Pursuing San Diego's soccer destiny

San Diego has long been denied the chance to host a Major League Soccer team, but that doesn't mean we're out of the running. Local sports boosters should consider the wisdom of laying the foundation for future professional-grade play by fulfilling immediate amateur needs.

To say that San Diego is a soccer town would be an understatement. For years, we have built a strong reputation as a seasoned host for international sports tournaments. The Mexican national soccer team has played in America's Finest City 18 times since 1993. This summer, a friendly international soccer match was held between Mexican team Club America and England's Club Portsmouth F.C., and on Sept. 14, PETCO Park will be reconfigured into a soccer stadium to host "ChivaClasico," an exhibition match between Club Deportivo Guadalajara of Mexico and its U.S. affiliate, Chivas USA of Los Angeles. Our fandom isn't limited to local matches -- according to the Nielsen Co., San Diego posted the highest U.S. television viewership ratings for all four U.S. team matches in the 2010 World Cup this summer, and had the second highest U.S. household viewership ratings for the finals match. Global sports tourism continues to thrive in our corner of the country, but much work is needed in strengthening our level of competitive play.

The lack of dedicated soccer fields in San Diego has long been a complaint of youth and amateur players alike. Many parks and school lawns are dangerously torn up and pock-marked from overuse, multi-use and dwindling maintenance dollars. Currently, the county Parks & Recreation Department is planning a new regional park in the Tijuana River Valley that would include 10 synthetic turf soccer fields, but that project is years away from completion. One city sports facility has been overlooked which, in this era of financial constraints, could be a prime location for housing soccer success for amateur and professional players.

Positioned alongside San Diego High School, Balboa Stadium is a multi-sport recreational facility owned by the city of San Diego and leased to the San Diego Unified School District until 2024. Historically, Balboa Stadium held large public crowds, first for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and was later expanded to a 34,000 seating capacity when it served as home to the San Diego Chargers in the 1960s. Today, most of the historic edifices and bleachers from Balboa's heyday are gone, and as a requisitioned high school stadium, it is now in bad need of repairs, as chronicled by The San Diego Union-Tribune. Planning a comprehensive stadium redevelopment would benefit the local students, as well as community members who use it on weekends and evenings.

Important MLS and community issues can be addressed through redeveloping Balboa Stadium. The location's infrastructure would be ideal for transporting large soccer crowds, as the City College Trolley Station is a short walk away, and fans can be routed to the nearby Padres Parkade and Tailgate Park, employing shuttles and one-way roads to reach the stadium. MLS rules require expansion teams to secure a "soccer-specific stadium," which would be challenging for the city of San Diego, as there are few options available for a greenfield site. Sports boosters have mulled options in Chula Vista and San Ysidro, with little headway made beyond the drawing room floor. San Diego High students would have continued access to the facility, and a joint-use agreement between a professional soccer team and San Diego Unified would not be unprecedented. Currently, the Kansas City Wizards share their stadium with high school and community college sports teams and the San Jose Earthquakes share Santa Clara University's soccer stadium throughout their season.

Besides legal and regulatory hurdles, stadium financing is perhaps the largest obstacle to overcome -- some of the newest MLS stadiums built cost in the range of $115 million to $200 million. Comparatively though, a new soccer facility is cheaper than the massive arenas required for other professional sports teams; PETCO Park came at a cost of $454 million, and the price tag of a new Chargers stadium is expected to top more than $1 billion. Capital project dollars from Proposition S, a $2.1 billion school bond measure passed last fall could be used to cover some of the costs; Prop. S funds have already been earmarked for other high school stadium improvements, including University City High, Scripps Ranch High and Mission Bay High. Balboa Stadium also falls within the jurisdiction of the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), a non-profit agency which oversees downtown redevelopment. CCDC could be a strategic partner in the development of a stadium; $95 million in redevelopment tax revenue was put toward the costs of PETCO Park. Naming rights to Balboa Stadium could also be sold, and a significant portion of redevelopment costs should be shouldered by private investors to reduce public financing.

Could downtown San Diego become the permanent home for future soccer fandom? This fan says the question is worth asking.

Vasquez is the senior policy analyst with the San Diego Institute for Policy Research.

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