MLS announced that they wanted bids for the next round of MLS expansions, teams 25-28, and ownership groups representing 12 cities decided to go for it. The different bids have various strengths and weaknesses, from geography and the support of local political establishments, to soccer history and stadium plans. MLS plans to name the first two Expansion recipients at the end of the year, with spots 27 and 28 to be decided upon at a later point. That gives potential investors the opportunity to expand their ownership group and work out local politics to get a stadium plan in place. Let’s take a look at these 12 bids.
(No, I am not going over Miami. It’s complicated. There’s a lot of stuff keeping Miami from getting going, from local politics and the politics of ownership groups to ... well, local politics and the politics of ownership groups. David Beckham isn’t exactly letting us know what’s going on, so all we know is about Miami politics.)
These 3 expansion contenders all have USL sides (or, in the case of San Antonio, NASL sides) that have impressed in how they’ve set up their clubs and pushed for MSL expansion. They’ve all put in significant attendance numbers and made strategic and aggressive moves to jump to MLS. However, while these three cities have all been at or near the top for expansion lists in the past, they are at different places right now. Let’s take a look at these bids.
Sacramento Republic has been the next Sure-Thing in MLS expansion for what feels like forever. In 2014, they came storming into their inaugural USL season attracting 20,000 fans to games at Hughes Stadium before moving to Bonney Field, a Soccer Specific Stadium that consistently sold out it’s 8,000 seats (since expanded to 11,569). The Republic ran with that inaugural season all the way to a USL title. Mind you, this was mere months after Orlando City SC had been announced as the 20th MLS expansion side, essentially because they did the same thing as Sacramento, only with smaller 6,000+ crowds. The team owns a plot of land and has the local political support to build a 19-22k seat stadium in downtown Sacramento. The Republic even has the backing of the NBA’s Sacramento Kings owner, Kevin Nagle, who is a part owner (the Kings are the only major league sports competitor in Sacramento). With a relatively large media market (#20) and metropolitan area population (#27), and a really dope crest, Sacramento made a lot of sense.
And then the hype slowed down. That coveted MLS expansion announcement didn’t arrive, even though Don Garber essentially said it would. What happened? The pool of expansion candidates got a lot more competitive (starting with the next city on this list) and Sacramento suddenly didn’t quite look like the best prospect anymore. Sacramento’s geography also didn’t help. Located just 120 miles from San Jose, Sacramento is fairly close to another MLS team. With 6 West Coast teams already in the league (plus San Diego), adding another California team close to an existing one doesn’t make all that much sense.
Sacramento’s ownership made matters worse when submitting their bid. An ownership group headed by Kevin Nagle submitted an application that excluded the Republic. Under that bid, an MLS team would be formed separate from the Republic. Fans were blindsided. (The non-Nagle part of the team’s ownership at least SAYS they were also shocked, but, I mean, come on.) The rift appears to have stemmed from disagreements on ownership of the team rights that goes back to at least last fall. The issue has since been resolved, with Nagle set to take over if the Republic move to MLS. However, the MLS board of owners might not want to bring in a potentially problematic share holder. While the bid is certainly still alive and the numbers still good, this dispute could give MLS enough of a reason to look elsewhere.
If you thought Sacramento’s numbers were good, wait till you see FC Cincinnati. FC Cincy began play in 2016 and absolutely crushed the attendance records. For their inaugural match against the Charleston Battery, the team drew in 14,658 to historic Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati. A week later, it was over 20,000 against Louisville. Then, against Pittsburgh, the team broke the USL attendance record with 23,375. (I was there. It was fun). At the end of the season, the team broke the attendance record again, drawing 24,376 against Orlando City’s reserve team. In the team’s only playoff match, the club broke the play-off game and single-game attendance record, pulling in 30,187 in a loss against Charleston. In a friendly against Crystal Palace, the team drew a sell out crowd of 35,061. For reference, Crystal Palace plays in front of just over 25,000 in the Premier League. All told, FC Cincinnati averaged over 17k people per league game. They outdrew 5 MLS teams, including the Columbus Crew. For the incoming USL season, the club have already sold over 11,000 season tickets, countering claims that the first season will end up being an outlier.
