Women’s pro soccer coming to San Diego in 2022

Women’s pro soccer coming to San Diego in 2022

The San Diego Spirit was part of the Women’s United Soccer Association, averaging nearly 6,000 fans per game at USD’s Torero Stadium and featuring U.S. national team legends Julie Foudy, Joy Fawcett and Shannon Mac Millan.

The Spirit began in 2001. The league folded in 2003.

Nearly two decades later, women’s professional soccer will try again in San Diego.

The National Women’s Soccer League confirmed Tuesday what the Union-Tribune had reported earlier, that a San Diego expansion team will begin play in 2022 at Torero Stadium with plans to move to a more permanent home somewhere in the county no later than 2023. The owner is billionaire businessman Ron Burkle, who initially planned to take an NWSL team to Sacramento as part of his MLS expansion bid that has since collapsed.

That will give the league 12 teams as it enters its 10th season in 2022, the existing 10 plus expansion clubs in Los Angeles (Angel City FC) and San Diego. It also gives San Diego an instant regional rival.

The club president will be Jill Ellis, the former U.S. women’s national coach from England who was a TV commentator for Spirit broadcasts while coaching at UCLA. The vision, she told the Union-Tribune, is to create an all-female executive and coaching staff — believed to be a first in pro sports history.

And that’s president, not coach.

“There were some other coaching opportunities in terms of people reaching out, a lot of national team positions open,” said Ellis, 54, who stepped down from the U.S. women’s team in 2019 after winning the World Cup for a second time. “I did explore some of those. This just felt right. Part of it is this desire that I can do more.

“Now I get to go hire a female GM and hire a female head coach and provide opportunities for others, and then there’s a ripple effect from there. I just felt that, gosh, I had 30 years on the sideline and it was awesome. But being able to open doors for others, that’s just a really good space to be in — to really help them pursue their dreams and, in doing so, provide role models for the next generation.”

NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird unveiled a Sacramento expansion franchise in January, saying a formal announcement from the ownership group would follow shortly. It never came, and a month later Sacramento’s MLS hopes were on indefinite hiatus after Burkle, the lead investor, backed out.

It was only a matter of time before his NWSL expansion rights were headed elsewhere, and in recent weeks speculation focused on San Diego. It makes sense. Burkle owns a 12-bedroom, 26,674-square-foot home on the cliffs above Black’s Beach that one real estate website estimates is worth $63.9 million.

Ellis’ involvement stems from a conversation with Burkle a year ago.

“He was looking for some advice,” Ellis said. “He’s really excited about soccer, really intrigued by it, a fan of it. I said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’ … We wanted to be in California, and Ron has a very strong affinity for San Diego. Was I doing cartwheels for San Diego? Sure, because I think it’s an amazing place. It’s got everything.

“We believe this is an ideal place for women’s soccer.”

Baird, the NWSL commissioner, said in a statement released Tuesday morning: “We’ve always said that growth has to be done thoughtfully and deliberately. That’s exactly what we’ve done here. San Diego NWSL has all the hallmarks of a successful expansion club: a committed ownership group with the resources required to invest in the success of our league and our players, in a community full of soccer players and fans, in a region that has been underrepresented in our league. I can’t wait to watch it all come together.”

The announcement encompassed only the basics: an expansion team launching in 2022 with Ellis as the president who ideally will hire an all-female executive staff. Burkle designated business associate and film producer Matt Alvarez “to lead the project on his behalf.”

Ellis said she hopes to hire a female head coach (something only one other team currently has) by July 1, declining to confirm reports that Casey Stoney, who recently left Manchester United women’s team, is the lead candidate. The team’s branding — name, colors and mascot — will be revealed over the summer as well.

There also are plans for a new stadium and training facility.

The stadium would be “world-class” and seat at least 10,000, but Ellis did not provide more details beyond saying “we’re exploring everything.” She said the training facility would have two fields, offices, a locker room, weight room, athletic training area and player’s lounge and theoretically be completed before the players assemble in January ahead of the spring start of the season.

