Beyond the Big 4: How San Diego Redefines the Sports Market
In January 2017, this theory loomed large in San Diego when the NFL’s Chargers moved to Los Angeles, leaving the MLB’s Padres as San Diego’s only top-tier professional franchise. At the time, many predicted it would be the ruin of San Diego as a sports market. The reality has been quite the opposite.
San Diego’s sports identity has always been rooted in its rich history as hotbed for trendsetting, culture-shaping action sports, hometown to world-class athletes and ideal location for premier events. With these assets now fueled by a dramatic shift in sports consumption habits, San Diego is now the epicenter of a new sports landscape – one where performance on TikTok often outranks attendance at the turnstiles, and sports and culture are intertwined like never before.
At the root of this transformation is the ability for a broader range of sports, events and athletes – and women’s sports in particular – to connect directly with diverse, and often younger, audiences via digital content, social and non-traditional media, and streaming platforms. Today, 40% of global sports fans opt to stream live sports events through digital platforms. The proliferation of non-traditional media channels has fueled a significant rise in the number of platforms available for sports content and ability of viewers and audiences to access their favorite sports, events and athletes.
San Diego is uniquely positioned to take advantage of this changing landscape. It was telling that when the Padres recently unveiled their City Connect uniforms for the first time on July 8 – designed to reflect the history and culture of the region – the preview video featured hometown hero and skateboarding legend Tony Hawk and the first pitch was thrown out by local surfing icon Rob Machado. Hawk and Machado are as much a part of the city’s “Mt. Rushmore” of sports legends as Tony Gwynn and Junior Seau.
Today, the celebration of sporting diversity in San Diego thrives through its teams, events and athletes. USWNT phenom Alex Morgan and the NWSL San Diego Wave play before sellout crowds, as do the USL’s San Diego Loyal under USMNT legend Landon Donovan’s leadership. San Diego is also home to the San Diego Sockers (Major Indoor Soccer League), San Diego Seals (National Lacrosse League), San Diego Legion (Major League Rugby), San Diego Strike Force (Indoor Football League) and the San Diego Growlers (American Ultimate Disc League).
The fall 2022 opening of the 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium on the site of the former stadium that housed the Chargers will provide a compelling new venue, not just for San Diego State University football, but also the San Diego Wave and other big major events.
For markets like San Diego, attracting big events is where the real economic development opportunities reside. With the support of the San Diego Tourism Authority and Tourism Marketing District, Sports San Diego launched in January 2022 to serve as the primary organization responsible for marketing San Diego as a sports destination. In the coming months the region will be host to myriad events, including Gonzaga facing Michigan State in men’s basketball on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in San Diego Bay and the 2023 World Lacrosse Men’s World Championship at Snapdragon Stadium, which will feature 30 of the top men’s teams as the sport vies for inclusion in the 2028 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
The years leading up to the L.A. Olympic Games will only accelerate the growth of sports opportunities emanating out of San Diego. Many of the athletes and personalities that will dominate headlines in those sports will come from San Diego. Those athletes are already honing their skills at local parks and beaches and building their followers and influence on social media.
Who will be the next Hawk, White or Machado? Or, better yet, who will be the next Hawk, White or Machado even further magnified by today’s digital and social platforms? For brands, this exciting landscape where sports, culture and diversity intersect creates considerable sports marketing opportunities with more focused audience ROI at a much more reasonable cost of entry than a Big 4 sponsorship. Companies like Encinitas, California-based Nixon, and San Diego-based 100percent are great examples of companies that have tapped the cultural ethos of action sports to authentically build their brands through athlete ambassador-driven marketing programs.
As digital platforms continue to connect athletes, sports and events with fans in new and expansive ways, opportunities for brands to rethink sports as a cost-effective element of their marketing mix will only increase.
So don’t tell San Diego the day after the All-Star Game is a “dead day.” As the Big 4 take a breather, the San Diego region continues to establish itself as a new kind of sports market more reflective of today’s diverse sports landscape, providing greater opportunities for events and brands to connect with sports and culture in ways that resonate with fans and audiences.
Brian is General Manager, Southern California Growth & Operations for Allison+Partners. Brian has more than 25 years of experience in the San Diego market building and protecting brands across a range of industries. He has supported sports marketing and activation programs for clients including AT&T and Home Depot and helped lead the communications and public outreach campaign for the opening of PETCO Park. Also an avid runner, he has completed 20 marathons and can often be found exploring the region’s paths and trails.Category: Consumer Brands