Friday, December 16, 2005
Farewell to the San Jose Earthquakes
It has happened again: another US professional sports team relocated, with all the usual griping about stadium/facilities, the usual cold business logic interfering with passionate fandom, everything. The scale is smaller -- Major League Soccer team San Jose Earthquakes are moving to Houston. Why? No one knows. The Quakes have a rich history in the Bay area, dating back at least 30 years (on and off, along with rise and fall of pro-soccer in the U.S.), have a strong fan base and ties to the community, etc.
Unfortunately, for its "owner/operator" Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), it wasn't enough. The deal they had with San Jose State University, whose Spartan Stadium the Quakes played in (and which was home to the first match of the MLS), wasn't sweet enough for AEG -- they didn't get as much of the revenue-sharing from parking/beverage-snack-sale, etc. as they wanted. No other local investor wanted to buy them (although some, notably due to the tireless efforts of SoccerSiliconValley, a grassroots organization, tried) unless a city-funded stadium proposal came through. Which, of course, didn't, since it would be a heavy tax-burden, probably wouldn't pass the voter-approval it requires, not to mention the fact that during the crucial discussion time the mayor of San Jose was embroiled in his own set of problems (a censure from the city council), etc.
The sad part is that no party got creative enough. Let's face it, soccer isn't as popular in the U.S. as (American) football and basketball and baseball are; if a team plays 15 home games with an average attendance of 12 to 15 thousand fans who buy tickets at an average price of (say) $20, it just isn't enough (since the other revenue --- merchandise, etc. isn't a whole lot more, either) for a pro-team to thrive. (Of course, none of this explains why moving to Houston would solve the problems.) It's sad that the direction MLS is heading, every team wants its own "soccer-specific stadium", and some have got it (the Home Depot Center shared by two L.A. teams, Chicago, NYC, Washington, DC, Columbus, Dallas..). I am guessing that when attendance is low (as happened this past season in Columbus, OH, with a team that sucked), the soccer-specific stadia are more of a money drain (to the community at large).
What does creative mean here? Any time there is an endeavor that a non-trivial but not terribly large number of people support (e.g., symphony, soccer, etc), this issue comes up again and again. In the present case, there is a large soccer fan base that is, unfortunately, spread quite a bit across Northern California; the Earthquakes could have played half their home games in Spartan and the other half somewhere north of the Golden Gate Bridge -- fewer games might have meant more-packed stadia, probably forcing SJSU to commit to better revenue-sharing. More fans would be able to watch the Quakes, broadening the Quakes fan base. As it turned out, the move to Houston only hurts all parties concerned -- Quakes fans lost their team, SJSU lost good revenue, AEG needs to rebuild a fan base in Houston (where it has similar stadium issues to deal with momentarily), players will be playing their matches at an average summer temperature of 90--95 deg. Farenheit.
Good luck to the Quakes players and coaches -- they were an amazing bunch, they worked their hearts out on the field and off the field (involvement in youth soccer, primarily). At least they are moving to a place that's more affordable with a United States pro-soccer player's salary.