FC Cincinnati’s expansion strengths extend beyond the incredible attendance numbers. The club has an ambitious ownership group centered around billionaire Carl H. Lindner III and his family. The Lindner family are based in Cincinnati, own some of the most visible brands in the area, well connected to the mayor’s office and the political establishment, are heavily involved in the local sports scene (The Lindner’s used to own the Reds baseball team. In addition, the tennis complex that hosts the Western and Southern Open is named after them), and are very visible philanthropists for the city. The ownership put together a club marketing and administrative team that comprised of skilled individuals, including assigning the role of General Manager to former Bengals executive, Jeff Berding. The front office has racked up sponsorship deals, leveraging the city’s large number of Fortune 500 companies. The team that was put together was comprised of many former MLS players, including the likes of 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year and Cincinnati Native, Austin Berry, and former University of Cincinnati player, Omar Cummings. The marketing team built a tremendous amount of public interest and good will in a city with precious little relevant professional soccer history by actively engaging with supporter’s groups for European clubs. The club managed to broadcast every home game both on Youtube and partnered to on local television. And the club has promised to begin building a thriving youth program, starting with tours across Europe in order to learn about more The first home goal was an acrobatic scissor kick for heaven’s sake. FC Cincinnati has the billionaire ownership, the organizational know-how and history of success, the fan support, the political connections, is creating the youth and training infrastructure, and the ambition. If MLS wanted another expansion side to kick off tomorrow, FC Cincinnati would be that club.
However, MLS isn’t looking to add another expansion side for tomorrow. They are looking for an expansion side that makes sense in the long term. And here, Cincinnati as an MLS expansion market choice becomes more murky. As far as geography goes, Cincinnati has lots of points that could be considered either positives or negatives. The first one is the city’s placement. Located on the Ohio river in the area where South Western Ohio, Kentucky, and Southern Indiana meet, Cincinnati presents an opportunity for the league to expand into the under-represented midwest. It potentially brings top flight soccer to southern Indiana and Kentucky, areas that likely won’t ever be directly serviced by a first division team (sorry Louisville, but you are too small.) The location creates an obvious natural rivalry with the Columbus Crew, but also with the Chicago Fire. There’s also a potential geographic rivalry with a future Indianapolis, Detroit, and Nashville team, along with a rivalry with St. Louis following the pre-existing baseball rivalry. However, that geography also creates market competition with nearby clubs. Cincinnati is 2 hours away from Columbus, potentially close enough to siphon off followers and viewers from the existing club. The teams would also be competing for player development. Similarly, a Cincinnati team might foreclose the opportunity for Indianapolis due to congestion in the area. Cincinnati’s metro-population sits at 28th, a convenient spot for MLS expansion. While on the smaller side, it is comparable to existing MLS sides, sitting between Orlando and Columbus. If you include Dayton, the metro area bumps up to 19th. (The federal government may actually formally do that for the 2020 census.) However, Cincinnati is a very small media market. Sitting at 36th (though a census merger with Dayton may change that). But the city also has a large corporate presence, with 9 Fortune 500 companies either headquartered in the area or based there. All of these things factor in when making an expansion choice.
Of course, there’s one final hitch holding FC Cincinnati back: the stadium. Nippert Stadium functions very well for the team, but the club doesn’t control the revenue streams. While shared facilities are not uncommon in MLS, those stadiums tend to at least be configured specifically for soccer and have very favorable deals for the soccer clubs. In contrast, the league has made it very clear that Nippert simply won’t work as a long term MLS solution and that FC Cincinnati will have to build their own. As of now, the club have not released any concrete plans for a new stadium, though they say that they are looking into it. Cincinnati happens to be in a state of revival, with both a lot of interest in new construction and renovation after half a century of decay, and fairly cheap property prices. The Lindner family certainly has the personal political and financial clout to make a stadium happen with private funds. Whether the owners will decide to try and use public funds anyway is not known. At the start of the century, Cincinnati made deals to publicly finance both a new stadium for the Reds of the MLB and the Bengals of the NFL. The public is still on the hook for these stadiums and these deals are not viewed favorable, with the news-comedian John Oliver roundly mocking the situation caused by the football stadium deal. If the Linder’s tried to get public funding, it is not clear whether or not it would now happen. But that stadium looks to be that last step to getting into MLS.
San Antonio was the original poster-child for future MLS expansion based off of lower league success. Originally the San Antonio Scorpions of the NASL, the club drew an average of over 9,000 fans in the inaugural season of 2012, surpassing Orlando City, who had yet to be awarded an MLS expansion team. While attendance would drop to under 7,000 over the next 3 years, the team was heavily linked with a move to MLS. This was especially because of the team’s Soccer Specific Stadium, Toyota Field, which seats over 8,000 and can be expanded to 18,000. However, the team was overlooked in the last few rounds of expansion, potentially because the ownership group was not deemed sufficient for the league. The Scorpions were sold to Spurs Sports and Entertainment, the owning and operating company of the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA in 2015 as part of a complicated deal with the city. At this point, they were rebranded as San Antonio FC and moved from the NASL to the USL. Even with wealthier ownership that has experience in the local sports scene, San Antonio is now often viewed more as an outsider in the bid for an MLS expansion.
