Irvine weighs Orange County SC lease at Championship Soccer Stadium

Orange County SC Great Sports Park

The Irvine City Council is debating the future of USL Championship’s Orange County SC at Championship Soccer Stadium, as other area organizations and LA Galaxy II express interest in holding more events there as well.

It’s a tribute to the lack of business acumen in Irvine to realize how that poor management of the stadium is all of a sudden made more complicated by municipal overreach. So here’s what we know and why this kerfuffle could have been easily avoided.

Let’s begin with Orange County SC. The USL Championship team has been a tenant since opening at the 5,000-seat stadium home since opening in 2017, a tenure considered to be successful with the club averaging 4,306 fans per game in 2022. The club’s lease is set to roll over in November for another two years unless canceled by the team or the city; the team was not looking to cancel, but the city is debating whether to cancel to make changes in the lease.

Potential changes could include an additional tenant added to the mix: LA Galaxy II, which is moving from USL Championship to MLS NEXT Pro in 2023. MLS NEXT Pro is in its first year, and the total emphasis is on development: clubs do not announce attendance, and there’s a notable lack of emphasis on promotions or business development for the Division III league. In its last year as a USL Championship team LA Galaxy II plays out of Dignity Health Park, and when attendance is actually reported, it’s very low–some 350 fans per game.

But with notice LA Galaxy II wants to use Championship Soccer Stadium for 16-18 matches a year, the city is looking at tearing up the current system, which sets aside 40 dates a year for pro sports. As primary tenant, Orange County SC has first dibs on 18 days per year, while the remaining 22 days are split among United Strikers FC and FC Golden State Force.

Adding LA Galaxy II to the mix would impact the other pro sports. Now, one could argue there’s a really easy solution: just expand the number of days open to pro teams. (Indeed, limited pro sports to only 11 percent of all dates seems a little low and perhaps not the best of financial decisions for the city.) Weirdly enough, community groups have only 80 days of availability. That leaves an awfully high number of open dates, and it sounds silly to make pro sports and community groups to fight over less than a third of open calendar dates. But that’s why Irvine seems intent on doing. From the Los Angeles Times:

“It wasn’t intended to be a decision, but really a discussion, so that we could inform the council about what the city, as an entity, is seeing,” [Irvine City Manager Oliver] Chi said. “What we’re seeing is the use of the stadium as a venue for a professional league is impacting the ability for community groups to access and use the stadium.”

Chi pointed out the stadium is a publicly-funded project and, as such, community groups seek access to the venue.

“It spans the gamut,” Chi said of the community organizations that have contacted the city about the facility. “The stadium was built with public money for the public’s use, and right now we have a lot of concerns that have been raised from schools that would like to use the facility for championship games. There’s been concerns expressed by various community groups — lacrosse teams, soccer leagues. The facility can be arranged to have football played at the facility.

“Ultimately, I think when the facility was initially constructed, it was envisioned as a community facility for Irvine-based athletic events.”

Which seems to be misleading: Under one scenario, Chi was proposing tossing Orange County SC as a tenant and entering into an exclusive agreement with LA Galaxy.

“Our club is built in Irvine, 100% Orange County proud and now under attack. We are stunned and extremely disappointed by yesterday’s news that the city could undo all the great work we have done in soccer and in the local community in Orange County,” OCSC owner James Keston said. “OCSC has called Championship Soccer Stadium home for the past five years. It is where fans have come together to watch our team represent their community, where we have won trophies, and where local players have realized their dreams as they have risen from the academy to the pros and on to some of the largest clubs in the world.”

A decision on the future of Championship Soccer Stadium was put off by the city council, for now.

Meanwhile, it sounds like LA Galaxy wants nothing to do with this discussion, per a statement from the team:

The LA Galaxy are a proud partner to the local soccer community and are committed to positively growing the sport of soccer in the Southern California region.

LA Galaxy are not interested in an exclusive arrangement for LA Galaxy II to play at the Orange County Great Park Championship Soccer Stadium and have advised all parties of our willingness to open conversations with the City of Irvine and other stakeholders on mutually-acceptable arrangements pertaining to the use of the Stadium moving forward.

Image courtesy City of Irvine. 

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