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San Diego State kills talks with MLS over new stadium

SDSU, FS Investors find themselves in a Mexican standoff.

Ever since the Chargers packed their bags for Los Angeles in January, sports talk in San Diego has been focused on what’s next for the massive 166-acre Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley. Qualcomm is scheduled to close permanently in 2018.

Initially, FS Investors and SDSU officials appeared to be eager to construct a joint-use MLS Soccer-Aztecs football stadium. It seemed like an easy, no-brainer. As both groups explored how the other 150 acres would be utilized, the subject became increasingly complicated. When the size of the stadium became a talk point, things became even more disjointed.

SDSU officials express reservations about the latest Soccer City plan. It includes a joint soccer and college football stadium, a river park, and an expansive housing and commercial space. SDSU, on the other hand, has presented the city with a plan that includes a 35 acre campus expansion, and an additional dozen acres for a stadium for the football team.

SDSU’s greatest concern lies in the fact that it believes expansion is vital for its goal of becoming a top-50 public research institution, and while the campus’s current footprint is sufficient for now, it will be far too small to support the needs of the university in the not-too-distant future.

In addition, the current Soccer City stadium capacity was said to be 30,000, but San Diego State hopes to see capacity over 40,000. While Soccer City plans included a home for Aztec football, SDSU athletics officials considered the venue too small contending that making it bigger in the future would not be financially feasible.

For perspective, during the September 10, 2016 SDSU - Cal football game at Qualcomm, 42,473 fans were in attendance. SDSU won the heavily contested battle 45-40. San Diego State continues to grow its program, and it is believed they could accommodate 40-50,000 fans regularly, especially now that the Charger have left. This fall, with games against Stanford and ASU, SDSU is generating greater interest. As San Diego State’s athletics program improves, a larger stadium will support success and potentially make SDSU a Power 5 contender in the future.

Here is SDSU’s official position statement they sent out to the media:

“While SDSU’s current campus footprint of 238 acres is sufficient to support the University’s aspirations in the short term, we have long-articulated the need for more space for the advancement of the University over the next 50 years. The Mission Valley opportunity is a once-in-a-generation chance for SDSU to expand its research, tech transfer, collaboration space and other future needs, as we continue to ascend toward becoming a top 50 public research institution.

With these concerns and motivations in mind, SDSU will not engage in any further discussions with FS Investors. We urge the City of San Diego to pursue a transparent RFP process to develop a plan that will accomplish the community’s vision for this vital property, and serve the San Diego Region for decades to come.”

It is a fact that San Diego State is in a period of flux. After successful athletic director Jim Sterk left for the University of Missouri, J.D. Wicker arrived to replace him. Wicker stated that his top priority was a new stadium for the Aztecs football team.

Then, following minor controversy and (ill-fated) student protest, SDSU President Elliot Hirsch surprised many by electing to resign and take over as President of the Stevenson University in Maryland. Now, longtime SDSU senior V.P. Sally Roush has been brought out of retirement to act as interim president beginning July 1.

Many believed that Roush would support the ongoing plan with FS Investors. However, to many’s surprise, school spokeswoman Gina Jacobs reported that Roush "was fully briefed and agrees with this approach."

Nick Stone of FS Investors finally broke his silence in a statement that SDSU's stance is "another sad chapter in the saga of departing university leadership moving the goal posts. Unbelievably, they continue to walk away from people trying to help them. It's clear this decision will jeopardize Aztec football."

In addition, Mayor Kevin Faulconer has reached out to SDSU in an attempt to facilitate a deal on behalf of SDSU with FS Investors. It is apparent that he is supportive of a joint-use stadium as the final solution.

Asked if he is concerned about the football program's future, SDSU athletic director J.D. Wicker said, "To a certain extent, sure."

The Aztecs will have two years left at Qualcomm and could play the 2019 season at Petco Park, the downtown home of the San Diego Padres. Wicker said he hasn't heard from Padres executive chairman and SDSU supporter Ron Fowler that playing at Petco beyond 2019 is a definite no.

"For the lifeblood of the program as a whole, we need a better solution than Qualcomm is today," Wicker said. "We need to generate real revenue to move the needle of the athletic department."

Now it comes down to if SoccerCity fails or passes. If this fails then the Aztecs would hope that the city of San Diego would be able to lease or sell the land so that San Diego State could start construction of a new stadium and be ready for the 2020 season.

If SoccerCity passes then things could be worse for the Aztecs stadium prospects.

"We don't have an answer at this point. It's something we'd have to study in depth,” Wicker said. “... We're comfortable that we can finance a stadium on our own at that point and then figure out where the best place would be for that stadium.”

One thing is for certain. San Diego State believes that, in its current state, the FS Investors model does not adequately support the university’s stadium or campus needs. Until that issue is addressed by Mayor Faulconer, the university will weigh other options.

Given the war chest of endowments that outbound university President Hirsch helped generate for the university, San Diego State does have other options, and will ultimately choose the direction to best support its goals. If FS Investors want to save a deal and generate a true win-win, they may need to step toward SDSU’s short and long-term goals.