Good weather, high cost of living make San Diego bad for pro sports

Metro area is economically so-so, at best

One reason the Chargers left San Diego is that household income adjusted for cost of living is one of the lowest of large metro areas.
  • One reason the Chargers left San Diego is that household income adjusted for cost of living is one of the lowest of large metro areas.
  • Image by Jeffrey Beall

Once again, civic boosters are hoping San Diego will land another professional sports team. Big bucks are behind an attempt to rip down the former Qualcomm Stadium and make it home for a pro soccer team. Some folks want to rehab that stadium and pray that another NFL team will occupy it. Others want some form of professional basketball and/or hockey team.

There may not be political barriers to accomplish these goals (politicians love subsidies to billionaire sports-team owners), but there are economic and demographic barriers to getting a pro team.

Big-league sports can’t and won’t operate in high-poverty markets, regardless of size.

Big-league sports can’t and won’t operate in high-poverty markets, regardless of size.

Any municipal area hosting a team must be fairly large and, given the cost of tickets these days, at least moderately wealthy. And, critically, there can’t be too much competition from other forms of entertainment.

You can expect the jock lovers promoting new teams to haul out one starkly fallacious argument: that San Diego is the 8th-largest city in the United States. True. San Diego is the 8th-largest city, with a population of 1.4 million. The size of the city is meaningless. The size of the market is more important. San Diego County is the 17th-largest market with a population of 3.3 million.

San Diego may be the 8th largest city in the U.S., but the market for hosting a sports team is not impressive.

San Diego may be the 8th largest city in the U.S., but the market for hosting a sports team is not impressive.

With one exception, every one of the 30 most populous metro areas has at least one team in a major pro league (National Football League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and National Hockey League). Even New Orleans (46th largest), Salt Lake City (48th), and Buffalo (50th) have at least one team in a major league. (Buffalo and New Orleans have two.)

But which major market has no big-league pro teams? It’s Riverside–San Bernardino, the 13th-largest market with 4.5 million people. The city of San Bernardino has a pathetic median household income of $37,047 with a stunning poverty rate of 33.4 percent, according to information compiled by Data USA. The county has a median household income of $53,803 and a poverty rate of 19 percent — similar to Riverside County’s median household income of $58,292 and poverty rate of 16.2 percent. All told, that market could not support a major pro team, even though its population is a good deal larger than San Diego’s market.

By comparison, Santa Clara County, the heart of Silicon Valley, has a median household income of $102,340 and a poverty rate of only 8.16 percent. Its metro area is only the nation’s 35th-largest, with a population of just under 2 million. But you can see why the San Francisco 49ers play their games there: Silicon Valley is rolling in money. (However, Santa Clara County is only the 10th-richest county in the U.S., according to Forbes. “More wealth seems to reside in counties with a high concentration of government and government-subsidized industries,” says the magazine. Hmmm...)

San Diego County has a median household income of $67,320 and a poverty rate of 13.8 percent. Income is moderately above the national level, but the cost of living is consistently 30 to 40 percent higher than the national rate; ergo, a debilitating squeeze. The major problems are high housing, water, and electricity prices. In 2016, San Diego ranked a sorry 122 out of 150 American cities in median salary adjusted for cost of living, according to WalletHub, which puts together statistical data on cities, metro areas, and states. A 2014 study by the Center on Policy Initiatives and the Insight Center for Community Economic Development concluded that 38 percent of the county’s working-age households can’t afford a no-frills lifestyle without public or private assistance.

Not surprisingly, San Diegans have to go into debt to survive the squeeze. WalletHub did a study of credit-card debt among 2564 United States cities. Each is categorized in a percentile, with 99th percentile the worst, or debt that is the least sustainable. San Diego came in a disquieting 72nd percentile in median credit-card balance ($2853), 65th percentile in cost of interest until payoff ($218), and 53rd percentile in expected payoff time (11 months). The mortgage situation is worse: San Diego’s mortgage-debt-to-income ratio is in the 94th percentile. Overall, San Diego’s overleverage score is in the 83rd percentile — not good at all.

Bottom line: San Diego is only economically so-so, at best, among American metro areas.

While San Diego is the 17th-largest metro area, it is only the 28th-largest television market, according to stationindex.com. That makes a difference to most pro teams that might choose San Diego as a home.

Of course, the National Football League does things differently in doling out TV revenue. It’s split evenly among all teams, in large and small, rich or poor markets. In 2016, the National Football League split $7.8 billion in TV revenue evenly among its 32 teams. That came to $244 million per team, according to Bloomberg.