Where did San Antonio slip? San Antonio is a reasonably sized city for expansion, with 2.38 million people, the 25th largest metro area. However, it’s not a very large media market, sitting at 31st in the nation. While this may be ahead of Columbus, Kansas City, and Salt Lake City, this is the second smallest media market of any of the competing expansion bids. Only Cincinnati is smaller. San Antonio’s location is also not much help in pursuit of a move to MLS. With three teams already in Texas, the state’s not a large priority for further expansion at this time. The location of the stadium is another issue. Toyota Field is located on a fringe neighborhood, just bordering the closest suburbs on the northeast side of San Antonio. It’s not at all a central location, in contrast with MLS usual insistence on stadiums located in the urban core.
San Antonio certainly isn’t a lost cause. While they’ve been outshone by Cincinnati and Sacramento, they still have a fairly successful USL team, a stadium ready to go to 18k, and ownership with deep pockets. That is a lot more than what a number of the more fancied bids can show for.
The sport is called Football
MLS seems particularly bullish about exploiting the vacuums created by the machinations and political scheming of the more established sporting leagues. It worked out when the Sonics left Seattle (though local politics had a part in that with the funding of CenturyLink Field), and now it seems that MLS wants to do the same following the moves made by the NFL. The NFL teams based in St. Louis and San Diego decided to both relocate to Los Angeles after their demands for public stadium funding were met with political indifference and even antagonism. MLS has followed up on this news by encouraging ambitious and aggressive bids in these cities. However, the empty space to exploit doesn’t automatically mean that these expansion bids will be successful. These expansion contenders still need to address the same political issues as the leaving NFL teams.
St. Louis is the dream for MLS and American soccer and has been for a very long time. The city has a long history of supporting soccer. For much of the 20th century, it was one of the few places where soccer existed without depending almost exclusively on immigrants arriving on either coast. It was one of the first places where professionalization took place in the sport. The records for the US Open Cup are lined with finals appearances from St. Louis teams like St. Louis Kutis S.C., Stix Baer and Fuller F.C., and St. Louis Simpkins-Ford. The famous 1950 side that upset and embarrassed England at the World Cup was stocked with 5 players from St. Louis. The area has long had a distinguished college presence, producing many significant MLS players, including Taylor Twellman, Brad Davis, Steve Ralston, and Tim Ream. And yet, MLS has been unable to put a team in St. Louis, at least up until now.
The major issues blocking MLS has been in finding the right owner and building an effective stadium. There was a big push to place an MLS team in the city with an owner named Jeff Cooper a decade ago. However, the league weren’t convinced with his bid and awarded a team to Philadelphia instead. MLS were vindicated when Cooper was forced to fold the teams he created after being overlooked by the league. AC St. Louis (a second division men’s team) lasted a single season, while Saint Louis Athletica (a women’s team) lasted two. Both folded due to financial hardship. Now, with the Rams leaving, MLS has found an ownership group that they are confident in. (Actually, they found two, but the second one has been somewhat unceremoniously brushed aside.) The group has a well developed plan that the league likes, including advanced plans for a downtown stadium. The MLS expansion bid appears to hinge on the question of funding for that stadium. The owners want $60 million in public funding in order to help build that stadium. Remember, the Rams left after the city’s political establishment refused to fund a new stadium. This public money is not at all a sure-thing. We will find out what happens in April, when the public is set to vote on a proposition guaranteeing the financing. St. Louis’ expansion future depends on what happens in that referendum and, if the response is negative, how the ownership group reacts.
The San Diego Chargers are similarly leaving for LA because their stadium plans were never realized by the city. In a hilarious bout of irony, the Chargers decision to vacate the city to play in a soccer stadium (at least temporarily) allows the city to potentially get a soccer team. There have long been rumours that MLS has been interested in San Diego. However, those rumours have always been accompanied with questions about ownership and a stadium. With this new bid, that appears to have changed.
You may have seen the news about the decently well-known face that has joined the San Diego ownership. While Landon Donovan will look good for the group’d PR, he’s not the real muscle here. The group, known as FS Investors has some deep pockets, with the president of Univision, Juan Carlos Rodriguez, particularly standing out. The bid is otherwise led by business partners, Mike Stone and Nick Stone (apparently, no relation). Joining them are former Qualcomm president Steve Altman and San Diego Padres (MLB) managing partner, Peter Seidler. This group plans to use those pockets to privately finance a stadium to replace Qualcomm Stadium with a 30,000 seat, mixed-use stadium shared with San Diego State University’s football team. The remaining acreage for the site is planned for an entertainment district, student housing, and 55 acres of park space. There’s even plans for a new football stadium in the event that the Chargers decide that LA isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. The whole project is expected to cost $2.5 billion. The stadium itself is expected to cost $200 million, split between the ownership group and the university (with plans to eventually gift the stadium to San Diego State). Because the stadium is privately financed on land already allocated for a sports stadium, the political obstacle here is much smaller than in St. Louis. While the site isn’t exactly in the heart of downtown San Diego, proximity to a trolly line, Interstate 15, and San Diego State make this an accessible location.
