Should Raleigh MLS expansion be on agenda?

Carolina RailhawksWhile MLB Commissioner Don Garber has made it clear that Atlanta, Minnesota and a Texas team are at the top of the list for expansion franchises, some are calling on Raleigh MLS expansion to catapult to serious consideration.

Raleigh isn’t a large market, even by MLS standards and even when you throw in Durham and the entire Triangle population. It’s a market that’s struggled to support NHL hockey and one where anything other than college basketball faces some serious challenges. One could even argue that the Durham Bulls (the Triple-A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) has underperformed relative to the rest of the International League, ranking #16 among all Minor League Baseball teams in attendance in 2013.

Mark Jones of Bleacher Report makes every mistake you can make in arguing that Raleigh MLS expansion deserves consideration: because the Carolina Railhawks (NASL) were undefeated at home in 2013, Raleigh MLS expansion is feasible. Because the NHL is supported, Raleigh MLS expansion is feasible. Because the Railhawks averaged 4,708 fan in a 10,000-seat facility, Raleigh MLS expansion is feasible.

But, as it stands now, Raleigh MLS expansion is not feasible. First, MLS Commissioner Don Garber was pretty clear about not seeing Raleigh MLS expansion as happening any time soon in his state-0f-the-league presser earlier this month:

“We’ve always looked around it, because it is a hotbed of soccer….We’ll monitor it. We’ve said we need to get south of Washington, D.C. Atlanta is a southern team. [He didn’t mention Orlando, scheduled to compete beginning in 2015.] I’m not sure North Carolina is coming anytime soon.”

It’s pretty hard not to see that anything but definitive about the lack of enthusiasm in MLS offices about expansion to Raleigh.

Even if MLS was supportive, any Raleigh MLS expansion is financially challenging. WakeMed Soccer Park is a great NASL facility, but expanding the 10,000-seat facility to the 25,000 or so required by MLS means a serious financial commitment. There’s not a large corporate base in the Triangle, as opposed to the many Fortune 500 companies in Minneapolis-St. Paul and Atlanta.

Jones threw a lot of words into an argument that Raleigh should be taken seriously as an MLS expansion target. But given the small size of the market, the lack of a corporate base, and the lack of the deep-pocketed ownership needed to make MLS work, it’s pretty clear Garber is right to put North Carolina near the bottom of the expansion list.

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