By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (June 28, 2019) US Soccer Players - You probably didn’t see this coming, what with Sacramento standing by with the red carpet already rolled out for MLS to come calling and St Louis priming itself to be the next darling of the expansion parade. Even MLS commissioner Don Garber’s declarations that MLS won’t, in fact, stop at 28 might not have prepared anybody for the speed at which things are moving forward for a 30th team.
MLS has a backlog of three teams with Nashville, Austin, and Miami still in buildup mode. By the time the summer is over, that number could be five. The league has no problem handing out expansion franchises with previously awarded teams yet to make their competitive debut.
While the backlog probably won’t grow before Nashville and Miami join league play next season, a clear frontrunner has emerged for team 30. News that MLS planned to expand to at least 30 teams had cities lining up in recent months. Among the contending markets that have emerged, in addition to Detroit’s finalist bid from the last round of expansion, are Phoenix, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and Raleigh.
Tampa and San Antonio have been in the mix in the past, but the status of their bid unclear. San Diego looks to be off the board, but it’s impossible to know if a new plan for that city might pop up.
The city with the inside track on number 30 per the reporting of Brian Straus at SI.com is Charlotte, North Carolina. Charlotte’s bid turns on a number of factors, not the least of which is the backing of Dave Tepper, owner of the Carolina Panthers. Upon taking control of the Panthers and Bank of America Stadium in 2017, Tepper immediately mentioned bringing MLS to Charlotte as part of his plan.
With his deep pockets and an available stadium, Tepper’s interest launched Charlotte from “possibility” to “favorite” in a matter of months. Rather than a public show based on fan support or a lower division team, Charlotte’s bid gained steam behind the scenes.
Charlotte checks a number of obvious boxes for MLS. The city is growing at a significant clip and is already the twenty-third ranked media market in the country. It’s home to the headquarters of 14 companies in the Fortune 1000 as of 2019 and boasts a corporate community more than capable of supporting MLS on top of the NFL and NBA teams that call the city home.
Placing a team in Charlotte would add to the recent Southeast expansion. It would also look to follow what's happened with MLS in Atlanta.
If it weren’t for Atlanta and what Arthur Blank has achieved there, it’s hard to imagine MLS being open to Charlotte’s plan. Tepper wants to put an MLS team in Bank of America Stadium and has pitched MLS on a concept that centers around top-flight soccer in an NFL venue with updates.
It wasn’t that long ago that MLS leadership would have passed on such a plan. The league demands soccer-specific stadium plans in most cities bidding for expansion. Cincinnati, Nashville, and Miami all have stadium proposals in process, if not already completed.
MLS in NFL stadiums was supposed to be a thing of the past. Tepper has different ideas. MLS may buy into them because of what Blank achieved in Atlanta. In most markets, a 20,000-25,000-seat venue is more than adequate. That size does limit the growth of crowds if a team breaks through the noise and achieves mainstream success.
If Atlanta can do it down the road in Georgia, why can’t Charlotte? Tepper enthusiasm for pro soccer from the moment he gained control of the Panthers points to a Blank/Atlanta United dynamic rather than a Kraft/Revolution one.
The knock-on effect of Charlotte jumping to the front of the expansion line will be felt most acutely by Steve Malik to the east in Raliegh. MLS isn’t like to stay at 30 teams, no matter the scarcity rhetoric, because too many big markets are still interested in joining the league. That saving grace might not help the Raleigh bid simply based on geography.
Would MLS hand Raleigh an expansion franchise with a very young Charlotte team less than three hours down the road?
The league did hand Cincinnati a team despite the proximity of that city to Columbus. It's worth asking if the Crew’s uncertain status in 2018 might have played a role in the decision. San Antonio’s bid seens to have gone silent after the decision to put a team in Austin.
MLS plays fast and loose with its own criteria and considerations. It still seems unlikely, with so many other possible markets spread around the country, that they’d give North Carolina two teams in a short timeframe.
Malik recently joined a group of Research Triangle-area investors in proposing a $2 billion project for downtown Raleigh centered around a 20,000-seat soccer stadium. The medical software entrepreneur owns both North Carolina FC of the USL Championship and the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League and envisions the stadium as a permanent home for both.
It’s the type of audacious pitch that usually comes as part of lobbying MLS for an expansion franchise. Enticing the top division to town might be among Malik’s goals, but he stated specifically that the stadium project is not MLS-dependent. He wants a top class soccer stadium in which to showcase his clubs, he says, regardless of whether or not his men's team has topflight status.
Malik may see a stadium as a lure for MLS after it’s built, rather than a plank in a platform meant to attract MLS first. That paradigm doesn’t exist in American soccer, mostly because local governments aren’t apt to kick in on a stadium for a “minor league” team.
If Malik can get his project off the ground, build the stadium, then fill it for NCFC and Courage games it would be a major statement for the sport in the United States. All of those are "ifs" right now. Smaller soccer-specific stadiums exist in the lower divisions, but nothing like what Malik is proposing.
The full buildout of American soccer is not achievable without better stadiums for clubs below the top division. Promotion and relegation is a non-starter for a host of reasons, but it does get slightly more possible if soccer-committed people like Malik can build first-class accommodations for teams playing in leagues that don’t require hundreds of millions in expansion fees.
Nothing is certain about Charlotte getting into Major League Soccer. If North Carolina’s Queen City does join the league, it might not mean the end of something big happening in the state capital.
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Stadium rendering courtesy of NCFC