But will the league’s fat TV revenue last? This year’s Super Bowl television audience was down 7 percent from last year. Last year, the viewership of Sunday Night Football, Monday Night Football, and Thursday Night Football dropped 9 percent collectively. Monday Night Football had its lowest audience ever. This probably diminishes the chance of San Diego getting another pro football team anytime soon.

Major League Baseball is going swimmingly. According to Forbes, the average value of a team rose 19 percent from 2016 to 2017. The Padres were worth $1.1 billion beginning last season. That was 21st of 30 teams. The local team slashed its payroll last season and had a dismal 71–91 record, but home attendance averaged 26,401, and that was 18th of the 30 teams. TV ratings were 19th. The not-so-good news: WalletHub lists San Diego as among municipalities with the “least engaged Major League Baseball fans.” Still, considering everything, the Padres are doing better economically than might be expected — but these numbers probably won’t make the market enticing to investors in a pro football, basketball, hockey, or soccer team.

Why? Well, it’s that third factor I mentioned in the third paragraph — competition. According to WalletHub, San Diego is the nation’s 4th-best city for the active lifestyle. Cities were rated on their relative number of sporting-goods stores, basketball hoops, baseball and softball diamonds, swimming pools, public golf courses, fitness centers, hiking trails, bike-rental locations, and parkland acreage, along with weather and proximity to the ocean. Many of these activities cost little or nothing — most cost far less than a ticket to a sporting event. San Diego is known for its golf courses — and a round of golf costs much less now than it did a few years ago because of overbuilding in the 1990s.

The very thing that makes San Diego so enticing — the perfect weather — is a negative for pro sports teams.

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Mike Murphy: Contrivances abound in pro sports -- outright manipulation of fandom -- but are San Diegans catching on to the ruses faster than those in other metro areas? It's an arguable point. Best, Don Bauder

The NFL is not coming back here any time soon. Anyone who thinks they are coming back is delusional. I could see a new arena built here, but I think it would be downtown. But only if it is built privately.

Regarding Riverside/San Bernardino; they have problems supporting minor league sports, with the exception of hockey in Ontario.

I would say that minor league baseball does pretty well also. I there are still 3 High A California League teams there.

danfogel: As you know, the column was about the economics of supporting a major pro sports team. However, you make a good point. Many people -- not just in the Riverside-San Bernardino market -- go to minor league games. It's cheaper; the crowds are smaller; the parking is not a problem; children enjoy such games because of these factors. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder, as you know, I was replying directly to aardvark and his reflection on support for minor league sports teams in Riverside/San Bernardino.

danfogel: Can't I slip a word in? Best, Don Bauder

don bauder Just an fyi. There are only 4 minor league teams in southern californis, all in the same league. The 4th is in Lancaster. None of them have averaged even 3000 in attendance in years, si I don't imagine many people are coming from out of market, especially to Lancaster. And when there was still a team in Adelanto, they only averaged a little over 1000, so apparently not many people were driving up there to watch baseball. I think most of the people who attend California league games on a regular basis are indeed locals.

Then there used to be 5 teams in So Cal. When was the last big housing bubble? 2008? Up until 2009, Rancho Cucamonga was still regularly averaging 4,000 and higher per game. By 2010, the bubble burst. The only team to average even 3,000 per game recently was Lake Elsinore, and that was 2015. And the Mavericks, when they started , were setting league records for attendance. The teams remaining are indeed surviving on local support, along with the occasional rehab appearance by a player from the Dodgers or Angels. The only exception to that might be Lake Elsinore, as I know they market to north SD County, but even they have down-sized their stadium a bit. Ironically, I go see more Storm games each year than I do Padres games.

Yes, at one time the California league had 2 5 team divisions. In 2016 Major and Minor League Baseball decided to fold 2 California league teams and add 2 new Carolina League A teams. Bakersfield was the north team. They were the Dodgers high A affiliate, a couple different times, for close to 20 years. Look, I agree that the recession hurt consumer spending in most areas. But minor league baseball, at least in the California League, relying on local support almost entirely, seems to be doing just fine, in both the north and the south, If you look at attendance figures for the league, in most cases attendance is back to per 2009 levels, if not higher. In the north, all 4 of the teams are experiencing higher attendance now than before the recession.Take lowly Visalia, for example. Pre-recession, for 20 years they had averaged between 60k and 80k per season. Since 2009, they have been over 100k every year. Attendance in the south is only slightly less. From 2003-2008, the Lancaster team never topped 150k and was mainly in the 120k range. But from 2009 thru last season, there were over 150k in all but one season and that year it was 147k. The exception in the south would be Cucamonga. They are an outlier, being nowhere close to pre-recession attendance levels. But even that is misleading because in their first 5 years, from 1993-1997, they average over 400k. The last 7 or 8 years have simply been a continuation of a downward trend that began in 1998 and has been pretty consistant since then. The Mavs may have set those attendance records in 91 and 92, but even so, they barely drew 200k in those years, the only times they drew that many. In the mid 90's they started on a downward trend. As I referred to above, from 93-97, Cucamonga averaged 400k, so I guess records are a relative thing.The league has been playing continuously since the late forties and pretty much all of the California league teams around in the 90's had better attendance back then than they do know. So I wonder what that says.

