Handicapping MLS Expansion: August Edition

Sacramento Republic FC

Our monthly look at MLS expansion is an interesting one, as steps are taken toward a new facility in Oklahoma City while owners in other cities — specifically, Sacramento — wonder whether it makes financial sense to spend $200 million on an expansion fee.

This month saw plenty of action on the MLS expansion front. Atlanta has always been a sure deal (where construction of a new 2017 stadium now calls for a June 1 opening — but that date is far from certain), and the league finally announced the addition of  Minnesota United FC for the 2017 season, playing out of the University of Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. With a groundbreaking for the new LA FC stadium, a 2018 expansion there is on track.

But who will join them? It’s always been assumed that a Miami team associated with the David Beckham investment group would be part of that 2018 expansion as well. But development of a new Miami stadium has crawled to a halt, and we’re getting to the point where some sort of game plan is needed. Now, normally delays in Miami would be good news for fans in Sacramento and Cincinnati, but a potential $200-million expansion fee is causing some reconsiderations in the sports world.

This is our fourth monthly look at where MLS might be expanding down the road. That MLS is expanding is certain; where MLS is expanding is anything but certain. It’s fascinating to see how prospects change from month to month: MLS is certainly a hot brand, and there are many owners who want in. The MLS expansion process is well-defined: it begins with a solid local ownership group, followed by development of a soccer-only facility. Too many folks commenting on this process tend to look at markets first and disregard the ownership side of the equation. For example: you’d think Phoenix would be a great MLS market, and perhaps it will be someday. But with no MLS-level ownership group on the horizon and the lack of public enthusiasm for a new soccer stadium, it’s hard to see MLS expansion coming to the Valley anytime soon.

Miami: 1:1 Despite the hiccups, many in the MLS world believe a new Miami stadium will be a reality, and that an expansion team will be playing there or temporarily elsewhere in 2018. It’s not a done deal, and the David Beckham group is still seeking more investors, with Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens pitched this month. But it’s alarming that an ownership group with such luminaries is looking for new investors. MLS wants Miami something fierce: it’s a trendy market and the demographics are perfect.

Cincinnati: 1-1 FC Cincinnati just rolls on in the USL, setting attendance records and making plans for an even bigger 2017. A renovated Nippert Stadium helps create the modern soccer experience, but clearly the owners of FC Cincinnati have put into place a game plan positioning the team for an MLS move. The beauty of the plan: it didn’t take tens of millions of dollars to launch the USL squad and adapt Nippert Stadium for pro soccer; rather, it took some pro-sports expertise and a sound game plan. There are already plans for more Nippert Stadium upgrades in 2017, and FC Cincinnati ownership is openly talking MLS. The issue is whether FC Cincinnati has enough of an organization (youth academy, practice facility) to satisfy MLS.

Sacramento: 2:1 There’s a new stadium plan in place, solid ownership, and great community support. The issue is whether a move to MLS would make financial sense. It may not.

Detroit: 4-1 With a proposal from two NBA owners already successful in their fields — including Dan Gilbert, whose big investments in downtown Detroit development has brought new life to a sad situation — the real issue isn’t whether a team can succeed, it’s whether the team can procure funding and land for a new stadium.

San Diego: 5-1 With an investment group led by San Diego Padres owner Peter Seidler and a new-stadium plan emerging for the Mission Valley area, the prospects of MLS in San Diego immensely improved over last month’s ranking.

San Antonio: 6-1 With a stadium built to be expanded to MLS expectations, a solid soccer market and some serious sports backing in the form of Spurs Sports & Entertainment, we expect to hear more in coming months about an MLS bid. However, the $200 million expansion fee may scare SSE away.

Charlotte: 7-1 The prospects of a Charlotte MLS teams surged with significant progress on a Memorial Stadium renovation that would allow for future renovations to accommodate MLS. There has been some concern about the Charlotte sports scene being saturated, but with the USL’s Independence drawing good crowds to a subpar facility, the city’s chance of landing MLS has surged in recent weeks.

Las Vegas: 10-1 Public funding for a new $2.1-billion domed stadium is now far from a done deal, as an influential committee trimmed a potential public component. And with the NHL in town, perhaps the future of soccer in Sin City is hosting big friendlies, not MLS matches.

St. Louis: 20-1 While there’s been talk of St. Louis in MLS and a more active ownership group, a court case dating back to the city’s pursuit of an NFL funding plan may delay things for years.

Oklahoma City: 20-1 It’s still a longshot to see Oklahoma City Energy FC owner Bob Funk Jr. to make a commitment to MLS, but he’s taken the first steps toward an MLS-level stadium — or one expandable to MLS standards, anyway — by purchasing 37 acres of prime downtown real estate. The goal is MLS, but even if Oklahoma City Energy FC sticks in USL, a mixed-use development featuring a stadium is in downtown’s future.

Indianapolis: 20-1 A good ownership group is in place for the NASL’s Indy Eleven, but past attempts to secure state funding for a new stadium have come up short. Still, Indy Eleven has proven there’s passion for soccer in the city, so any talk of MLS can’t be dismissed out of hand.

Nashville: 25-1 The new USL team seems to be doing everything right so far, bringing in the city as team owners discuss a soccer-only facility. But that stadium announcement isn’t expected to come any time soon. A USL team will show if there’s interest in pro soccer in the Music City.

Louisville: 50-1 Louisville City SC is setting attendance records, hitting five figures at a recent match at Slugger Field. The city may be too big for USL and too small for MLS — but a recently released feasibility report on a new stadium may give the team’s investors a roadmap to the future of the sport in Louisville.

Austin: 75-1 Again, no ownership group and no stadium. Austin is viable only if San Antonio fails to land an MLS expansion team.

Phoenix: 100-1 No owner and no facility — just a lot of fans whose support of soccer is mixed. Given the other facility issues in the Valley (Suns, Coyotes, Diamondbacks), talk of a new soccer stadium is pretty nonexistent.

RELATED STORIES: Handicapping MLS Expansion: July Edition; Handicapping MLS Expansion: June Edition; Handicapping MLS Expansion: May Edition

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