As a native of the IE, knowing what I know about the soccer culture here, I always pondered the thought having a professional team here. Although in the US there is no promotion and relegation between divisions, getting a pro-team to the area is a matter of what happens outside the pitch rather than inside. Such matters as investors, TV deals, sponsorship, media deals, markets etc that are the drivers of making this possibility turn into reality. So lets takes off our cleats and shinguard and put on our business suit and tie to find out which professional league fits in the Inland Empire.
Location Location Location!
Here’s what we know about the Inland Empire; it is the region between LA and the desert, or known as the greater Los Angeles area. Its an hour drive east from LAX (around 60 miles). The term and region itself was used back in the early 1900’s to emphasis the location was “inland” to Los Angeles and “empire” due to the citrus groves that dominated the area. There is no official boundaries line for the IE but the California Travel and Tourism Commission or CTTC has a map of what the region looks like. In terms of population, the Metropolitan Statistical Area population of the Inland Empire (Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA Metropolitan Statistical Area) itself is more than 4.2 million people and is the 13th largest metropolitan area in the United States and most of the people live within these three cities while the rest of the region is more sporadic. According to census bureau’s 2005–2007 estimates 61.8 percent of the population was White (40.4 percent White Non-Hispanic), 7.5 percent Black, 5.7 percent Asian and 25.0 percent of other or mixed race. 43.9 percent were Hispanic. Transitioning to logistics, the metropolitan area of Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario has one passenger airport, the Ontario international airport and several metro link train stations that connect to LA and San Diego. The biggest industry would be warehouse/distribution centers due to being a key position outside the LA metro area, and undoubtedly employs most IE residents. The biggest city (in terms of size and population) would be the city of riverside with roughly a quarter of a million residents and 27 unique neighborhoods. I feel by default that riverside should be the primary market for a future home of a professional soccer team.
Other sports in the IE
The IE is no stranger to lower-tier sports and my idea of getting a professional team to the region was not a secret. The region is home to three single-A baseball teams: the 66ers in San Bernardino, the Quakes in Rancho Cucamonga and the Storm in Lake Elsinore as well as the California Speedway in Fontana to the Toyota arena center in Ontario, home to many minor sports teams including the Ontario fury of the MASL, the Ontario reign of the American hockey league and the Agua Caliente Clippers of the NBA G League. There was one defunct team from single-A baseball in the region which was the High Desert Mavericks who ceased operations in 2017 after being in the region for around 30 years. The city of Adelanto and the owners of the Mavericks settled a lawsuit brought by the owners over the city’s 2016 attempt to void the stadium lease, with the city paying $3.8 million to the team owners, and the venue is now occupied by the NPSL’s High Desert Elite. Each team has had some level of success in their respective sports, however, the level of support or reputation for these teams would be minimal to bumper stickers on cars. Most of the fans of these teams are more casual goers who want to find something to do on the weekend.
Options of leagues and their requirements
In general, we’ll see some encouraging and doubtful realities for an IE professional outdoor team and how those will fit for each league. If we look from the top of the pyramid (if you can call it that), its highly impossible that we will see an MLS expansion team call the IE home, so we can safely check it off the list. The closest MLS franchises would be the LA Galaxy and LAFC, which both have a significant followings here in the Inland Empire. Here are the 2014 USSF standards, (recent one I could find) which has some requirements for division 2 & 3 sanctioning for leagues, however, we can use it as a baseline for how a riverside team will fit into an individual league. Some general requirements we will talk about will be metro markets, financial viability as well as other non-related USSF standards like travel and proximity to other teams for travel expenses. To clarify, metro markets are referred to as a city where the team plays but encompassing the surrounding cities as well, not strictly limited to the population of one city. With that in mind, our example will be riverside or another surrounding city as the location of the team’s home field and using the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, CA metropolitan area for the metro market measurement. The closest airport that the team will fly out of would be Ontario international airport.
USL-C (United Soccer League-Championship)
To start, according to soctakes, in 2019 the franchise fee for a USL-C team is $10 million, a $3 million increase from 2018. While also, the team will need an investor worth $20 million. In metro metrics, only phoenix Arizona has a bigger market population (ranked 10th with close to 5 million residents) while the rest of the USL C markets ranked below Riverside. So in terms of market metrics, this gets a checkmark. In terms of distance to measure travel cost, 4 other teams are driving distance from the IE; LA Galaxy II, Orange County SC, San Diego Loyal and Las Vegas lights and with territorial rights for each USL C team, we can assume that the IE is not in interference with OCSC rights.