San Diego itself is a good size market for MLS. The city sits 17th in metro size, with a population of approximately 3.3 million. However, it is a rather small media market at 28th in the nation. Geography-wise, this puts a fourth California team in the league. A team on the nation’s southern border adds increased opportunity to capture youth talent that may otherwise end up in the Mexican system. However, the league may not be particularly interested in placing yet another West Coast team when there is so much of the interior of the country that goes unrepresented. The competition with Sacramento for an expansion side further complicates this issue. San Diego does create a natural rival with the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC, along with the much-more-distant San Jose Earthquakes. It similarly creates an opportunity for an intriguing international rivalry with Xolos de Tijuana, located just across the border. With many fans and even players crossing the border for Tijuana’s club, the prospect of a Champion’s League match is particularly exciting. As the success of the Xolos demonstrates, the area is very much invested in soccer. That is also reflected in a long history of pre-MLS teams. In particular, there was the San Diego Sockers who played in the NASL from 1978 until the league’s folding in 1984. The Sockers also fielded a popular indoor team from 1976 until 1996, winning 10 championships during those two decades. Note: The Sockers were reformed in and began play again in 2011 as an indoor soccer team that averages a few thousand fans a game.
With a wealthy investor group featuring a figure in an important television partner, a stadium plan, a large population base, and a history of soccer in the area, San Diego’s bid looks to be quite strong. Unless MLS decides to prioritize expansion elsewhere, the San Diego bid falls apart, or Sacramento precludes them, expect an expansion in along the southern California coast.
The Sinking Ship that’s NASL
The NASL saw a crisis at the end of 2016. Skyrocketing costs for wages and transfer fees, stagnating attendance, and failing clubs handicapped the league and pushed it to the brink of collapse. Two clubs left to join USL, one to join MLS, and two ceased to exist. While the league has managed to keep itself going (for now), it certainly looks to be in bad shape. That must certainly come in mind with the bids from Indianapolis and North Carolina. NASL might not be a sure thing and these reasonably successful clubs want to test the waters and see if they can step up into MSL. Tampa has already taken a step further and formally left NASL for the more stable USL. NASL billed itself as a future first division league built on a principle of free-spending, directly in competition with MLS. The ensuing power politics eventually crippled the league and led to the abandonment of that ambition. However, these clubs haven’t given up on reaching that highest tier. Let’s see how they shape up.
Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg
Anybody remember the Tampa Bay Mutiny? They were an MLS original with a badge that featured a bat (at least, I think it’s a bat ...). They fielded the legendary Carlos Valderrama, one of the greatest and most creative players to ever grace the league, both in terms of hairstyle and ability to generate chances and assists. They finished top of the inaugural MLS season, earning a Supporter’s Shield (albeit, retroactively — the award wasn’t created until 1999). Remember them? Yeah, me neither. I was just a child when they contracted in 2001, years before I started following MLS. But the Rowdies don’t want you to remember the Mutiny’s failure anyway.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies were founded in 2008 and first took to the field in 2010. The team name itself is an attempt to look past the Mutiny and celebrate the city’s soccer history. The original Rowdies were an NASL (as in, the 1970’s era NASL) that were widely popular in the area and relatively successful on the field, winning an NASL championship in 1975. The team was so ingrained into the local sports scene that they survived 9 years after the fall of the NASL, playing mostly indoor soccer until they, at last, folded in 1993. The success of the original Rowdies was a major factor in the creation of the Mutiny. However, MLS refused to use the Rowdies name, fearing that tying themselves to the failed NASL would hurt the league. That turned out to be a poor decision and made fans feel alienated. MLS further hampered the team from the start by failing to find an owner. The club was league owned, which made it a secondary priority. The result was an ineffective front office that struggled to generate interest in the community and eventual contraction alongside the Miami Fusion.
