Can San Francisco Support a NASL team?
San Francisco is one of the strongest professional sports markets in the country. From the 5 time Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers that dominated the football scene in the 80s and 90s, to the Barry Bonds era of the 2000s and the 3 time World Series Champion SF Giants, and now the future plans to move the Warriors to San Francisco, San Franciscans have had no shortage of teams to support in recent history.
The 49ers and Giants have drawn excellent attendance numbers for years now, and it is safe to say that the Warriors will do the same when they make their move to the City. But how would a minor league soccer team fare in San Francisco?
NASL Expansion Possibility
San Francisco City FC, which plays in the US Club Soccer NorCal Premier League, has drawn a lot of attention from US Soccer pundits all across. SF City is 51% owned by supporters and 49% by investors and partners. The club came close to making a US Open Cup appearance, but fell just short in the play-in round to Cal FC, losing 2-1 at home. The game was played at Kezar Stadium, located at the east end of Golden Gate Park, and drew a relatively impressive crowd of 1,519.
SF City is also reportedly one of the two ownership groups that have inquired about bringing a NASL team to San Francisco.
What are the obstacles in this process?
The article states that there is a foreign ownership group as well as the SF City group that is vying for the SF NASL expansion bid. The issue that most native San Franciscans see with this is that both groups are not from the City. SF City is owned by transplants, and the foreign group is obviously from out of the country. How is the longevity of a franchise supposed to built if the ownership group does not necessarily have the interests of the city in mind? A team owned by transplants or foreigners will never do as well as a team owned by native San Franciscans.
Perhaps a professional team would be able to get by with outside owners, but a minor league team will never gain traction with an ownership group that doesn’t have the best in mind for the city.
Just look at the San Francisco Bulls, and the San Francisco Spiders, and the San Francisco Seals, and the California Victory… That’s a long list.
What do all of these teams have in common? Minor league teams, transplant/foreign ownership groups, and teams that folded within just a few years. Sure, two of them were hockey teams, but what about the California Victory (USL) and the San Francisco Soccer Seals (USL PDL)?
The Victory played in Kezar Stadium in the USL First Division and struggled to attract more than 500 supporters even for US Open Cup matches in 2007. The San Francisco Seals, in their time in USL PDL from 2006-2008, drew an average of 170 people per game.
Meanwhile in Burlingame, which is about 20 miles from Kezar Stadium, the Quakes new USL PDL affiliate Burlingame Dragons FC has over 1000 “founding fans” or season ticket holders for their first team already. Burlingame is obviously a more suitable minor league market, and has shown impressive support thus far for a team that plays in the 4th division.
So what’s the future for soccer in San Francisco?
San Francisco is a professional sport market. There isn’t much hope of minor league soccer taking over the city by the bay with the Giants already in town, the Warriors moving over soon, and the Niners still with a very heavy presence.
Is the NASL expansion in San Francisco going to happen? Probably. Is everything going to go right? Probably not. There are a number of obstacles that the ownership group will have to jump. The team needs to feel organic; it needs to feel like San Francisco. As we’ve seen in the past, a minor league franchise built by outsiders can’t just walk in and be successful.
They are also going to need a stadium. Kezar Stadium is a nice temporary solution, but it also desperately needs to be renovated if it is to host a NASL team that plans on drawing decent crowds. This is going to be difficult seeing as neighbors around Golden Gate Park have been strongly opposed to any kind of construction at Kezar. Is another stadium location possible? Maybe, but remember that it is San Francisco. Building a complex of condos or apartments is going to be a lot more profitable than a soccer stadium for a minor league team would be.
The owners will also need to pour a lot of money into this. The $3.5 million buy-in fee, the estimated $2.5-$4 million dollar yearly expenses, and the additional money that the owners will inevitably have to pour into the team for it to be a successful franchise.
San Francisco, as a whole, has struggled to support the San Jose Earthquakes in big numbers up to this point – how are they going to support a minor league soccer team?