It goes without saying,

Just my opinion.

Opinions vary.

Good points all. And Visalia benefitted from a partial remodel of their ballpark. They would have redone the whole place, but the city ran out of money. And it is still a great little ballpark. All in all, the Cal League is pretty stable at this point, with great facilities for just about all of the current teams.

aardvark: "The city ran out of money." Sounds like minor league baseball depends on government subsidies, just as Major League Baseball does. I find it disgusting, repugnant. That's why I have been writing about it for more two decades.

One of several good books on the topic is "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick You with the Bill)." Johnston has also written two excellent books on Donald Trump. Best, Don Bauder

Don: I will give Visalia a bit of credit, in the fact that they had planned to rebuild the entire ballpark, but they only did part of it. The money ran out, and they stopped. They could have tried to finish the remodel, and could have ended up like Stockton. Lake Elsinore was another city that almost went bankrupt when they built their ballpark. 25 years ago, they built their ballpark, which at the time of completion, had almost tripled in price.

Yes, I enjoy minor league baseball, but I know it came at great cost to the local municipalities.

Fun fact--Ownership of the Visalia franchise is headed by Tom Seidler and Kevin O'Malley. Those two are also part of the ownership group of the Padres.

aardvark, danfogel: You folks have given us a valuable education on minor league baseball in California. Best, Don Bauder

danfogel: This is good information. You are a veritable encyclopedia.

Incidentally, if you want to read an entertaining and informative book on minor league baseball in California, read "TheOnly Rule Is It Has to Work," by Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller (Henry Holt). One of my sons gave it to me and I enjoyed it. Best, Don Bauder

danfogel: That makes sense. Best, Don Bauder

There used to be four. High Desert folded a few years ago.

aardvark: I can't argue with you on that point because I don't know. Best, Don Bauder

The Mavs were around for a long time. Bochy had his first managerial gig for the Padres organization with them. I think we might have gone to see them play when they were in Riverside and I think Bochy might have been with them for a year or two after they moved up to the desert.

High Desert basically got the ball rolling on most of the Cal League teams getting new or vastly refurbished ballparks. But offense in that park in Adelanto was even more of a joke than Coors Field--witnessed by the game in 2009 where Lake Elsinore beat High Desert by the score of 33-18. Batting practice was always entertaining, while watching balls end up in the desert beyond the parking lot in LF.

aardvark: More titillating than watching balls land in the ocean in San Francisco's major league park? Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: Did the government subsidy, then, succeed? If so, baseball should be revived, so government will lavish more subsidies on teams. The outfields should come in substantially so home runs abound. Scores will zoom, so will attendance, and politicians will pat themselves on the back for putting the public's money where it belongs -- pro sports -- rather than on silly things like infrastructure and public safety. Best, Don Bauder

Don: The cities would argue that it did. Then again, there hasn't been a new ballpark in the California League built in over 10 years. And yes, I do know where you were going with that post. And some cities in the Cal League came out better than others in their race to keep their minor league teams. Stockton was probably the biggest loser of them all, as they not only built a new ballpark, they built a new arena right next door, then not too many years later the city filed for bankruptcy protection.

Regarding High Desert--the main reason for the high scores there was the wind that blows through the Cajon Pass every afternoon in the spring and summer.

aardvark: I didn't know that the minor league baseball subsidies played a role in the Stockton bankruptcy. Obviously, it didn't sober up anybody in the Spanos family -- Stockton natives. Best, Don Bauder

danfogel: Bochy was a hero in San Francisco until last season. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: The staggering statistic is that the city of San Diego is 122nd out of 150 U.S. cities in median salary adjusted for cost of living. That number comes from WalletHub, which also gives reliable numbers on how debt (credit card and mortgage) is so high related to family income. The group wanting to put a pro soccer team in San Diego should study those numbers. This is both a city and metro area whose income/cost of living squeeze is debilitating.

San Diego attracting another NFL football team, adding a NHL and NBA team -- forget it. Best, Don Bauder

Don: FSI doesn't give a damn about soccer. But they do like that plot of land in Mission Valley.

aardvark: I agree this is another attempt at a land grab, a la John Moores and the ballpark district. But to get that land, the syndicate has to have a team in major league soccer to win the San Diego vote. Best, Don Bauder

Don: They could win the vote, but still not have a team. It will be interesting to see what happens if they win the vote if they aren't awarded a team, as they claim the land reverts back to the city if they don't get a team (assuming the SDSU West initiative doesn't pass). Also, if they don't get a team and both initiatives pass, does FSI just walk away like they said they would, and would the land then revert to SDSU West?

