The San Diego Wave are currently at the top of the NWSL table, and they set up yet another W: their first home game on Saturday, September 17th at Snapdragon Stadium.
The 32,000-capacity venue on the campus of San Diego State University is now open to the public and is slated to be the Wave’s permanent home; Until now, the team had been playing at the University of San Diego’s 6,000-seat Torero Stadium. The sellout set a new NWSL record for single-game attendance, 27,248 for the OL Reign’s 2021 doubleheader win against the Sounders at Lumen Field. Wave president Jill Ellis told The Athletic that it’s just the beginning of building a long-lasting fan base in San Diego.
“It’s about being bold and setting goals,” she said, referring back to the group’s early staff meetings, “a way to sell.
“I think when we saw the house and saw the stadium,” Ellis said, “some people raised their eyebrows, you know, ‘Are you going to sell this thing?’ they said.
The first step was to build internal trust and confidence in their sales strategy. They set the goal in public, hold themselves accountable and add a little pressure to do well in the ad. And the eyes of their company fill the award stadium. “We put it out there and now we want to deliver,” Ellis said.
There were some logistical hurdles that a more established sports organization would not have seen as obstacles. Chief among them was the short lead time: The Wave was announced as an expansion team in June 2021 and officially launched in December of that year with color and ink. Even a few more months of lead time would help. As a result, they hit the ground running.
“We had to kill as we went along, I mean we had to hire people along the way,” Ellis said.
Among the hires: The Wave’s director of senior ticket sales and premiums, Jeanne Valentine; From her role as Senior Ticket Manager at Sacramento Republic FC to Director of Ticket Operations at Minnesota United FC and Inter Miami, Wave has sought out her expertise as she has helped with ticket sales for many teams trying to launch their season.
They deployed all the usual sales tactics: ads on buses and billboards, TV hits, rallying their fans to spread the word, putting superstar Alex Morgan there to do the media push. And you got a little creative, as you should be when you’re the new kid in town.
“When you’re a new team, you can’t rely on tradition and history,” Ellis said. “It was really a mountain because we didn’t have a benefit in Hopper for two years.”
Although they followed the youth football market, they twisted it by advertising the local club that sold the most tickets as “Battle of the Clubs”, a trophy and special training from the Wave’s coaching staff at their training ground. Ellis dined at her home with an officer at Camp Pendleton, which employs more than 70,000 military and civilian personnel and is the largest employer in northern San Diego County. That concept, Ellis said, was the best bang for the buck in terms of moving tickets
“Ultimately, I think that was a big piece of what we were trying to do, the communication and the understanding and getting people out there to believe in it.
Ellis said the production is completely on the field and the results make it hard to argue, from Morgan’s exciting talent to rising stars – fan-favorites like Naomie Grace and Amirah Ali. But Ellis warned that off the field he must strengthen his place in the minds of fans. They may not remember the exact lineup and who touched the ball where, but they will remember going to a game and having a blast and wanting to go again.
“I went to Sophie (Stadium) at a Chargers game, and I was like, wow, it was just — it’s just a feeling,” Ellis said. It’s not just about the team on the field. It’s also the feeling of going to an event and I think a lot of fans experience it.
The Wave won’t have many opportunities to sell their experience this season. Due to stadium availability, they’ll only have two regular season home games in 2022 to try and get fans going, a Sept. 17 game against Angel City (cleverly promoted as a California rivalry) and their final game of the regular season. on Sept. 30 at North Carolina Courage. They might make the playoffs – they look set to welcome them to the semis – but Ellis half-jokingly notes that the points are incredibly tight, congratulating them on the table (31 for the Wave at no), 1, 29 for the Dash and Current at 2 and 3 respectively). So maybe talking about game sales seems like too much jinx to put on the record, whether you’re planning on it or not.
Ellis won’t be deterred by having two regular home games on the Snapdragon; She thinks even two games are enough to get the ball rolling with experience if they’re fun enough. “I think about my own experience,” she said. “If I go to Broadway and have a good time, I want to go back. I love Broadway. I like to put on shows, I like to go to live shows. “
As the University of San Diego Aztecs play in 100-degree heat, the Waves are well aware of the recent problems with the Snapdragon opener. The lack of shade in the stadium has prompted fans to seek shelter elsewhere, with an estimated 200 medical questions during the game, “most” heat-related, and 10 to 20 people taken to the hospital, according to local news. A Wave spokesperson said that while the Wave is aiming for night games to avoid the extreme heat of the day — the Sept. 17 game is at 7 p.m. local time — they are working with stadium staff to provide cooling options if needed.
Because if the fans don’t come back, it’s all for nothing.
“Yes, it’s announcing our new home, it’s announcing that we’re here, but it’s also about how we can change now, and how we can maintain that,” Ellis said. “Most of the efforts will be around next year. How do we place these fans? How do we convert season ticket holders and build excitement and motivation for next year?
Those are the questions each team tries to answer, with varying degrees of success. Ellis said he communicated between several expansion teams, including a congratulatory call on the sale from Angel City President Julie Urman. But more than that, they share some tactics — Kansas City’s current Chris and Angie Long name-checked Angel City founder Cara Norman — because it only helps other teams when one of them does well and helps raise the league’s profile. Ellis joked that she, Long and Urman could probably find each other on speed dial.
This type of collaboration is emerging amid growing ambitions among NWSL teams. The season’s new training facility and the club’s latest capacity crowd of 10,395 at Children’s Mercy Park, Angel City’s own sold-out Bank of California Stadium and more than 15,000 season tickets sold, and now the Wave’s home sellout – this is becoming the new standard. For what groups expect from themselves. Ellis said Wave has invested $1.6 million in two areas at their current training facility at Surf Sports Park. It’s a change from the early years of the NWSL, when teams cut costs wherever they could and many teams had average attendances in the low thousands. It seems like a sea change is underway.
Ellis agreed. We have to wait and ask and ask for big TV deals. We have to wait and ask and ask,” she said. That’s a conversation Julie and I had. They were selling merchandise up front and not kicking the ball…. Neither team wanted to come into the league slowly and build over time. We wanted to come in and hit the ground running and I think they both did that.
There is much to be expected of the two California expansion teams in particular; After all, they’re supposed to help capture more of that sweet West Coast market that will make the league attractive to national broadcasters after years of being confined to the Pacific Northwest. The Thorns were a strong presence, certain to single-handedly raise the league average at times, but now there are whispers of a new era, new heavy hitters and new goals. These teams no longer have to play so guardedly, never weighed down by fear of defeat. They are strengthening the league, making it more attractive to future expansion team bidders, and increasing team valuations.
“I feel incredibly indebted to the people who have been in this for a long time,” Ellis said, referring to the transformation from penny-pinching years to clubs spending big on marquee events and training grounds and stadiums. “They came in at ground level, and they kept this thing going and probably lost a lot of money. I really appreciate what you have done. And it seems now that persistence and determination have reached the point where I think the league will be economically viable.
(Photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today Sports)