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Could MLS add another team to Bay Area?

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(Nathaniel Y. Downes 2014/ Special to The S.F. Examiner)

On Nov. 12, 2017, the San Francisco Deltas faced the New York Cosmos for the North American Soccer League championship. The usually-empty bleachers at Kezar Stadium were full, with children piggybacking atop shoulders and a pounding drum providing a soundtrack. When forward Devon Sandoval converted the winning goal, the roaring crowd became a sea of red- and black-clad bodies jumping up and down.

Twelve days later, the Deltas — having played one season after being founded in 2015 — folded due to financial concerns.

“It was really such a unique thing, and it came so quickly and left kind of as quickly,” said Jacques Pelham, the president of SF City FC. “They didn’t get the attendance they were hoping for, but then at the end they had a 10,000-person crowd for the championship, which was a huge high note.”

SF City is one of many local soccer clubs choosing to view the large turnout for that final game as proof of the region’s appetite for the sport. The groups hope to eventually shake up the Bay Area soccer landscape, and believe the market interest is there for a Major League Soccer team in San Francisco or the East Bay. It’s not an outlandish idea.

MLS is courting expansion, and the U.S. received the 2026 World Cup in a joint bid with Canada, which could bolster excitement. There is evidence to suggest a top-flight Bay Area side could succeed, and a source who engaged in talks with MLS told the Examiner that the league is privately open to bringing a team to the region, assuming a stadium deal is in place.

There are hurdles. The San Jose Earthquakes —as a founding MLS team — hold exclusive territorial rights for the Bay Area, according to several people with extensive knowledge of the region. The Earthquakes would need to cede territory for an expansion team, unless MLS forces the issue through an owner vote. Beyond that, Oakland A’s owner John Fischer holds stakes in the Earthquakes, and isn’t likely to want another club to enter the market.

Mark Hall, a local developer bringing a United Soccer League expansion team to the East Bay in 2021, has another perspective.

“It’s very much like a shopping center,” Hall said. “You see TJ Maxx and Ross and Old Navy right next to each other, but yet they’re competitors. … They help each other when they’re right next to each other. Soccer is very similar. If we could get a cluster of teams here with excellent venues in Northern California, then you really create a spectacular fan experience.”

There certainly seems to be ample appetite for soccer in the Bay Area. According to Fox Sports, San Francisco had the second-highest Nielsen TV rating for this summer’s World Cup among major U.S. markets with a 3.3 rating, trailing only Washington D.C. It ranked third with a 13.0 rating for the World Cup Final between France and Croatia.

The Bay Area also attracts huge turnouts for the International Champions Cup, an annual summer U.S. tournament where top European clubs compete in exhibition matches around the country. Since 2014, an average of 56,500 fans have attended the yearly ICC game played at either Levi’s Stadium or California Memorial Stadium.

Politicians in San Francisco and Oakland told the Examiner they were open to bringing an MLS team to their cities, though they said land scarcity was a major issue and emphasized the need for further economic research.

“It’s exciting to think that Oakland could have a professional soccer team given the growth of the sport in the U.S.,” said Jose Corona, the City of Oakland’s director of equity and strategic partnerships. “I’ve seen now living here in Oakland for the past three World Cups … how people get excited about it, as a sport I think it’s great that they’re considering Oakland for a site for a professional soccer team.”

Oakland, of course, is set to lose the NFL’s Raiders to Las Vegas and the NBA’s Golden State Warriors to San Francisco. Those moves would not only cause a cultural drain, said Oakland’s District One councilmember Dan Kalb, but a loss of local jobs.

“There are fewer activities happening in [Oracle Arena and the Coliseum], and therefore people who work there have less work to do, and that is a real impact,” Kalb said. “It hurts us. It hurts the people working there.”

For now, Oakland is prioritizing keeping the A’s, Kalb said, with the end-goal the approval a new park either at the current Coliseum site or Howard Terminal. Soccer will likely have to wait for that to be figured out, though it remains an intriguing option.

“I’m not sure how we can make a decision about some soccer team until we know what the decision is with the A’s,” Kalb explained.

In a statement provided to the Examiner, Mark Sawicki — Oakland’s director of the economic and workforce development department — wrote that Oakland was “committed to its negotiations with the Oakland A’s for a privately financed ballpark and is open to considering other viable self-financed sports proposals, like soccer, in the future.”

San Francisco, meanwhile, is interested in bolstering its soccer profile. District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí wants to orchestrate a large-scale renovation of 65-year old Boxer Stadium in Balboa Park, so it can host World Cup 2026 national team practices.

Safaí is also willing to consider proposals to bring an MLS team to San Francisco pending a full-scale market analysis.

“It’s a question of whether or not the market is there for it,” Safaí said. “I think there probably is.”

MLS has its own criteria for an expansion team: A soccer-specific stadium that seats more than 20,000 fans, and an ability to pay a $150 million league entrance fee. MLS and the Earthquakes did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding the possibility of a new club in the region.

The typical path to MLS expansion begins with an existing team building up a fanbase in a smaller league. Clubs in the Bay Area currently compete in the Premier Development League, National Premier Soccer League and the United Soccer League.

In San Francisco, the SF Glens have joined SF City FC in the PDL, while El Farolito plays in the NPSL. The Glens and El Farolito play at Boxer Stadium, while SF City FC plays at Kezar.

Several executives from those sides said San Francisco’s diversity feeds into its passion for soccer, so they believe their small-but-loyal followings are capable of expanding in the coming years.

“Kids who are 30 and under, they’ve grown up watching the game because it’s so readily available,” SF Glens president J. Ramon Estevez said. “You couple that with it being such an international area, and it’s just a perfect storm for soccer here.”

Oakland does not currently have a professional team, but a newly founded organization called Oakland Roots is trying to change that and tap into their city’s culture in a similar fashion. They recently hired Nike designer Matt Wolff to design their logo and serve as a creative advisor. Wolff designed several World Cup kits, including the widely lauded shirts Nigeria wore during the tournament.

“We need representation of the sport in Oakland, and for Oakland to have its own club,” said Roots senior advisor Benjamin Aziz. “With the Warriors moving to San Francisco and the Raiders moving to Las Vegas, we feel it’s a great market opportunity.”

After initially trying to finance a joint-stadium venture with the A’s at the Coliseum complex, Hall is focused on building an 18,000-seat stadium in Concord next to the BART Station. A Concord city council motion allowing “advanced exploration” of the initiative passed in late May, but Concord remains in the reviewal stage of the project and hasn’t granted formal approval.

Hall said he wants to build an MLS-caliber stadium, with future promotion to the league a long-term goal.

“We are focused on designing the stadium so that it is quite frankly unlike any Division II stadium in the United States,” Hall said. “It is of Division I quality and caliber, and that’s done on purpose. I think at some point in the future there may be a good chance that we might get promoted to Division I status.”

It’s unlikely the Bay Area will get an MLS team in the near future, as one of the aforementioned teams would likely have to emerge with a suitable venue and get league approval. But from the perspective of local soccer groups, the dream of an MLS team in San Francisco or the East Bay is very much alive.

“It would enhance the excitement for the sport,” Estevez said. “Those regional rivalries I think spark interest.”

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