MLS, city leaders tout pro soccer in SD – The San Diego Union-Tribune
American soccer star Landon Donovan remembers his professional career in the United States nearly being over before it had barely begun.
Donovan was a rookie in 2001 playing for San Jose of Major League Soccer, and the rumors were that if the Earthquakes, who were averaging a league-low 9,000 fans per game, didn’t beat the L.A. Galaxy in the championship game, the franchise would fold.
The Earthquakes won the title, stayed alive and still exist all these years later, though two other teams, Miami and Tampa, went to the graveyard after that season to leave MLS with 10 teams.
“They were probably on the ninth of their nine lives,” Donovan said.
That story struck Donovan as instructive as he stood Monday on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum, the San Diego skyline behind him on a bright, sunny day.
Now a San Diego resident, Donovan was invited by MLS Commissioner Don Garber to witness what Donovan and many others never dreamed they’d see – 15 years ago, or even 15 months ago.
MLS, fully entrenched in the American and Canadian sports landscape, desires to expand with its 25th and 26th teams by 2020. There are a dozen cities that have expressed interest in being among the next to join, but it seemed as if San Diego put itself in a frontrunner’s position with a full showing of support at a press conference and pep rally aboard the Midway.
Several hundred fans serenaded some of the city’s top administrators and sports organizers with soccer songs and chants before San Diego’s MLS investment group stood to ceremonially hand Garber a franchise application. MLS set a deadline of Tuesday to receive applications for the next round of league discussion regarding expansion.
Though in the very early stages, there was a palpable sense of momentum for the franchise movement, based largely on the proposed plans of local investors to build a $200 million stadium to replace Qualcomm Stadium and share it with San Diego State football, while developing housing, retail, SDSU facilities and a 55-acre river park.
The investment group has said the total project, valued at $2 billion, would require no public funds.
Calling MLS a “perfect fit” for San Diego because of the region’s soccer participation and its “bi-national culture,” with the proximity to Mexico, Mayor Kevin Faulconer said, “I am so excited as mayor of the potential this new franchise can bring to the city.
“It’s so much more than an opportunity for a new sports team. It’s an opportunity to create jobs, to revitalize Mission Valley and see it become an economic driver.”
Donovan, 34, recalled growing up in Redlands and coming to San Diego on many weekends because it was the epicenter for youth soccer in Southern California. He cited the city being among the television ratings leaders for World Cup games, and the rivalries a San Diego team could develop with the MLS’s L.A. clubs, as well as the Tijuana Xolos of Liga MX.
“This is clearly an American soccer hotbed, and I’d be surprised if this is not a slam dunk,” said Donovan, who acknowledged that he has had preliminary discussions with the San Diego investors to be a part of the franchise.
Up first for the investor group, led by Mike Stone, the founder of FS Investors, is to begin gathering 72,000 signatures from registered voters before they can go before the City Council and ask for project approval without a public vote.
The San Diego investors hope to have an answer from the city by the summer, and MLS is expected to select its 2020 expansion franchises in the fall.
The investor group expects to be able to provide specific language on its initiative in about 10 days. As with any effort of this size, it could face legal opposition.
“There are obviously a lot of details,” Faulconer said. “We’ll see what the final proposal is, and it has to make sense. It’s something that has to be vetted. The community and the council are going to have the opportunity for discussion.
“You have to do this right. I’m looking forward to seeing the final proposal, but you have to have vision and be willing to move, and I think that’s what today is all about.”
The investor group is comprised of former Qualcomm President Steve Altman, technology entrepreneurs Massih and Masood Tayebi, Padres co-owner Peter Seidler and FSI partner Nick Stone (no relation to Mike Stone).
One more hint that San Diego might be on MLS’s fast track: The investors announced a new partner on Monday — Juan Carlos Rodriguez, the Miami-based president of Univision Deportes, the most powerful sports channel in Mexico that holds the rights to MLS games.
Rodriguez said he is investing his own money, and despite no direct ties to San Diego, he said, “I believe in the group of owners. I believe in the future of the sport. I believe in the city.”
Rodriguez said he has made it known to the other owners that he would like a “Mexican accent” to the San Diego franchise. He envisions Mexican fans around the country turning out for MLS games in away cities to cheer San Diego’s team, as well as cross-border rivalry matches with the Xolos.
“I think it’s an incredible opportunity for San Diego,” Rodriguez said.
The Mexican connection in San Diego is clearly appealing to MLS. Garber cited the large number of people who travel back and forth across the border.
“What we think about when we look at growing professional soccer in America, it is a close partnership with Mexico,” Garber said. “The sport is very popular down there. There are all sorts of opportunities down there to do things. It’s not a coincidence that one of (San Diego’s) investors is president of Univsion (sports).”
As the project moves forward, there is still much to be worked out with San Diego State athletics and the university as a whole.
The Aztecs have said they will contribute $100 million to the new stadium so as to be able to share equally in the revenue generated. Nick Stone said on Monday he envisions SDSU receiving all of the revenue earned from its games, while the MLS team will do the same. Less clear is how revenue might be divided in terms of stadium naming rights, advertising inside the venue, or third-party events such as concerts.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions, but we haven’t really dug into the details at this point,” SDSU Athletic Director John David Wicker said on Monday. “The devil is in the details, and we’ve still got a lot of work to do to see how the process plays out.