For the first time on Friday night, billionaire Joseph Tsai will settle into a seat at Pechanga Arena to watch his San Diego Seals play a home game.
He was there in person when the National Lacrosse League expansion team played and won its inaugural game at Denver’s Pepsi Center.
But with business travel beckoning in Asia, Tsai had to miss the Seals’ first home game on Saturday.
“My eyes were glued to my iPad,” Tsai said of watching the Seals’ 12-10 victory over Rochester in front of a lively crowd announced at 11,323. “I don’t think we could have come away with a better outcome.”
Speaking by phone on Wednesday evening as he continued a local media outreach while still travelling in Asia, Tsai was asked why he was choosing now to make his presence felt. He had not been made available to the media since the NLL announced in late 2017 that he was the owner of the new San Diego franchise.
“My philosophy in life and business is that unless you have a product to show people and demonstrate it, you shouldn’t be talking about it too much,” Tsai said.
“Last Saturday, we had a good home crowd; the team is good; the players are great. And so there’s stuff like that to talk about. Having seen the game last Saturday, and the atmosphere, people can connect with it now.”
Tsai, who settled his family in San Diego five years ago and commutes regularly between here and Hong Kong, has the interest of locals for reasons far beyond rooting for his lacrosse team.
The 55-year-old is pegged by Forbes as the 154th-richest man in the world with a value of $8.9 billion. Tawain-born and a Canadian citizen, he holds three degrees from Yale and co-founded the e-commerce giant Alibaba Group.
Tsai loves sports, too, holding 49-percent ownership of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets while reportedly nearing a deal in recent weeks to purchase the WNBA’s New York Liberty. He also was among a group that unsuccessfully tried to buy the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
In December 2017, the Union-Tribune reported that Tsai and another of his companies, Blue Pool Capital, was taking a very preliminary look at the prospects for building a new arena in the East Village of downtown.
It seemed an exciting prospect, considering Tsai’s wealth, his connections to pro sports and his new ties to San Diego.
But if there is any progress on the arena front, Tsai is taking his usual tact of not speaking out of turn. He said there have only been “preliminary” conversations with city officials, but no “serious discussions or anything in terms of a concrete plan.
“Right now, we don’t have any specific plans or proposals to talk about,” Tsai said.
He maintained on Wednesday that building a new arena will be a daunting task without the commitment from the NBA or NHL to put a franchise here, and without big-league prospects, a new building may not generate enough revenue to pencil out.
“I would love to see a new arena built in San Diego because I think it’s good for the city and the economy,” Tsai said. “But when you take on a big project like this, it has to be economically viable.
“It’s difficult to support an arena without a big-time anchor sport, like the NBA or NHL. And it’s kind of hard to think about those big leagues expanding into San Diego right now. The dynamics are such that it’s probably not something people will consider.”
What San Diego is left with, Tsai said, is having indoor sports such as lacrosse and the AHL’s San Diego Gulls in the arena. He said he didn’t know enough about the San Diego Sockers or new indoor football league team to speculate on their prospects.
“Certainly, if it’s just lacrosse and minor-league hockey, that’s not going to be enough to support building an arena,” he said. “We don’t play enough games. To support the economics right now is the challenge.”
Would concerts be enough to fill the gap?
“You’d have to work in some pretty robust assumptions to make the math work,” Tsai said.
While Tsai considers those prospects, he’s got his pro lacrosse Seals to now root for.
Sent to boarding school in New Jersey at 13, Tsai only played baseball, but he couldn’t make the high school team. So he turned to lacrosse and loved it. He was a walk-on for the squad at Yale and didn’t play much. He lost his connection to the sport for about 20 years and got back into it through his sponsorship of a top-level team in Hong Kong.
All three of Tsai’s children have played lacrosse at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla – his daughter is currently on the team at Stanford – and when current Seals President Steve Govett approached Tsai about putting a team in San Diego, he was enthused.
“San Diego is a great sports town,” Tsai said. “There’s the great weather and people being sports oriented. And since the Chargers left, there’s been a yearning for something entertaining that can bring fans together in one place. I saw the opportunity and I think it’s a very good one.”