Jill Ellis sat in the stands at Snapdragon Stadium. As a former collegiate assistant coach who worked her way up to leading the USWNT to consecutive FIFA World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019 during a decorated three-decade coaching career that earned her induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame next month, Ellis is used to acknowledging, analyzing and adjusting to what’s happening on the field.
But on this late March evening on the campus of San Diego State University, something else caught Ellis’ eye: the largest home-opening attendance in NWSL history as 30,854 watched San Diego Wave FC defeat the Chicago Red Stars 3-2.
“As a former coach, you’re like ‘Oh yeah, there’s a game going on,’ but I’m just so proud that there’s 30,000+ in the stands,” said Ellis, San Diego Wave FC president. “There’s other things now I’m realizing. Success is maximizing what our potential is. How do we do that? It’s increasing our sponsorship. It’s revenue. It’s making sure our fan experience is going to be innovative and not stale. It’s making sure our community really feels we’re not just expecting them to show up, but we want to show up for them.
“It matters because this is our home. Our expectations are that we want to continue to be a club that’s loved.”
Luckily for Ellis and the Wave, the club has been loved since June 8, 2021 when the NWSL announced the expansion franchise backed by Yucaipa Companies founder Ron Burkle would begin play the following year.
San Diego made waves early and often in its inaugural season, winning four of its first five matches before sellout crowds at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium. Interest and attendance only grew as the Wave relocated to San Diego State University’s new 35,000-seat Snapdragon Stadium in September. The club’s first match at the venue against intrastate rivals Angel City FC, also in its inaugural season, set an NWSL single-game attendance record of 32,000 on September 17, 2022.
The Wave, who finished the 2022 NWSL regular season at 10-6-6, advanced to the postseason semifinals before losing to eventual champions Portland Thorns FC. San Diego’s first-round matchup against Chicago set the league’s single-game postseason attendance record at 26,215, a mere hours after the Houston Dash temporarily set the record at 21,284.
“You can’t just roll into town and expect people to know who you are just by your name,” Ellis said. “We’ve been very aggressive in trying to market and invest in the community. We’ve really hit the ground with the intention for people to think of us as a good night out in San Diego and more of an entertainment being with friends and family kind of thing more than just a soccer sports thing.
“I wanted the city to fall in love with our team. Our owner’s investing in what it takes to market to attract top talent and top staff because it just doesn’t happen miraculously and without hard work.”
Having a global superstar like Alex Morgan certainly helps. Born in the suburbs of Los Angeles in San Dimas, Morgan is one of the most successful and recognized soccer players on the planet. The two-time World Cup winner and 2012 Olympic gold medalist joined San Diego on December 13, 2021.
On the field, Morgan led the NWSL with 15 goals last season to win her first golden boot, but with nearly 10 million followers on Instagram and as much of an impact off the field as she has on it, Morgan’s meaning to the Wave is invaluable.
“It was very strategic in terms of having Alex be kind of a little bit of a cornerstone for our club,” Ellis said. “I know her as a person, so we’re bringing in a person of incredible, high-caliber integrity as a human being which is important when you’re trying to build a club.
“… Whenever Alex plays in a stadium on the road, the home team’s attendance goes up. She has a draw. She’s a phenomenal player. It is important to have name recognition. When your top player has 9+ million followers, you’re immediately going to start to be known, to be seen and to be heard. I think it was very strategic and obviously we’re very delighted because not only is Alex leading off the field, she’s leading on the field as well.”
Morgan’s star power and San Diego’s success on the field helped the Wave rank first in the NWSL in both total engagements and video views across social media during the 2022 regular season (April 29 to October 29). During that same timespan, the club’s engagement rate—interactions per post divided by number of followers—was higher than MLB’s San Diego Padres.
The trend has continued into 2023. The Wave boast a 124% year-over-year social following growth, with 212,722 followers as of opening weekend compared to 94,791 in 2022. While setting the NWSL home-opening attendance record on March 25, the club also ranked first among all MLS and NWSL clubs in total engagement and total video views across social.
On the partnerships side, San Diego Wave FC has an 83% renewal rate from its inaugural season and is one of two NWSL clubs to have all four kit locations sold for 2023, working with brands including Kaiser Permanente, Bud Light, ThinkBlue San Diego and Serena Williams’ Will Perform.
While one of the game’s current superstars is serving as a cornerstone for the club, Ellis knows keeping an eye on the future is just as important.
That’s why San Diego Wave FC selected defender Naomi Girma, who was raised in San Jose and starred at Stanford University, with the No. 1 overall selection in the 2022 NWSL Draft.
San Diego made more waves last month by signing another local talent, Melanie Barcenas, who at 15 years and 138 days became the youngest-ever contracted player in NWSL history.
“Melanie spoke at our launch a year-and-a-half ago,” Ellis said. “I asked her to come speak not because I thought we were going to sign her, but I asked her how important it is for a young girl in this community to have local heroes, and she spoke about that.
“Now to see this happen and her sign and kind of pay it forward in a way, she’s going to be a hero for the next generation. What’s really special about female athletes, especially soccer players, is they’re not that far removed from being that little girl in the stands.”
With early on-field success thanks to former England captain and Manchester United Women manager Casey Stoney at the helm as well as making a name for themselves in Southern California, San Diego Wave FC is poised to make more waves in 2023 and beyond.
“When I took this job I saw it as an opportunity to create this ripple effect—no pun intended—meaning we hire a female GM, a female head coach, a female head of marketing and create opportunities for women,” Ellis said. “Part of our mission is how do we continue to elevate women whether it’s on the business side, on the pitch or in our community? I think that’s part of our core focus as a club.”