Holiday Bowl headed downtown to Petco Park

Rendering of football field for Holiday Bowl inside Petco Park, which could fit 50,000 with temporary seating in right field.
(Tom Larimer of Larimer Design)

Padres partnering with local college bowl; ballpark modifications expected in time for 2021 game matching Pac-12, ACC teams


The downtown parade held in conjunction with the SDCCU Holiday Bowl each year follows a route along North Harbor Drive and Pacific Highway.

If the parade route is extended a few blocks this year, the players and coaches could follow the bands, cheerleaders and other students right onto the field of the bowl’s new home — Petco Park.

Holiday Bowl and Padres officials, the Union-Tribune has learned, will announce a partnership Thursday morning that will bring the game downtown following four decades in Mission Valley.

The Holiday Bowl has been searching for a new venue since the stadium’s demise.

Although San Diego State is building a 35,000-seat stadium on the site, a larger venue is needed for the Holiday Bowl, which has averaged 52,000 fans over the past decade.

The 2020 edition of the Holiday Bowl was canceled amid COVID-19 restrictions, buying organizers time to find a permanent solution for the game that will match teams from the Pac-12 and ACC in a game traditionally played the last week of December.

“We’re really excited to partner with the Holiday Bowl to keep the bowl game in San Diego and take it to the next level from an experiential perspective,” Padres CEO Erik Greupner said. “One of our goals as an organization is for Petco Park to be the singular iconic venue in San Diego.

“Now that the stadium in Mission Valley has been razed and is being rebuilt in a much smaller size for SDSU, we feel the obligation to maintain and improve the ballpark so that it can be what everybody voted for in 1998 with Prop C, which was more than a ballpark.”

Holiday Bowl CEO Mark Neville broached the idea of moving the game downtown four years ago, but understood patience was needed to allow things to fall into place.

“We’re not settling coming to Petco Park at all — this is going to take us to the next level,” Neville said. “The excitement downtown with the fans coming, staying in the hotels around here, the weeklong festivities we’re going to be putting on.

“I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the bowl experience here now at Petco Park and downtown San Diego is going to be the very best in the country. It lends itself so well to having a premier fan experience.”

Greupner believes the impact will be similar to when the Padres hosted the 2016 All-Star Game.

“Everybody stayed at hotels down here, everything was very walkable and people were able to really enjoy the beauty of San Diego, the ballpark district and the ballpark,” he said. “It was a weeklong celebration of baseball. This will be a weeklong celebration of football and a bowl game here in San Diego.”

There will need to be some minor modifications to the field and an amendment to the Padres’ lease with the city of San Diego for football to be played at the ballpark.

The modifications could be completed within a two-month window between an expected Padres postseason run and the late-December kickoff of the bowl game.

A Petco Park rendering with the field configured for football pictures one end zone in front of the Padres dugout near first base and the other end zone in left field.

The facility will require some demolition work to accommodate the football field.

Greupner said 200 field-level seats adjacent to the Padres dugout — a portion of sections 109 to 113 measuring 127 feet by 27 feet — will be demolished and replaced by 11 movable pieces.

“When the 11 pieces are in, you won’t be able to tell any difference,” Greupner said. “It will feel just like it’s always felt in terms of the seats.

“But then when we take those 11 pieces out, that creates enough additional room to put the sod down in there and have, safely, a full field and buffer zone.”

Also, a 37-foot portion of the outfield wall in left-center field will need to be modified.

“What we’ll do is take what is currently a fixed, permanent fence and we’ll replace it with a section that when we need to we can just remove,” Greupner said. “So it won’t change the dimensions of Petco Park. It will still play the exact same way.

“But when we switch from baseball to football mode, we can take that fence out and behind it there will be a new fixed fence that will serve as the end point when we’re in football mode.”

Greupner said the largest announced paid crowd at a Padres game is 44,649 (including 3,000 park passes).

Additional temporary seating located in right field, combined with space in Gallagher Square (formerly the Park at the Park) and other standing-room-only areas would bring capacity to 50,000 for football.

Greupner said the right-field seating is aimed at providing a unique football viewing experience.

It will be comprised of about four dozen suites with between 12 to 24 couches and chairs (it’s still being conceptualized).

Also planned: an exclusive premium suite in the Padres dugout.

Greupner estimated the cost of the modifications at slightly more than $2 million. The Padres will pay upfront costs, with repayment realized over time through a portion of the Holiday Bowl’s ballpark rent.

While baseball, basketball, golf, motocross, rugby, soccer and tennis have been staged at Petco Park since it opened in 2004, football is specifically prohibited under the team’s lease with the city.

“The genesis of that was at the time Petco Park was built the Padres were coming off a multiuse, shared stadium experience with the Chargers in Mission Valley,” Greupner said. “Leadership of the team at the time wanted a dedicated ballpark that wasn’t going to be serving any other purpose. ...

“Here we are 20 years later and our region has changed. Unfortunately, we’ve lost an NFL team. We don’t want to lose this bowl game. We don’t want to lose the economic impact. We don’t want to lose what it means to our community.”

Greupner said there have been several meetings regarding the lease and he expects those details to be completed by the end of the summer.

Mayor Todd Gloria and Council President Jennifer Campbell are expected to be at Thursday’s announcement event, which would seem to indicate they are on board with the plan. Councilmember Stephen Whitburn, whose district includes downtown, has a scheduling conflict that will prevent him from attending, but is said to be supportive as well.

“The good news is we wouldn’t get to this point where we’re talking publicly about it,” Greupner said, “if we didn’t feel confident that we had the support we need from the mayor’s office and the City Council.”

Greupner said there also is interest in hosting other one-off college football games — similar to the Navy-Notre Dame game played in 2018 at SDCCU Stadium — as well as San Diego Section high school football championships.

The CIF football finals were played at the stadium in Mission Valley for four decades before moving to Southwestern College in 2014.

Before professional football fans begin saying, “what if?” Greupner emphasized Petco Park would not be used to host NFL games.

“We’re not asking and we’re not going to be considered as a site for an NFL team because at 50,000 we can’t reach what I understand to be minimum capacity for an NFL venue,” Greupner said. “This has nothing to do with the NFL.

“This is all about a college bowl game that is great for San Diego that we don’t want to see leave.”

Neville said the Holiday Bowl, which debuted in 1978, has generated $977 million in economic benefit for the region and filled 800,000 hotel rooms through the years.

“We are critically important to the tourism industry, especially because we’re played during the slowest tourism period in the year,” Neville said. “Thanks to Erik and his team here, the SDCCU Holiday Bowl is going to be around for a long time and it’s going to thrive.

“I believe it’s going to have an even bigger impact in the community.”