The San Diego Wave are currently at the top of the NWSL table, and they’ve just racked up another W: a sellout at their first home game at Snapdragon Stadium on Saturday, September 17.
The 32,000-capacity venue on the campus of San Diego State University is intended to be the Wave’s permanent home now that it’s open to the public; until now the team has been playing at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium, which seats 6,000. The sellout debut will set a new NWSL record for single game attendance, beating OL Reign’s 2021 double-header with the Sounders at Lumen Field, which drew 27,248. 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 being bold and setting a goal,” she said, rewinding to the team’s earlier staff meetings, which were called “the path to sellout.”
“I think when we we saw the home and saw the stadium,” said Ellis, “Some people kind of raised their eyebrows and said, you know, ‘you’re going to sell that thing out?’”
The first step was to build an internal belief and confidence in their sales strategy. They put the goal out there in public too, sort of a way to hold themselves accountable and add a little pressure to make good on the hype. And it kept their organization’s eye on the prize: fill the stadium. “We put it out there and so now we wanted to deliver,” said Ellis.
There were some logistical hurdles that a more established sports organization might not have seen as hurdles at all. Chief among them was a short lead time: the Wave were announced as an expansion team in June of 2021 and officially launched in December of that year with their crest and colors. Even a few more months of lead time would have helped. But as a result, they hit the ground running by necessity.
“We had to execute as we go, I mean hire people along the way,” said Ellis.
Among the hires: Jeanene Valentine, the Wave’s senior director of ticket sales and premium. The Wave wanted her expertise because she’d already helped with ticket sales at multiple teams trying to launch their inaugural seasons, from her role as a senior ticket operations manager at Sacramento Republic FC to director in ticket operations at Minnesota United FC and Inter Miami.
They deployed all the usual sales strategies: ads on buses and billboards, TV hits, rallying supporters to spread the word, putting superstar Alex Morgan out there to do media pushes. And they got a little creative too, as you have to be when you’re the new kid in town.
“When you’re a brand new team, you can’t lean on tradition and history,” said Ellis. “We haven’t had the benefit of two years in the hopper so it was really a mountain.”
They went after the youth soccer market, but with a twist, calling it the “Battle of the Clubs” and announcing the local club that sold the most tickets would win a trophy and an exclusive training session with the Wave’s coaching staff at their training fields. Ellis dined at her home with an officer from nearby Camp Pendleton, which encompasses over 70,000 military and civilian personnel and is the largest employer in North San Diego County. That concept, Ellis said, was the best bang for the buck in terms of moving tickets
“Ultimately, I think the connection and the understanding of what we’re trying to do and having people out there believing it also, I think that was a big piece of it,” she said.
Ellis said they absolutely have the product on the pitch, and results make it hard to argue, as do exciting talent from Morgan to emerging stars-slash-fan-favorites like Naomi Girma and Amirah Ali. But Ellis cautioned that the Wave need to cement their place in fans’ minds off of the pitch too. They might not remember the exact formation and who got what touches on the ball where, but they will remember that they went to a game and had a blast, and will want to go again.
“I went to SoFi (Stadium) to a Chargers game I was invited to,” said Ellis, “And I was like wow, it was just – it’s just a feeling right? It’s not just about the team on the pitch. It’s also the feeling you have of going to an event and I think, a lot of fans, it is experiential.”
The Wave won’t have a ton of opportunities to sell their experience this season. Due to the timing of the stadium’s availability, they’ll have just two regular home games in 2022 to try and capture fans, the September 17 game against Angel City (smartly hyped as a California rivalry), and their last game of the regular season on September 30 against the North Carolina Courage. They might get to host a playoff game – they look poised to get a bye to the semifinals – but Ellis half-jokingly waved off congratulations on their position on the table with a reminder that the points are incredibly tight (31 for the Wave at no. 1, 29 for the Dash and Current at 2 and 3 respectively). So perhaps talking about sales for a playoff game feels like too much of a jinx to put on the record just yet, whether or not they’re planning them internally.
Ellis isn’t deterred by just having two regular home games at Snapdragon; she thinks even two games is enough to get the ball rolling with that experiential vibe if they’re fun enough. “I think about my own experiences,” she said. “If I go to Broadway and have a good time, I’m going to want to go back. I love Broadway. I love going to shows, I love going to live shows.”
The Wave are also well aware of the recent difficulties at Snapdragon’s opening when the San Diego University Aztecs played in 100-degree heat. The stadium’s lack of shade in the stands led to fans seeking it elsewhere, with roughly 200 medical requests during the game, the “overwhelming majority” of which were related to the heat, and 10 to 20 people taken to the hospital, per local news. A Wave spokesperson said that while the Wave are targeting nighttime games which avoid the most intense heat during the day – the September 17 game is scheduled for 7 PM local time – they also “are working with stadium staff on providing cooling options if needed.”
Because all of this is for naught if the fans don’t come back.
“Yes, it’s announcing our new home, it’s announcing we’re here, but it’s also how do we now convert, and how do we sustain that,” said Ellis. “A lot of these efforts will be about next year. It’s how do we how do we keep these fans engaged? How do we convert to season ticket holders and build excitement and momentum for next year?”
Those are questions every team is trying to answer, with varying degrees of success. Ellis said that there’s been communication between several of the expansion teams, including a congratulatory call from Angel City president Julie Uhrman for the sellout. But more than that they also share some strategies – the Kansas City Current’s Chris and Angie Long have namechecked Angel City co-founder Kara Nortman – because it only helps the other teams when one of them does well and helps raise the profile of the league. Ellis joked that she, Long, and Uhrman probably have each other on speed dial.
This kind of collaboration is happening amidst a growing ambition among NWSL teams. The Current’s new training facility and the club’s own recent big crowd of 10,395 at Children’s Mercy Park, Angel City’s own sellout debut at the Banc of California Stadium and over 15,000 season tickets sold, and now the Wave’s home sellout – this is becoming the new standard for what teams expect of themselves. Ellis said that the Wave have also invested $1.6M into two fields out at their current training grounds at Surf Sports Park. It’s a shift from the earlier years of NWSL, when teams cut costs wherever they could and multiple teams had average attendances in the low thousands. It feels like a sea change in progress.
Ellis agreed. “We should expect and ask and demand for larger TV deals. We should expect and ask for and demand,” she said. “This is a conversation Julie and I had. They were selling front of kit deals and they hadn’t kicked the ball…. Neither group wanted to come into the league and sort of arrive slowly and build over time. We wanted to come in and hit the ground running and I think both have done that.”
There’s a lot of expectation in particular on the two California expansion teams; after all, they’re supposed to help capture more of that sweet west coast market, which helps make the league more attractive to national broadcasters too, after years of only having a presence in the pacific northwest. It was a powerful presence to be sure with the Thorns sometimes singlehandedly dragging up the league’s average attendance, but now there’s a whisper of a new era, with new heavy hitters and new goals. These are the teams that no longer have to play it so safe, who aren’t weighed down with the fear of previous failures. They’re strengthening the league, making it more attractive to future expansion team bidders, and boosting team valuations.
“I feel incredibly indebted to the people that have been in this for the long haul,” said Ellis, talking about the change from the years of penny-pinching to clubs splashing out larger sums on marquee events and training fields and stadiums. “They got in on the ground level, and they’ve kept this thing going and probably lost a ton of money. I have a great appreciation for what they’ve done. And I think it only seems right now that their persistence and determination has gotten to a point now where I think the league will become economically viable.”
(Photo: Orlando Ramirez / USA TODAY Sports)