But here is a major difference between the Mutiny and the current incarnation of the Rowdies. Whereas the Mutiny never had a proper owner, the Rowdies most certainly do. Bill Edwards, a prominent local businessman, took over ownership of the team in 2013 when the team was under threat of disappearing once again. He has invested a great deal of effort and money into the club and helped guarantee a future forward for the club. Edwards has promised to renovate Al Lang Stadium, the current home of the Rowdies, from an aging baseball stadium into a proper soccer specific stadium, with the on-site construction costs coming from private sources, expected to total $80 million. The site is required to go through a public referendum because Al Lang Stadium is public property with specific legal and political procedures that must be approved by the public. The vote is scheduled for the start of May and, if affirmed, the proposed renovations will only take place if the Rowdies move to MLS. The stadium itself is in a good area, sitting on waterfront property in downtown St. Petersburg, one of the large cities that make up the metro area
Tampa has a lot going for it. The biggest knock in terms of geography is the proximity to Orlando and Miami. MLS might not want a third Florida team, never mind a Florida team with a media market and populous that overlaps with the successful Orlando City. However, there is a lot in terms of upside. A Tampa team would also create a natural rival for both Miami and Orlando. Tampa also is a large and influential city. The metro area sits at 18th in population size, right along with expectations for the size city MLS should be targeting at this stage of growth. Tampa Bay is also a major media market, sitting at 11th. That makes it the largest media market out of all the expansion possibilities, larger than the large population centers of Detroit and Phoenix (and even Miami). MLS is very focused on getting maximum media exposure, and Tampa Bay plays straight into that strategy.
But the single largest shadow looming over the Rowdies remains the previous failure of the Mutiny. MLS doesn’t need to be in Tampa and they may just decide that dredging up bad memories simply isn’t a good idea. For the Rowdies to succeed, they will need to overcome that bad history.
North Carolina has been the site of some very meaningful soccer success in this country. The area has hosted one of the most successful and longest-continuously-running, lower division teams in the country. That team just so happened to wear one of the weirdest sporting names in this country’s history. Yeah, weirder than the Colorado Caribous or Miami Fusion. I mean, what even is a Carolina Railhawk? How does one come up with a name like Railhawk? Evidently, marketing. But that is all a bit of a moot point anyway. The team rebranded from the Railhawks to North Carolina FC as part of their pursuit for an MLS expansion spot.
North Carolina’s history began with the team’s founding in 2006 as part of the then USL. The team was a modest success, playing in front of crowds of a few thousand inside Wakemed Soccer Park (the current name of the stadium) which houses 10,000 and lies in Cary North Carolina, a city lying just west of Raleigh. The numbers, while now viewed as more modest following Orlando City, Sacramento Republic, and FC Cincinnati, were viewed quite positively. MLS had only just begun expanding again and the consistent numbers helped the team get linked with potential MLS expansion. Things changed with the schism of the lower divisions in 2009, with North Carolina leaving the USL for the NASL. At the same time, ownership transferred to the now-infamous Traffic Sports. Traffic Sports used the team to house players as it tried to move them into more lucrative loans and sales as part of its third-party ownership scheme. When Traffic Sports was identified as part of the sophisticated bribery rings implicated in the 2015 FIFA corruption bust by the FBI and charged with bribery and money laundering (to which they pled guilty), the were forced out of ownership. The current owner, Steve Malik, has made his ambitions for MLS very clear. Malik, who made his wealth in the tech industry, grew up in the area and thinks that the long history of soccer in the area makes North Carolina a good MLS expansion candidate. He is certainly right about the long history. While there isn’t so much history in top flight soccer, the area is one of the the most important in the college soccer scene, both for men and women’s soccer. The University of North Carolina has the most prestigious women’s soccer program in the country, winning 22 out of 36 NCAA titles. On the men’s side, both Duke and UNC have won NCAA soccer titles and are perennially considered among the elite collegiate programs. In addition to North Carolina FC, Malik owns a the North Carolina Courage, a National Women’s Soccer League club that just relocated from western New York. Clearly, Malik is committed to the future of soccer in the area.
Raleigh presents a tough case for MLS expansion. The region isn’t very densely populated. The metro area has a population of 1.27 million, making it the 44th largest metro area in the country. If North Carolina was added to the league, it would be the second smallest market, after Salt Lake City. All of the competing bids are from significantly larger population bases, including a competitor in Charlotte, the largest city in the state of North Carolina. Compared to population, the area is a much stronger media market. Sitting at 24th, Raleigh is ahead of the likes of Portland, Kansas City, Columbus, and Salt Lake City, along with much of its competition (though not Charlotte). Back before MLS expanded into Orlando and Atlanta and Miami (maybe), a Raleigh bid may have made much more sense in order to begin addressing the league’s void in the South. However, with expansion over the past few years, the issue in the Deep South has been addressed. MLS still has little direct presence in the Upper South, but there are fewer large cities in this region to choose from. MLS may want to address this, but it is certainly a far less pressing problem. The league can take its time making a decision and, with bids from Charlotte and Nashville alongside Raleigh, they have the luxury of choice. The attendance of the NASL side isn’t good enough to force the issue. Malik, while wealthy, isn't the sort of billionaire that MLS desires. This can be alleviated by adding partners, though whether that will happen will wait to be seen. Finally, there’s the stadium issue. Malik has promised a 24k stadium in an urban area, but that has yet to be finalized. It remains to be seen how Malik will work within area politics to make such a stadium happen.