“Ron was very clear: The players’ experience has to be top quality,” Ellis said of Burkle, who is part-owner of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins. “His facilities with the Penguins are phenomenal. Instead of a (budget) number, it’s making sure we’ve hit and provided everything possible we can to make sure our players feel supported and have an opportunity to be in a high-performance environment. What does that mean in terms of numbers? Whatever it takes to get that done.”

The stadium issue may be trickier. The soccer climate in San Diego has changed significantly since the days of the WUSA and the Spirit. There are now three other pro teams — the USL’s Loyal, the NISA’s 1904 FC and the indoor Sockers — and all have made overtures about constructing their own facilities.

The Sockers recently broke ground on a 6,000-seat arena in inland Oceanside in an effort to tap into the North County market. In 2017, 1904 FC announced plans to build a $15 million, 10,000-seat modular stadium on that same Oceanside property that houses the 22-field SoCal Sports Complex but has since shelved them.

Last summer, the Loyal proposed a $20 million, 15,000-seat venue adjacent to the Sports Arena in the Midway District, but the city chose an alternative development bid that does not include a stadium.

There’s also the 35,000-seat football stadium that San Diego State is building in Mission Valley to replace SDCCU Stadium and was designed to meet international soccer specifications. It is scheduled to open in August 2022.

Asked if that’s too big for a league that had an average announced attendance of 7,337 in its last pre-pandemic season and has never had a crowd over 25,218, Ellis said: “I’ve seen stadiums filled with 50,000 for women’s soccer games. I don’t think we should think small as a sport — 35,000, no, I don’t think that’s too big. If you can build a phenomenal product and build excitement and just knowing the passion in the area for soccer and women’s soccer, we want it big. I’m not going to put a number on the size of the stadium.”

Another issue: Do you locate in San Diego city like the Loyal or dust off the 1904 FC blueprints and head north into an untapped but unproven market? And if traffic patterns return to their pre-pandemic levels, will people drive that far for games?

“We want to be in a position where we’re going to be an exciting enough team and strong enough brand that people are either going to make the drive down or the drive up,” said Ellis, who is in the process of moving from Florida to San Diego. “We are looking at various options. You’ve got the stadium aspect and you’ve got the training center. Do you put them in different places? Do you put them in the same place? Where do you want your players to live?”

Torero Stadium, Ellis said, is a temporary solution for part or all of the 2022 season. It will be a crowded venue with teams fighting for coveted weekend dates. In the spring, the NWSL will share the 6,000-seat facility with the Loyal and San Diego Legion, a pro rugby team. Starting in August, USD’s football and soccer teams have priority for their seasons.

Six of the current 10 NWSL teams partner with men’s franchises, saving overhead and often sharing a home venue. The Loyal has talked about adding a women’s pro team as part of its long-range strategy and, according to one source, reached out to the NWSL about collaborating. Burkle and Ellis, though, opted to go it alone.

“We want to focus on ourselves at this point,” Ellis said, “and we have the resources to commit with the support and backing of an ownership that has a vision. A big part of Ron’s vision was to be a female-run organization. So we wanted to make it first about ourselves. This is going to be groundbreaking in terms of what we’re creating here.

“We want to have an organization that sets the bar not only here but around the world.”

National Women’s Soccer League

Founded: 2013

Teams: 10, expanding to 12 in 2022 with Los Angeles (Angel City FC) and San Diego

Commissioner: Lisa Baird, former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

Reigning champion: North Carolina Courage won the last two full seasons, in 2018 and 2019.

Season: 24 games per team between April and November, with the top six advancing to the playoffs.

Salary cap: $682,500 in 2021, with individual salaries ranging from $20,000 and $52,500.

TV: Most games are on streaming services like Paramount+ and Twitch. Fourteen regular-season games in 2021 are on CBS Sports Network and two on CBS.

Stadiums: Range from 5,000 to 25,500. Average attendance in 2019 was 7,337. Nine of the 10 largest all-time crowds have been at Portland’s Providence Park.


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