Snapdragon Stadium is nestled in the east end of San Diego’s Mission Valley, surrounded by tree-lined bluffs, two freeways and a shopping center. It’s a handsome replacement for Qualcomm Stadium, the aging 70,000-seat mausoleum to the city’s sporting past that slowly disintegrated through neglect before being razed two years ago.
The NFL left before Qualcomm did, and one of the new stadium’s main tenants is a first-year women’s soccer team, the San Diego Wave, which says a lot about the changing sports landscape in San Diego.
It also says a lot that the Wave were welcomed to their new home on a picture-perfect Saturday evening with fireworks, a Navy parachute team, a military flyover and a sellout crowd announced at 32,000, a National Women’s Soccer League record and the second-largest crowd for a women’s club game in U.S. history.
“To see San Diego embracing us so quickly in the way that they did, it was just a great moment,” Wave forward Alex Morgan said. “I love breaking records. It’s really a fun time to be a soccer player.”
Morgan and her teammates took care of the housewarming gift themselves, with a first-half goal from teenager Jaedyn Shaw and a spectacular second-half save from goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan lifting them to a 1-0 win over Angel City, their fellow expansion-team rival from Los Angeles.
But this night was about more than one result.
“It’s just kind of a sign or where we are and where we’re headed,” said Jill Ellis, who coached the U.S. women’s national team to back-to-back World Cup titles before becoming the Wave’s president. “We wanted to break the record. We wanted to make history. That’s part of our intention with this club.
“So don’t tell me there’s not an appetite for women’s soccer.”
It might be a regional appetite though. Although the Wave set the single-game attendance record and Angel City is drawing 18,755 fans per game, the second-highest average in league history, four other NWSL teams — a third of the league — are drawing fewer than 5,000 per match. If a rising tide can lift all boats, as Ellis likes to say, a heavy anchor can also sink them.
That’s a problem the top-heavy NWSL must solve.
“Finding ways to connect the dots where teams might need support, that is certainly an area that, from a league perspective, we are focused on building out so that we can really raise the bar and ensure that all of our teams are positioned for success,” NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said.
“I think we’ve definitely reached an inflection point,” she added. “The league has created sustainable growth and sustainable metrics. It’s not a one-time pop in terms of success and connectivity with their communities.”
Eleven months ago, the NWSL was on the brink of folding. Allegations of sexual harassment, inappropriate conduct and homophobic comments had forced the resignation or removal of former commissioner Lisa Baird, general counsel Lisa Levine and, eventually, five of the league’s 10 coaches.
Today, the 10-year-old league is stronger than ever. Angel City, fewer than 20 games into its first season, is already worth more than $100 million, according to the sports business website Sportico, making it the most valuable team in NWSL history. And its rivalry with San Diego — on the field, in the stands and in the front offices — bodes well for the future.
“To think that there wasn’t a team in California before this year is just crazy because seeing the fan bases, it’s incredible,” Morgan said. “And this rivalry is just going to keep heating up.”
Julie Uhrman, Angel City’s president and co-founder, agrees.
“It’s going to be one of the best rivalries in sports when we look back on this in the next five to 10 years,” she said. “These are two clubs that are breaking the rules as we go. Seeing the results in attendance, viewership, merchandise sales, ticket sales, it just proves you invest in the community, you invest in your brand, you invest in your club, you’re going to see results.”
Speaking of results, with Saturday’s win the Wave (10-6-4) jumped to the top of the NWSL standings and moved a big step closer to becoming the first expansion team to qualify for the league’s playoffs. Angel City (7-7-5), one place and four points below the playoff line with three games left, has a painfully thin margin of error if it hopes to be the second.
Shaw, 17, playing for the first time at home, gave San Diego the only goal it would need in the 30th minute, going high in the center of the box to head home a cross from Sofia Jakobsson from the right wing. Shaw has scored in each of her three NWSL appearances. Sheridan made the goal stand up by guessing correctly on Savannah McCaskill’s penalty try in the 74th minute, diving low and to her right to smother the shot and preserve her seventh clean sheet of the season.
For Ellis, the true test is still to come because one big crowd isn’t necessarily a movement. It could be a mirage.
“The more people that can come and watch us and have a great experience, they’re going to want to come back,” she said. “That’s ultimately what we’re trying to do, and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.”
Angel City defender Megan Reid sees no reason to stop at 32,000.
“I’m expecting to start to see all over the league as the norm. These are exciting matches that people want to come to, and they’re so much fun,” she said. “In five years, you’ll be asking me about 60,000.”