All told, North Carolina FC’s bid has a lot of good work going into it, with many of the important components. However, none of those components individually stands out against the expansion competition. This makes Raleigh an interesting bid, but one that will require a few of the more prominent competitors to bow out of the race.
The bid for Indianapolis came out of nowhere. I googled Indianapolis MLS Expansion and found 2 results at the very top from the Indianapolis Star, the local newspaper. The first was announcing the bid. The second was from last year and ran with the byline MLS Team in Indy? Probably Not in the Near Future. So, what’s going on?
Indianapolis has a team in the NASL named the Indy Eleven. They play in front of fairly large crowds (last season was over 8K, though that was a decline from the 2 previous seasons) on Carrol stadium on the campus of IUPUI (Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis). It’s just a few blocks from Indianapolis’ scenic downtown entertainment district and the gorgeous Canal Walk. The team itself plays fun and attack-minded soccer. And the crest is one of the best in the country. Indianapolis adds MLS value in the midwest, creating a natural rival for both Chicago and Columbus. And the city is a reasonable media market (#27). Indianapolis makes a lot of sense.
So what’s the problem? Indy Eleven went after an 18K+ stadium, large enough for an MLS team, only to be blocked by political disinterest. After that, the club focused on growing itself within NASL with the eventual hope of riding the league up to first division status. With things changing in NASL, it looks like Indy Eleven has decided, quite recently by the looks of it, to take a different path. This, of course, means that the team still has that situation of building that downtown stadium. According to MLS President, Mark Abbott, the ownership group is only at the beginning of that process. That will mean finding a location, drumming up political support, and finding funding (be it private or public, and, right now, it’s looking to be almost entirely public). That’s a lot of work to do. This Indianapolis ownership will have to work diligently and quickly if it wants to beat out the fierce competition.
Filling in the Map
There’s not much that these 4 teams have in common except that they fill geographic needs. Detroit allows MLS to get a little more presence in the Midwest. Phoenix fills in between California and Texas. Phoenix and Detroit both also happen to be among the largest cities without MLS sides. Nashville and Charlotte give more MLS presence in the South, which, even with Atlanta, Orlando, and Miami, remains sparse. None of the ownership groups are coming in with established, strong lower division sides. However, that likely won’t deter these cities from taking strong steps towards an expansion team, especially one of the last 2 slots. Let’s take a look at these bids.
Detroit has seen a number of different bids with elaborate stadium plans over the years. The most recent proposal involves a complicated land deal with the city’s government, swapping an incomplete prison that is way over budget and building a new, on budget facility elsewhere. The specs for the deal are, well, let’s go with complicated, so I won’t go into more detail on it. If you want to read more, Howler Magazine actually has an interesting piece covering the deal and some of the ethical questions that go along with it.
I find it difficult to gauge how serious this current bid is because of that history of Detroit bids that don’t go anywhere. There was an ambitious and outlandish proposal to repurpose the Silver Dome into a trio composed of an outdoor soccer specific stadium, a concert hall, and an indoor arena. A few years after that, there were plans in the same location involving the same incomplete jail that also stalled. With how convoluted the plan is, how intricate the political dealings are, and how long different owners have tried and failed to get a stadium worked out, I can’t give you a good feeling of what the odds this deal works out are. And the expansion deal hinges on this deal working out with no apparent alternative stadium plan.
While I can’t talk about this very difficult stadium deal, I can talk about the other elements of the Detroit bid. The bid is led by two major sports figures who have partnered to make a Detroit MLS team happen. There’s Tom Gores, the owner of the Detroit Pistons (NBA), and Dan Gilbert, the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers (NBA). The two are each multibillionaires with long experience in sports ownership, exactly the sorts of owners that MLS is looking for. Detroit is well positioned for a regional rivalry with Toronto FC, the Columbus Crew, and the Chicago Fire. There are also possible rivalries if Cincinnati and/or Indianapolis also receive expansions. It also adds coverage from Detroit has a very large population, with a metro area of 4.3 million people, 14th in the nation. The media market is 13th. However, while it is a very large city, this is still Detroit we are talking about. Detroit has been experiencing a slow decline for decades. The city filed for bankruptcy on a debt from $18-20 million four years ago, the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history by 4-5 fold. The city hemorrhaged over a million people since 1950. Detroit in among the leaders in the country in unemployment, crime, and poverty. MLS needs to decide if that’s a market they actually want to be in.
