Proposed San Diego MLS franchise hopes to coexist with Liga MX's Tijuana

The bid to bring an MLS expansion franchise to San Diego faces a unique challenge because of the close proximity of Liga MX side Club Tijuana to the city. But according to Nick Stone, a member of the prospective ownership group, there is enough demand for soccer in the area to support both teams.

"Personally, I think a rising tide lifts all boats," Stone told ESPN FC. "This is all net additive and building enthusiasm for the sport, and when people discover that there's Xolos soccer right across the border, we'll figure out how to play both teams against each other."

San Diego was one of 12 markets to announce they have applied for expansion to MLS before the league's deadline on Tuesday. They are vying for four expansion slots that would comprise MLS teams 25 through 28. MLS announced in December that following a review of each prospective market, teams 25 and 26 will be selected during the second or third quarter of 2017.

The teams selected will be expected to begin play in 2020, and the expansion fee for those teams is $150 million. As a point of comparison, Toronto FC's expansion fee ahead of its inaugural season in 2007 was $10 million.

Other ownership groups applied to bring teams from Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh/Durham, St. Louis, Sacramento, San Antonio, Tampa/St. Petersburg.

But San Diego has the closest proximity to an existing club, with Club Tijuana's home stadium, Estadio Caliente, located just over 20 miles away. Stone estimates that 6,000 fans go across the border from Southern California for every Tijuana home game.

There are other aspects beside competition for fans and crowd share, however. Tijuana have historically recruited heavily from the area in its search for players, including local product and U.S. international Joe Corona, so it's likely far ahead in the battle for hearts, minds and eyeballs. Stone is undaunted nonetheless.

"If there was ever an independent verification that this market is screaming for soccer, that's it,'" he said about San Diegans attending Tijuana games. "Think of that as a starting point for the demand. What I think is the very unique part of San Diego is that we have this very unique cross-border relationship here. Imagine the Border Cup rivalry that exists."

He added, "This is a huge market for soccer. I don't think there's only 6,000 tickets demand in San Diego at all. I think it's much bigger than that. There's a big Liga MX following here, which is obviously the Xolos component of the equation. But there's also a big European and MLS following. We think we're going to try and fit into both of those buckets."

San Diego formally announced its bid to bring MLS to the city on Monday atop the USS Midway Museum. The plans include building a $200 million stadium with a capacity of 30,000 seats on the site currently occupied by Qualcomm Stadium that would be shared with San Diego State University. The project would also include a 55-acre river park, 800 units of student-focused housing, as well as an entertainment district.

Given that the site exists outside of downtown -- a well-known preference of MLS executives -- the ancillary development will be critical to the project.

"Today, the site is a parking lot between two freeways," he said. "It's a very well-located parking lot, but it's a parking lot. Part of our effort was going around and visiting different stadiums. We repeatedly heard the phrase, 'Do not build an island in a parking lot. It doesn't work.'

"Which is why you're seeing us come forward with this proposal to do much more than build a stadium in an existing parking lot."

The ownership group is offering to privately finance the construction, purchase the land at fair market value, and relive the city of $12 million in annual maintenance costs once Qualcomm Stadium is demolished to make way for the new building. It's why Stone is calling the project a "win-win-win."

"You have no taxpayer dollars and the fair market value piece, plus the real opportunity cost," he said. "There's real cash out the door leakage [from the maintenance costs], and that's what makes us different from other expansion candidates. And three we've got this great group of supporters that really want this, it feels like we're starting in a good spot."

The biggest challenge will likely be getting the stadium approved and completed by 2020. That's why Stone and fellow investors Mike Stone (no relation), Qualcomm president Steve Altman, San Diego Padres co-owner Peter Seidler, Univision Deportes president Juan Carlos Rodriguez, and technology entrepreneurs Massih and Masood Tayebi will try to fast-track the project through the city council without a public vote. That will be accomplished by getting 72,000 signatures from registered voters, though Stone added they hope to get upwards of 125,000.

"The city council has two choices, it can directly adopt the proposal and do it, or put it on ballot in November 2018, which is way too late to secure an MLS franchise. So we're asking the city council to explicitly adopt this."