In the manifest destiny that is TV-driven conference realignment, America’s Finest City may be America’s next untapped sports territory.
San Diego’s attractiveness as a destination for college football conference expansion was already a hot topic during both Mountain West and Pac-12 Conference media days in Las Vegas — and that was before Colorado threw college sports into more urgent upheaval with its exit from the Pac-12 for a return to the Big 12.
Now that the Pac-12 has yet another hole in its membership and uncertainty about its media future; the Mountain West has built a strong brand it wants to protect, and the Big 12 has uneven numbers it presumably wants to balance, San Diego State might well hold the fate of college football’s landscape for the next decade.
The line of suitors looking to court San Diego State figures to be both long and combative; a dream recipe for producers of ABC’s reality/game show The Bachelor.
And while that particular reference may be what kids hipper than your author would label as “cringe,” consider both that The Bachelor and college football share weird ties — and that San Diego State now figures to star in the sport’s longest-running reality-TV drama.
The points in SDSU’s favor are numerous. The Aztecs have finished with a winning record in each of the last 12 complete seasons dating back to 2010, and have won at least 10 games five times over that stretch.
Consider that’s nine full winning seasons more than Colorado during CU’s brief Pac-12 tenure, and four double-digit-win campaigns more than the Buffs amassed in the same stretch. While Colorado has generated significant buzz since December with its hire of Deion Sanders, continuing this column’s reality-TV motif, San Diego State has produced considerably more success in football.
And the Aztecs have done so on a stage all their own for the last half-decade.
“If want you football, you’re either going to have to go all the way to L.A. or come support the hometown team,” San Diego State tight end Mark Redman said at Mountain West media day.
The NFL’s Chargers leaving San Diego after more than a half-century, navigating the AFL-to-NFL merger and maintaining support in spite of some putrid stretches for the franchise’s on-field product added to a not-uncommon preconception of a city with the nation’s fairest weather as also having sports’ fairest-weather fans.
But getting into the reasons behind the Chargers’ move to Los Angeles would require a whole other column covering San Diego political machinations, economic and budgetary issues, and disputes over real estate.
The city’s loyalty to the Chargers wouldn’t even qualify as a secondary reason fueling the move. Likewise, the NFL’s departure continued San Diego’s run of misfortune when it comes to sports, stemming mostly from ownership.
The NBA’s Rockets barely stayed long enough for a cup of coffee from Pannikin, while the Clippers were doomed by the same rotten leadership of one Donald Sterling for decades after moving to Los Angeles.
San Diego has sports fans. And they’re fans craving teams that give them a reason to cheer. Major League Baseball’s Padres provide a great example, coming off aggressive moves from the front office to build a contending team.
While the Padres have failed to live up to the expectations set from last season’s run to the National League Championship Series, Petco Park has drawn the fourth-best attendance figures in MLB thus far in 2023.
And San Diego sports fans similarly show up for SDSU basketball.
The timing of the Aztecs’ run to the Final Four and National Championship Game could not have been more fortuitous with the current state of realignment. Even before the prospects of movement reached their current dire straits, however, SDSU ranked in the top 30 for college attendance perennially since the mid-2010s.
“As much as we’re doing it for San Diego State University, we’re doing it for San Diego, the city. They’ve embraced us,” Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher said during Final Four weekend. “We’re the second pro team of San Diego: Padres baseball team and San Diego State basketball is the second pro sport in San Diego.”
Football has primarily driven college realignment, with TV networks paying top-dollar primarily for gridiron inventory. Yet with reigning men’s basketball champion UConn a rumored target for Big 12 expansion well before Colorado’s departure was finalized, the present round of realignment appears less football-exclusive than in previous periods of movement.
That UConn — and, realistically Colorado, which despite its rich history has little to show for it in the last 20 years — are central figures in the realignment conversation should only enhance SDSU’s standing.
Aztecs football has produced consistent winning teams, featured a Heisman Trophy finalist caliber star in Rashaad Penny — let’s talk about college football media’s collective inability to recognize Group of Five players another time — and as of last season, has the venue to unlock the program’s full potential.
In addition to the basketball team’s Final Four run, the 2022-23 academic year proved serendipitous with the opening of Snapdragon Stadium, just down the hill from the SDSU campus.
Snapdragon Stadium stands in the same spot that SDSU’s former home, the former Jack Murphy and later assorted-corporate-named Stadium. The Aztecs shared Jack Murphy Stadium with the Chargers, as well as the Padres for a stretch.
SDSU felt more like room renters than owners of their own home stadium.
“This year’s going to be great. We’re going to actually have that home-field advantage, getting used to it [after the program’s first season there], and the fans, as well,” defensive back Cedarious Barfield said. “People [talk] about it on campus; everyone from around the country, and journalists, look at it like, ‘Wow, that’s an amazing stadium.’
“It’s going to start giving us a lot more looks,” Barfield added.
The potential for looks locally is plentiful. A contributing factor to San Diego State as the potential key to unlocking the college sports map for a generation is that the untapped major media markets are almost entirely spoken for.
San Diego is an exception.
When talking about San Diego, it’s important to note it isn’t a city so much as the entire county. Said in your best “Hacksaw” Hamilton, it’s Otay Mesa to Oceanside; El Cajon to Encinitas; Bankers Hill to Borrego Springs.
San Diego County has almost 3.3 million residents, per 2022 census estimates, and the television market ranks in the nation’s top 30.
It’s one of only three top 30 markets to host just one franchise of the Big Four professional sports leagues. However, the other two — Raleigh-Durham (the NHL’s Hurricanes) and Salt Lake City (the NBA’s Jazz) — have rabid fanbases for college basketball and college football.
San Diego State athletics just may be on the precipice of becoming to its metropolitan area what Tobacco Road basketball is to North Carolina’s Triangle, or Utah and BYU football is to SLC.
With as many positives, and the growth potential still ahead of SDSU sports, the Mountain West wanting to keep the Aztecs as members certainly stands to reason.
“San Diego State is a positive to the Mountain West,” new conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez said in her opening address at Circa Resort on July 18. “We are better with San Diego State in the league.”
Her reinforcement of SDSU’s value comes with an unspoken but well-established price tag after the university’s rumored departure from the Mountain West for an unspecified destination fell through. Had SDSU exited the MW before June 30, the fee would have been $17 million; that doubled after the false-start.
That’s a hefty one-time price, but it’s a downright bargain long-term if it means claiming college sports’ last metropolitan frontier.