreds of thousands of kids play – some at elite levels of competitiveness. World Cup viewership has historically been high here. Visiting exhibition games had regularly attracted large crowds and the minor league and indoor teams the city hosted were competitive and viable.
There was little doubt an MLS team would thrive here. As the university’s friends moved to scuttle the deal and proposed instead that the university should buy the land and develop it, this was the last place the investors could retreat: You’ll miss the chance to get soccer here.
Plenty of older SDSU fans couldn’t care less about soccer. But McGrory and university officials believed they could build a stadium that fit MLS’s needs. They could have it all. They designed the stadium with key elements.
Soccer teams like to enter stadiums from the middle of the pitch, through big tunnels. Done. It would have sightlines and camera angles suited for soccer.
Landon Donovan, perhaps the most famous American soccer player, had come aboard the investor group and sneered at the possibility that SDSU’s plans could accommodate the top soccer league in the United States. It was a pretty sensible conclusion to make. MLS had its preferred partners and if they lost and the university built a stadium primarily for its American football team, then it would not have a home here.
As Mark Zeigler, the U-T columnist put it at the time, the city had a choice: futbol or football.
“As things stand now, it’s one or the other,” he wrote.
But SDSU boosters maintained the promise. They won the vote and designed Snapdragon Stadium with soccer in mind and the MLS was still welcome. Last year, almost out of nowhere, the National Women’s Soccer League launching San Diego Wave FC. Abruptly, in September, the Wave set a NWSL record for attendance.
San Diego Loyal, a second-division team playing in the USL, began making plans to play at Snapdragon. The team produced a hype video and Ticketmaster inadvertently posted listings for seats in 2023 at Snapdragon. But at the last minute, SDSU pulled out of the deal and did not execute a lease.
MLS was calling for real. The Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and British-Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Mansour had formed a partnership willing to put up the now huge $500 million fee to join MLS and expand it to San Diego.
That fee was more reasonable because they didn’t need to build a new stadium. They would play at Snapdragon and just pay rent.
This city produces nothing in more abundance than visions that never come to fruition. We could put together a beautiful coffee table book of all the renderings of stadiums, of convention centers, of bayside promenades and of iconic architecture that never moved past the pdfs.
But SDSU and its allies put together the most diverse and powerful political coalition I have ever seen assembled for a local cause. It persuaded the voters to compel the city to sell the land to the university. It built a stadium quickly and on budget. It got women’s soccer in the door. It got Jimmy Buffett.
“We had a vision in 2017 that the university could manage this whole development and give the region everything we could want out of it. The university would be able to grow. There’d be parks and needed housing. And we could get Major League Soccer and support our own football team along with world-class touring artists and women’s soccer. People said we couldn’t do it. But we’ve done it,” McGrory told me.
Thursday, San Diego State will welcome the commissioner of Major League Soccer, Don Garber, along with an international investor who has not just other soccer teams but also a vast network of soccer academies, which he surely has plans to expand here. They’ll be joined by one of the tribes that represent the ancient Kumeyaay for an historic announcement.
Six years ago, that site in Mission Valley was a sad reminder of civic incompetence, failed visions and betrayal.
Now, it’s set to be the hottest place in town.
While the prospect of the MLS coming to mission valley is exciting, the city went about the disposition of the property on which the stadium stands in entirely the wrong way. A city should never put up the use of property it owns to a vote of the general public, thereby making its ultimate disposition a political football (pun intended). The proper way is for city planners and hired experts to put together a request for proposals (RFP) that would be distributed to the world. The RFP would include city objectives for the site, design guidelines, and minimum qualifications for the ultimate developers and more. This is how the city gets the best deal. Perhaps, in the end, the city got the best deal anyway, but we will never know.
Good for Scott Lewis acknowledging what a great job Mike Neal, Fred Pierce, Payne , Parma, Goodall, McGrory and so many others did to pull this off. Snapdragon is a gem. Congratulations!
Thanks for the positive article. I remember listening to McGrory pitch this at Politifest and thought he sounded like a snake oil salesman (sorry!). I’m impressed that he was able to execute the vision.
Plus in another five years there will be plans for the stadium to be expanded to 55,000 for the return of the Chargers. Already mentioned many time that the new stadium has expansion plans when it was built. Some rich guy is going to buy the Chargers and not play second to the Rams. Move the team back to San Diego after the stadium is rebuilt. Move in date Fall of 2030.
Look at that. We got an MLS team and the public didn’t have to spend a dime for it, unlike the old Soccer City ballot measure.
Aren’t you forgetting someone? Barbara Bry was the first elected official to oppose what she memorably called “the SoccerCity land grab.” VOSD’s own June 2017 coverage quoted developer Perry Dealey as saying, “Bry is already leading the fight to postpone the [SoccerCity] vote and initiate a public process.” The U-T reported in June 2019 that “Bry put herself out there as a leading voice for SDSU Mission Valley, and one critical of city negotiators.” And Jack McGrory praised her at a November 2018 SDSU West celebration by saying, “There was one City Council member who stood up, and she’s not the tallest person.”
I know VOSD deeply dislikes Bry (which is odd given that she was one of your co-founders). But her courageous political leadership was crucial to the success of SDSU West, and this story should have given her credit for it.
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