SAN DIEGO — At a packed sports bar in the North Park neighborhood, cheers erupted among the fans gathered for an Aug. 27 watch party as Alex Morgan’s goal effectively sealed another win for the San Diego Wave.
There was a buzz in the air among the crowd — not just about beating the Portland Thorns on the road, but also about knowing that the Wave would soon set the attendance record for a National Women’s Soccer League game.
Just a few days before that 2-0 win over Portland, the Wave had announced that Saturday’s game against Angel City FC at the newly opened Snapdragon Stadium had sold 32,000 tickets — which will easily surpass the NWSL’s single-game attendance record of 25,218 set by the Thorns in 2019.
“I’m really stoked because I don’t know if San Diego has the best rep as a sports town,” said Googie Daniels, president of the Sirens, the Waves’ first supporters’ group. “It elevates everyone and I think it’s going to be great for the league and for women’s sports in general.”
In their first season, the bar has been set exceptionally high by the Wave. On the field, they are coached by former Manchester United manager Casey Stoney (a Coach of the Year candidate) and are genuine NWSL Shield contenders for the best regular season side. The team’s first signing was USWNT stalwart and 2019 World Cup winner Abby Dahlkemper, while center-back Naomi Girma could win Rookie of the Year honors and earn a spot with the U.S. squad at the 2023 World Cup.
Not to mention league MVP favorite Morgan. The two-time World Cup winner and Olympic gold medalist leads the NWSL with 15 goals and is nearing Sam Kerr’s league record of 18.
Wave supporters have responded in the stands. Much like the team itself, the Sirens went from a concept in 2021 to full-fledged project in a matter of months. And while the Wave have swiftly picked up important victories and points on the field, the Sirens have picked up new members that are won over by their costumes, songs, banners, and yes, bubble machines.
“It’s inspiring,” Daniels said. “We show up to have a good time and people feed off that.”
The Wave have so far played all their home games at 6,000-seat Torero Stadium on the campus of the University of San Diego. They now move just east to the expansive 32,000-seat stadium owned by San Diego State that opened earlier this month.
The Sirens, and of course the players themselves, have helped turn San Diego’s NWSL matches into an entertaining spectacle.
“It’s so exciting, we see families, we see people that might not even really watch soccer,” said a Sirens member, who goes by McB.
“They’ve been to one [game] and that lights that fire,” McB said. “That’s all it takes.”
‘Forget about Bad Bunny’
Jill Ellis, the former U.S. women’s national team coach and current club president for the Wave, remembers a meeting about the new stadium that set a lofty goal.
“‘Let’s sell it out,'” the two-time World Cup-winning coach recalled telling Wave staff. “You look around the room and people start nodding, start believing.”
When the club confirmed that Snapdragon Stadium would become their permanent home despite being five times bigger than the previous venue, Ellis placed the bar high.
“I think sometimes when you put things out there, people then, one, feel that there is a destination, and two, everybody gets on board to help you get there.”
San Diego players Alex Morgan, Naomi Girma and Kailen Sheridan take a tour of Snapdragon Stadium. San Diego Wave/Ryan Young
Around the front office for the club, sticky notes and messages hyping up a possible sellout became a theme, making their way onto emails and on the shared fridge. A culture of making staff believe that a sellout could happen took shape.
For a club that didn’t have a name or crest 11 months ago, this was all done at lightning speed.
As Ellis told ESPN in a May interview: “We were on a very tight timeline to launch this team. It was shorter probably than any pro franchise has ever gotten off the ground.”
Even Bad Bunny wasn’t going to stop them. On the same night that Wave will be playing Angel City, the global pop icon will be headlining a concert at nearby Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.
Ellis’ response after realizing Bad Bunny could steal some of their thunder: “Forget it, we can do this.”
Nonetheless, morale was high with ticket numbers increasing, with the sellout announced on Sept. 1.
“If I could, I would do a cartwheel,” Ellis recalled telling team owner Ron Burkle about the sellout.
She also told staff that as exciting as it was to be able to break the attendance mark in less than a year of existence, it would be the expectation going forward.
“We want to see this become normalized,” Ellis said. “In terms of big crowds for women’s professional sports.
“This is a chance to become the headline, and not out of an arrogant way or greedy way, but to become a headline to tell people that this is possible.”
‘San Diego is a soccer city’
Friday’s match will actually break two pertinent records — the standalone mark from 2019 and the 27,248 in attendance for a NWSL-MLS doubleheader on Aug. 29, 2021, that saw the Seattle Sounders and OL Reign host respective rivals Portland Timbers and Thorns at Lumen Field.
“Based on all of our projections, we were thinking that we were going to sell out about a week prior,” said vice president of marketing Laura Stein. “We hit it three weeks prior.”
How were they able to move so quickly? Urgency has become a part of the team’s identity. According to Stein, the club promptly made a point by mid-February to visit local soccer clubs one to two times per week.
“We bring our team president, or GM, or our coach or our players out to sit and have a Q&A and engage with youth soccer players,” Stein said.
The team has made a concentrated effort to reach out to the greater soccer community in San Diego. Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports
A competition to help sell tickets, called the “Battle of the Clubs,” was also created with a chance for the top performing local club to win a training session with Wave coaches and a trophy to be given by Ellis on the field at Saturday’s game.
Along with traditional online advertisements and billboards across the city, outreach to local establishments became a vital effort, leading at one point to heading to 300 sites in San Diego county within four weeks. Bars, restaurants, community organizations, gyms and other locations have been visited by the club, with stickers, posters and face-to-face conversations in support.
“We don’t do phone calls, we go boots on the ground,” said Jeanene Valentine, the Wave’s senior director of ticket sales. “The community really opened their arms and embraced us.”
What made San Diego different for Valentine was the idea of diving into a community that already had an underlying and rich soccer community. The Wave didn’t have to build soccer fans or die-hard supporters, it simply had to find a proper way to tap into it. The city is home to USL’s San Diego Loyal (managed by USMNT great Landon Donovan, who is also a co-owner), NISA’s Albion San Diego and indoor side San Diego Sockers. Many locals also drive the short distance across the U.S.-Mexico border to cheer for Liga MX’s Club Tijuana. And the city has been linked with a potential MLS franchise down the road.
As Valentine put it: “I knew the moment that we let the community know what we were trying to achieve, that they would come to our aid and be a part of history. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Back at the watch party, supporters seem just as optimistic as those in the front office. Jerry Jimenez, who serves as the supporter liaison for the Wave, wasn’t surprised that San Diego had sold enough tickets to break the attendance record.
“It has been our mindset since the beginning,” Jimenez said. “We’re going to be breaking records from here on out.
“San Diego is showing up and showing that we are a soccer city.”