While I'm not all that fired up about either proposal, If the SDSU proposal wins out and the state pays something like a fair price for the site, then we can be assured that it will be developed and used approximately like they promise. Yes, SDSU is now landlocked and cannot grow without more land area. As to whether SDSU should grow is another story--and I'd rather see it stay about its present size indefinitely. But I also don't see tearing down the existing stadium ASAP, not until the need for such a venue is better known. It can just stay there and be used much as it has been used in recent years--minus the Chargers, of course. In good time it could be demolished or perhaps remodeled into something more appropriate to the site and the need for a stadium.

Whoever wins the vote--assuming someone does--the current stadium will stand just long enough to build a replacement facility, then it will come down. Quickly.

aardvark: If SDSU wins, I don't think it will tear down the stadium right away. It will wait a few years. Best, Don Bauder

Don: It will be torn down the moment SDSU has a new place to play football.

aardvark: I am told otherwise. But that came from an SDSU official, and it was some time ago. Best, Don Bauder

Don: I would think you were told that before the SDSU West plan came out.

aardvark: No, right after it came out. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Which makes no sense. SDSU doesn't want the old stadium, Soccer City doesn't want the old stadium, and the city certainly doesn't want to keep that old stadium. Neither current proposal involves keeping the stadium standing beyond the point a new stadium can be constructed.

aardvark: As I have written many times, that stadium is NOT old. By standards of current university stadiums, San Diego's stadium is relatively young. Universities like Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Michigan, etc. have much older stadiums. Wisconsin's is 100 years old. Mississippi's and Mississippi State's are more than a century old. See my columns on this. Best, Don Bauder

Visduh: If SDSU wins (and I hope it does), it will want the stadium for its football team. The school wants to rip down the stadium and build a smaller one. I think that is insanity. They should continue playing in the stadium as it is now, perhaps paying for a facelift. If the alumni scream too loudly, they could cut the stadium down to a smaller facility. Best, Don Bauder

Visduh: I am opposed to tearing down the stadium quickly. If SDSU wins, it can use it for football and other events. If the soccer folks win, they can use it for soccer, at least until there some idea if the development will be successful. The stadium may need some repairs, but not a teardown. Best, Don Bauder

aardvark: You have thrown out a lot of variables. I don't know every possibility and I don't think San Diego voters do. Best, Don Bauder

Don: Those variables should be discussed before the November election.

aardvark: Sorting out this mess is why we have lawyers (who in the end walk away with a good part of the money.) Best, Don Bauder

don bauder What about Miami. Weather as good as San Diego. And while housing is more expensive in San Diego is much higher, the other factors considered are about equal and bother are well above national average. Yet Miami has NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL teams, an NASL team and and MSL team that will begin play in 2 years.

danfogel: I think the Miami weather is hideous, but to each his own. Electricity is cheaper in Miami than in San Diego, where it is the most expensive in the U.S. I don't know about water. According to Zillow, the median home value in the Miami metro is $262,000, less than half San Diego's $565,000. I'm not surprised that Miami metro has more major league teams. Best, Don Bauder

don bauder I do feel that I should point out that in Miami, both the household income and the family median income are half of that of San Diego and less than the national average and the per capita income is only 2/3 of what it is in San Diego, again below the national average.And while electricity is more in San Diego, the overage cost of utilities in Miami are only slightly lower than. My point is that median home value is a relative term. BTW, I am curious as to why you are not surprised that Miami has more major league teams. Surely it can't be solely because the Miami metro is twice the population of San Diego's.

danfogel: The government-designated metro area of Miami is 8th largest in the U.S. with a population of 6 million, almost double that of San Diego County, which is San Diego's metro area. Immediately adjacent to San Diego are Orange County, Mexico, and the ocean. These could be reasons Miami has more teams. Best, Don Bauder

Could it be that the diverse population of Miami simply likes professional sports a whole lot more than San Diego residents?

dwbat: That could be; the question is why. I have one thought: Miami is no place for baseball unless it is played in an air-conditioned stadium. However, San Diego is fine for baseball. Best, Don Bauder

Thomas Coyne: Good point. I have mentioned before that one reason scamsters settle in San Diego is that so many residents behave like tourists. Ergo, they are suckers. Best, Don Bauder

As someone said, San Diego is Chicago with great weather and fun beaches. Both equally corrupt.

dwbat: And who knows better than journalists like me -- and there are many others -- who have lived in both places. Best, Don Bauder

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