USL-1 (United Soccer League 1)
According to the USL 1 website, the expansion efforts will work with a primary owner with a net worth in excess of $10 million and 35% or greater share of the potential franchise and markets with a population between 150,000 to one million and a strong corporate and fan base for support. Well according to the market metric, this would be a perfect fit for the league, in terms of market size compared to the other USL 1 teams, the Riverside market is second to the Richmond kickers. In 2018, news broke from soctakes about a possible team in riverside with financial backing from AS Roma, but no new developments have occurred since that announcement. Rumor had it that they wanted to utilize Silverlakes soccer complex in Norco as a possible home. As of the summer of 2020, I have reached out to the league if new developments has happened since then but I received no comment. The travel will be very constant for a riverside team in a rather underdeveloped western presence in USL-1. Most teams are located in the southeast US and the closest team would be Tucson FC, thus a IE team would not interfere with territory rights of any USL 1 team.
NISA (National Independent Soccer Association)
In comparison to other leagues, NISA do not have expansion fees in a effort to differentiate themselves from the other league models as well as encourage fans to own a part of NISA teams. In another difference of policy, the league does not have a salary cap and clubs can participate in the international transfer market. Also, there is no population market metrics as a requirement for application or territorial rights. In a interview with wfae, president and chairmen of Stump Town Athletic stated that NISA teams can join for a relatively low annual fee and their team budget for salaries will be between $400k to $1 million a year. According to commissioner John Prutch in a interview with soccer today, an estimate of travel costs for the average team is between $80k-$100k. For a potential team in the IE, they are in good company with the fact that all west coast NISA teams are in California and three are in SoCal; Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County.
Other general pros and cons not mentioned
- Weather: The IE is home to warm weather year round with the rainy season coming in the late fall and early winter and cool evenings temperatures even in the summer can be ideal for matches to be played.
- Talent: not only emphasizing the fact that there is many residents in the area but the estimation is that the population will grow with time. Therefore, the IE is home to loads of young players finding their dream to play pro and not to mention that the quality of these players are top notch.
- Traffic: assuming that game days are scheduled for weekend evenings, traffic during the week is not too different from the notorious headache of LA traffic. Possible players from the region of the IE that not are in riverside coming to commute in the city for weekly practice, could find problems with morning and afternoon travel to practice.
- Local investors: As mentioned earlier, the dominate industry here is warehouses and based off my experience, no other industry is interested in investing to our region, which in turn can be really difficult to find a investor willing to spend money here. In that case it will have to be someone or some group from outside the region for a USL expansion. For NISA expansion, not many amateur soccer owners in the IE have a extensive business pro-folio to keep up financially since NISA is the home to many amateur teams looking for professional opportunities rather than starting a new team from scratch.
- Media: we are considered the greater Los Angeles area, meaning our local television stations are located in LA. So when the news is on, the IE would not be a priority in coverage. Although, our local newspapers and radio stations have a more local preference, Los Angeles news is still prevalent. For a NISA expansion, livestreaming via mycujoo to start would be acceptable but for a USL C or 1 team to show games live, it will be more difficult with local media.
I conducted a poll in June on twitter and Instagram asking which of these pro leagues would be the most realistic to happen in the IE region. There was a total of 47 votes and 7 votes were for USL C, 14 for USL 1, 18 for NISA and 8 voted none of the leagues would have a expansion team in the IE. My thoughts are like the majority of voters here, I believe that if a pro team were to be established here it would be either NISA or USL 1 as a USL C teams seems very ambitious in my view. During that poll a local player from the high desert who coaches on the high school level and played for High Desert Elite in the NPSL shared his thoughts about the idea of a pro team in the IE ” A pro team won’t happen in the IE until some of these coaches and owners come together. One group can’t do it. The IE and HD are both the same. Too many power trips. I had my own UPSL team a few years back and I wanted to start something great for my hometown. Once I started asking people for help and started getting turned down I thought nothing of it. Now we have a few UPSL teams and an NPSL team all owned and managed by the same people I went to for help with my team! They didn’t want to help me but that’s not the point. It’s a power struggle. Nobody is humble enough to just be the local pro team. They think it has to be their way or the high way. Its a real struggle, wont happen until some people let others take the helm. The only true investor I had wanted half of whatever I make in the next 5 years, but I never took his money because the city governments in the desert charge so much for everything. It’s almost impossible to make things happen without the help from everyone.”
Another comment coming from twitter by IESoccer Blog (no relation) with this exchange
This thought exercise is meant to drive discussion among not just soccer people but folks in the IE in general to reflect on the area they live in and think if a pro team is even possible or could last a number of years.