By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Feb 8, 2019) US Soccer Players - Time flies when you’re having fun. It also flies when you’re attempting to prepare for your first season as a Major League Soccer franchise.
For both the freshly named Inter Miami and the future Nashville MLS club, there’s a lot to do and not much time to do it in. The business of putting a team together - hiring a coach, signing players, installing a style of play—is naturally front-and-center. In order to make any of those hirings and signings matter, however, both teams need a place to play.
To be clear, both Miami and Nashville have plans to build soccer stadiums as permanent homes for their teams. Inter Miami’s centers on Melreese Golf Course, a site on the western edge of Miami adjacent to Miami International Airport. After a November ballot question passed that allows the City of Miami to negotiate a no-bid lease with the team, the matter of starting the project is down to finalizing that lease. There's also having to navigate through a few Miami-standard lawsuits that intend to scupper the deal.
In total, the Inter Miami project has a cost projection of $1 billion, though that includes development beyond the stadium itself. The venue will have 25,000 seats, anchoring a 131-acre site. Barring hurdles typical to the political environment of Miami, the stadium currently dubbed “Freedom Park” will open in 2021.
2021 is also the targeted year for the completion of Nashville’s purpose-built soccer venue. Also beset by political challenges, the proposed 30,500-seat stadium in Nashville is creeping towards a completed construction agreement that will allow shovels to get into the ground at the Tennessee Fairgrounds site. The cost of Nashville’s stadium is $275 million, with principal owner John Ingram and his family contributing $25 million up front and an additional $9 million over 30 years. Bonds will pay for the bulk of the project.
Both venues figure to fit within the current state-of-the-art standard of MLS. The league is rapidly collecting a remarkable group of stadiums thanks to the rising popularity of the sport and the interest from multiple cities in MLS expansion. Hundreds of millions of dollars are pouring into soccer, a dramatic change from the early days of the league.
Inter Miami and the Nashville club will have the look of teams from those early days, at least for a season. Because both are launching in 2020 but won’t have their stadiums completed until at least 2021. They’ll play in temporary venues in their inaugural seasons.
Which temporary venues? For Nashville, the question had an easy answer. Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans of the NFL and a building that has hosted plenty of soccer games in recent years. Nashville is a regular stop for the USMNT and Gold Cup host city. Nissan Stadium has proven to be a solid home for soccer in the city.
Nissan Stadium is unsurprisingly massive, seating 69,000 fans. That’s more than double the planned capacity of the MLS stadium, meaning the new Nashville team will either close off the upper decks to retain a measure of intimacy or attempt to fill the entirety of the building. Playing in front of a full house in an NFL stadium is normally associated with Seattle and Atlanta. It will be interesting to see if the new Nashville team can generate the same sort of excitement.
MLS Nashville president Ian Ayre pointed a good working relationship between the expansion club and the NFL team. Because the teams do not share ownership, that relationship is important to ensuring that Nashville’s MLS existence gets off to a good start at Nissan Stadium. It will be even more important if the planned stadium if the soccer team has to extend their stay past 2020.
It’s not so simple for Inter Miami. While there are several options in South Florida for the new club, none of them are ideal. Reports on Thursday revealed that Marlins Park, a baseball stadium, is out of the running. Beyond the obvious problem of placing a soccer field in the confines of a baseball stadium, scheduling overlap between the Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer seasons make the idea untenable. While NYCFC makes it work in large part because the New York Yankees have a stake in the soccer team, there's no shared interest between the Marlins and Inter Miami.
The more natural fit is Hard Rock Stadium, home to the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Like Nissan Stadium, Hard Rock is a massive venue that would be difficult for the soccer team to fill. Though the venue has hosted major international friendlies in recent years and has the look of a European soccer stadium thanks to $500 million in renovations, Hard Rock Stadium officials aren’t overly keen on hosting Inter Miami because of scheduling conflicts. In the spring, Hard Rock Stadium will host the Miami Open tennis tournament for the first time. In the fall, the Dolphins and the Miami Hurricanes use the building for football.
That leaves just one viable option within the city limits of Miami, Riccardo Silva Stadium at Florida International University. Recently upgraded, the building seats an MLS-appropriate 20,000 fans. Since 2016 it has been the home of Miami FC and carries Silva’s name because the Miami FC owner funded necessary improvements to the venue. That club started life in the NASL and since that league’s hiatus has played in the NPSL as an amateur side.
Unclear as it is where Inter Miami will play while Freedom Park is under construction, it’s interesting to note the planned capacity of that building is 25,000. While that's larger than several soccer-specific stadiums in the league, it is a moderate cap in a rapidly changing competition.
Nashville’s plan for 30,500 looks like a hedge. Any more than that might mean too many empty seats on gameday. Fewer would make it hard to compete financially with the rest of MLS via ticket sales. As the league’s 24th season approaches, the pressure to bring in more money is increasing rapidly. In Portland, that pressure has resulted in an expansion of Providence Park the team identifies as crucial to keeping the Timbers in touch with the wealthiest clubs in MLS.
Providence Park is expanding first and foremost due to demand. The Timbers can put in 4,000 more seats through an upward expansion on the stadium’s east side because they know fans will fill them. The Timbers are willing to suffer through a 12-game road swing to open the 2019 season. They know what those extra seats represent.
Stadium issues are at the center of success or failure in MLS. Those that are stuck in limiting stadium deals and/or locations stand out as the obvious stragglers during the league’s push into a more spend-happy future.
For Nashville and Miami, there’s only one chance to make a first impression. Their temporary homes will serve as the first backdrop to their teams’ play and set a tone for the future. For Portland, maximizing the number of seats in a stadium confined by its urban setting is worth the $50 million it costs.
More From Jason Davis:
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- Toronto FC moves on from Sebastian Giovinco
- The MLS regression rankings
- Atlanta and the ceiling of allowable ambition in MLS
Rendering courtesy of Nashville MLS