By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Dec 15, 2017) US Soccer Players - Thursday was supposed to be a big day in the race for the next two MLS expansion franchises. The cities of Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento remained standing after a nearly year-long process that winnowed a dozen cities down to four.
The MLS Board of Governors held the fate of those bids in their hands when they gathered to discuss the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth entries into the competition this week. Fans in the respective markets might have reasoned that a decision would come the same day.
They were wrong. Most likely, the announcement of which new clubs will follow LAFC as the league pushes towards the proposed maximum of 28 won’t come until early next week. Spare a thought for those who have to endure a weekend waiting for that decision. The league's official statement is non-specific, leaving the door open for a drawn-out process.
“Today, Major League Soccer’s Board of Governors had a productive discussion about the bids from the ownership groups representing Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, and Sacramento to become the next MLS expansion clubs. League officials and the MLS Expansion Committee will continue to work with the four finalists and plan to have details shortly.”
First, let’s acknowledge that there’s little fair about the process. MLS is in a position of relative power when it comes to expansion. Supply is low, and demand is high. That dynamic means they can dictate terms. Each of the bidders has different strengths, and though not all of the four finalists have a soccer-specific stadium plan in place, that doesn’t mean they are necessarily out of the running.
Ownership matters. Market matters. A stadium plan kind of matters. A track record of drawing soccer fans to an existing team? That may or may not matter.
The stadium plan exception is Detroit. Their bid once centered around a plan to take over the site of a partially built jail downtown. In recent weeks, that's shifted to something more closely resembling the situations in Atlanta and Seattle. The involvement of Arthur Blank in Atlanta was enough to convince MLS that playing in an NFL venue wasn’t a barrier to success in the South. Now, Detroit's lead investors Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores are hoping to do the same with their bid for the Motor City.
Red tape likely killed the earlier plan, but pulling out of the site was a big risk for Gilbert and Gores. Switching to Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, isn’t exactly the same as Atlanta United taking up residence in a brand new stadium built with soccer at least partially in mind. Detroit can point to the billionaires in their group, but so can other bids.
Nashville is backed by the head of Ingram Industries and counts the Wilf Family among its investors. Nashville’s bid includes a soccer-specific stadium plan in a market growing by leaps and bounds. A city once mostly known as the center of the country music industry has all of the demographic elements MLS desires. The strength of the market and the stadium plan coming together in time was enough to make Nashville a finalist. The strength of the bid led some experts, including Brian Straus and Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, to predict Nashville will be one of the two cities selected for 2020 entry by MLS this year.
It's no upset should Nashville get a team. It would come at the expense of one of two cities who built their bid on selling lower division soccer to the masses.
Before there was FC Cincinnati, there was the Sacramento Republic. While FCC outdid Sacramento in numbers of fans in the stands during their years in the USL, it was the Republic who first established themselves as an MLS-team-in-waiting thanks to attendance numbers. Sacramento worked out the details of a stadium plan, continued to draw some of the best crowds in the lower divisions, and waited.
If it's just about proving themselves with crowds at the second or third division level, Sacramento and Cincinnati would be shoe-ins. Cincinnati’s explosion onto the American soccer scene was remarkable even in an era where big crowds in new places have become the norm. The city’s expansion didn’t have the certainty of Sacramento’s stadium plan included until late in the process, but there seems to be a clear path to a soccer-specific venue at the moment.
Legal entanglements could be part of the reason for MLS’s delay on an announcement. There's a lawsuit over the process for deciding to fund the Nashville stadium. A little bit of deduction sprinkled with speculation is all it takes to reason out the eventuality Nashville will be among the pair selected.
Should that line of thinking prove true, we're all waiting to learn who takes the other slot. After almost a year, we’ll finally know which two cities will join the party in 2020.
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