Detroit has a long history of professional soccer, dating before the original NASL, through the NASL’s Detroit Express. The Silverdome played host to the opening match of the 1998 World Cup, with Eric Wynalda bagging a superb free kick goal to match (maybe even one-up) Switzerland’s. However, there is no NASL or USL team in the city now. That doesn’t mean that Detroit isn’t a soccer town, though. It’s just down at the 4th division, in the non-professional levels. Detroit City FC has managed to attract a lot of interest and energy in a place that’s seen hard times just by playing honest, local soccer. However, that doesn’t mean that they want an MLS team competing with them. Detroit City is not tied to the MLS bid and, as explained in this superb article on the club, the two don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on what soccer in the city should look like.
Detroit is a risk for MLS with a lot of upside. It’s got all of the things an MLS team needs on paper, but there’s still an awful lot of work to do. Detroit’s bid hinges on reconciling the political and community support behind an MLS team.
I’m going to be up front about it. I don’t really like Charlotte’s bid, at least not so far. To start with, the expansion ownership group excludes the existing USL side, the Charlotte Independence, potentially creating a situation where the Independence might be forced out of the market. Instead, it is led by the deep pockets of Marcus Smith and his family. The Smiths are known in the area for their extensive ties with NASCAR but they really don’t have ties with soccer. And that inexperience with the sport really shows in the promotional video the ownership group released. After I see that, I feel like I’m walking away with this sense that Smith knows sports marketing, but really doesn’t understand soccer. I mean, it takes 46 seconds for the word soccer to be mentioned for the first — and only — time, and that’s only as part of the name Major League Soccer (though he does say MLS quite a lot). Smith talks frequently about the sports already in the area, mentioning how many fans there are in the area. Fans of what, exactly, is not clear. However, MLS is not interested in my opinion. This is what league president Mark Abbot had to say: “When we look at a family like the Smiths, we’re impressed by the experience they have broadly in sports entertainment, and we think that could be a real asset to us”. Well, they do say that money talks.
Charlotte itself is well positioned for league expansion. The league has a gap in the upper south, in the Carolina’s, Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Charlotte happens to be the largest city in the area, with a metro area of 2.4 million, placing it 22nd in the country, just slightly ahead of Portland and Orlando. Similarly, Charlotte is rated as the 22nd largest media market. The city is well positioned to form a natural rival with DC United and potentially Atlanta.
The stadium plan in the works appears to center around historic American Legion Memorial Stadium, built in 1936 and located in the trendy historic neighborhood of Elizabeth. The area is very walkable, complete with a trolly system. However, the Memorial Stadium itself needs substantial renovations in order to reach the standards of MLS. A plan for completely replacing the stadium is estimated at around $175 million. The current proposal has the Smith family paying $87.5 million for the stadium, with the remainder coming in the form of public funds split between Mecklenburg county and the city of Charlotte. The county appears eager, already agreeing to the $43.75 million. City council isn’t nearly so eager. Apparently, Marcus Smith’s father, Bruton Smith, has an unfavorable reputation with the political establishment, hampering the deal. From the other bids, I’m sure you’ve also picked up that public funding for the stadiums of teams controlled by rich owners is not exactly politically popular at the moment. If Charlotte wants a team, navigating that environment and getting the goodwill from the community and local government will have to be a priority.
Nashville, probably more so than any of the other bids, is really aiming for one of the later spots, teams 27 and 28. The city is an uncertain market, with little professional soccer history and a relatively small population. Nor is Music City exactly known for its sporting culture. However, the bid does have an ambitious billionaire backer and fills an empty spot on the map. If the moving parts come together, Nashville could have an interesting bid. So let’s talk about those moving parts.
Nashville’s never had a professional soccer club. The most the city has seen is a few international games, with the USMNT visiting the city every couple of years for a friendly. This year, the Gold Cup will be staging a few matches in the city. However, there has been precious little club activity in, not only the city, but the entire state. The only NASL team to play in Tennessee was in Memphis, and the Rogues only lasted 3 seasons before moving to Canada. Even the college soccer scene is underdeveloped, with Nashville’s Vanderbilt folding its men’s team in 2006 and the University of Tennessee, based in Knoxville, never fielding a formal NCAA team. However, there is good news for the sport in the state. As I’ve written elsewhere, the NPSL, the fourth division in the soccer pyramid, is performing incredibly well in Tennessee. While this is centered in Chattanooga, it extends to other parts of the state, including Nashville. The amateur level activity attracted USL interest, with a USL expansion side announced to begin play in 2018. Nashville SC will even take on the colors of Nashville FC, a former NPSL side that was replaced by Inter Nashville FC. ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s American 4th division soccer. Turnover happens.)
