Expansion Failure: San Jose’s New Stadium In Doubt

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There has been a lot of focus in Major League Soccer on the expansion success stories of the past three years — Toronto, Seattle and even the surprisingly solid Salt Lake — but one new team sticks out like a sore thumb: rooted to the bottom of the Western Conference standings and with an attendance average barely scraping five figures at Buck Shaw Stadium, 2008 expansion team the San Jose Earthquakes are not looking so rosy.

And now it looks like the number one need for the team, a new dedicated soccer stadium, may be postponed. Owner Lew Wolff told the San Jose Mercury News he was backing off the $50 million stadium project near Mineta San Jose International Airport. He told the newspaper the Quakes were struggling to find sponsorship for the stadium due to low attendances and season ticket sales.

“You can’t do it out of magic,” Wolff said. “There’s no sense
building a stadium unless you have some flow of revenue.”

Wolff’s naivety over the relaunch of the team in 2008 is clear in the following comment: “It didn’t catch on the way I thought it would,” Wolff said. “I thought it would naturally fall into place. We expected to have a waiting list — before we fielded a team. While we did OK, it is about half of what I expected.”

Wolff has failed to come to terms with the legacy of AEG’s decision to move the original Earthquakes franchise to Houston in 2005. While what AEG did obviously can’t be attributed to him, he seems to have underestimated the damage to the more casual fanbase such a move did. Why would fans believe that this time the Earthquakes would be worth a lasting investment? Why would season tickets sales suddenly rocket because a team with the same name returned?

Wolff’s front office has hardly excelled themselves in marketing and promotion of the team. The relaunch was a dud: the club’s badge looked like soccer clipart, and there was none of the creative buzz Toronto and Seattle launched with. The club has some hardcore support, but has failed to attract the casual fan needed to fill even a 10,000 seat stadium.

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This is not all Wolff’s fault. The Bay Area media is hardly soccer-friendly, and the rather fragmented nature of a giant metropolitan area clustered awkwardly around the Bay makes the location and branding in San Jose less than ideal. But it’s still a city of almost a million people itself, enough (theoretically) to support an MLS team, especially with little summer sporting competition in the city.

Off the field, Wolff should listen to his own words — “You can’t do it out of magic.” It takes investment and engagement to build enough support to even fill a 10,000 seat stadium when your team is bottom of the league. If the local newspaper isn’t covering your team enough, then you better be bombarding new media — especially in this region — with engagement instead.  Failure on the field is hardly going to reengage fans after a championship winning team was unceremoniously moved to Houston just a few years earlier.

After all, the team — after some promising moments in 2008 — has been an unmitigated disaster in 2009. Wolff seems unwilling to make a change. While that’s his prerogative, in the interview he commits the cardinal sin of saying “I don’t give a damn what the fans say. It is not something that happens overnight.” While Lew might be right, and it may well not matter what the fans say, you just don’t say that to the media when it’s your fans spending their money on what you are selling. And frankly, fans won’t spend enough money to attract sponsors for the new stadium until the Earthquakes do a better job of selling themselves.

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