The ownership centers around one man - John Ingram. Ingram is a multibillionaire with a stake in his family’s investing company, Ingram Industries. The ownership group currently does not include the ownership of Nashville SC, though the club’s leadership has been involved in the bidding process and could join in the future. Ingram seems to be adept at maneuvering the local political scene, with the mayor publicly declaring her support. However, what Ingram really lacks is a stadium plan. There have been talks about putting a 25k seat stadium on the Nashville Fairground or on the campus of Vanderbilt, but there’s been little public movement recently. By the tone of the past conversations, it appears that any stadium would use at least some public financing to make the plan happen. However, there’s another obstacle that needs to be addressed. The leadership group here doesn’t have any experience soccer. I pointed out as much when the team released its promotion video way back in January.
@BrianStraus Wow. It took half the video to get around to actually kicking a ball. And are those highlights of ... Mexico? So disjointed— Adnan Ilyas (@Adnan7631) January 30, 2017
The expansion teams over the last decade have been successful in large part because the leadership has made concerted effort to understand soccer and how it exists in America. That’s something that, to me, looks like this leadership will have to learn.
Nashville sits at a convenient place for an MLS bid. There is a hole in the league’s placement extending from Atlanta in the South, up to Columbus and Washington DC in the North. Nashville happens to sit right in the middle of that space, filling in the map. However, it is not the only viable city in this region. Both Raleigh and Charlotte are larger media markets, with the later also boasting a significantly larger population. Nashville sits at 36th in metro size with 1.8 million people, larger than only Salt Lake City in existing markets. The city comes at 29th in media market size, a more reasonable placement for an MLS expansion but still on the small side.
With a billionaire owner and political support, Nashville certainly has potential. They need to get their focus together, get a stadium plan figured out, and rally support from the community and MLS. However, while they are certainly are shooting for later entry into the league, time is not on their side. Other bids have already gotten more progress in bigger cities and there’s only so many expansion spots to go around.
The Phoenix bid basically caught everybody by surprise. There was no noise on potential expansion before they submitted a bid. Sure, the city was a minor candidate for speculation. It is natural to expect the largest city without an MLS team, sitting at 12th overall with 4.5 million people and the 12th largest media market, would be the subject of rumor. But nobody actually thought there was serious movement here. But, hey, surprises happen.
Phoenix’s bid is led by Berke Bakay, a Turkish immigrant who owns a controlling stake in the Kona Grill restaurant chain. He has managed to bring together an ownership group made up of a number of different mostly local celebrities and business leaders that, together, want to take the local USL side, Phoenix Rising FC, to MLS. Bakay, a fan of Galatasaray, jumped at the opportunity to own his own team and try and bring the sport he grew up with to his adopted home.
The Phoenix ownership group already has secured land 13 miles from downtown Phoenix for a soccer specific stadium should the city be awarded an MLS team. It appears Bakay and his group have already managed to work out the local politics and acquired land that will be tax-free due to its location on a Native American tribal reserve. Bakay promises that the stadium itself will be privately funded through his ownership group, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, and some other financing, though details are not currently known. In the meantime, a temporary stadium is being erected for the USL season.
Phoenix Rising was founded in 2014 as Arizona United SC, replacing a team called Phoenix FC that saw its franchise rights revoked for numerous financial violations and for not paying its players. Over the course of 3 seasons, Phoenix Rising saw only modest crowds, peaking in 2015 with 3,300. After a dismal season managing an average under 1,500, the team was sold to Bakay who began a rebrand. We’ll see this season what direction the club goes under his ownership.
Historically, club soccer has been scant in Phoenix. While the city has a large and growing Latino population and has shown instances of interest in friendlies, there hasn’t ever been a successful pro team in the area. Whether that is because of ownership and front office problems or because of how hard it can be to try and schedule games to avoid the scorching desert heat, I don’t know. But both of these problems will need to be addressed. If those issues are met, there’s that aforementioned huge population base to tap into. At the same time, there is perhaps a potential for rivalries with the Colorado Rapids, Real Salt Lake, and the LA teams. Phoenix probably represents a high reward for a high risk, and it’s up to MLS to decide if the potential is worth it.
That’s all twelve bids going for an MLS Expansion spot. Remember, this time around, there was a formal bidding application with a deadline at the end of January, so we won’t be seeing teams added to this list. With only four spots, the competition will be fierce. What do you think? Did I undersell your city? Give me your thoughts below!