Handicapping MLS Expansion: January Edition

Al Lang Stadium renovation rendering

Late December and early January was a hectic period when it came to future MLS expansion, but we’re not sure things are much more clearer. With St. Louis cut off from state funding for a potential new stadium and league insiders singing the praises of Tampa Bay, the pecking order for expansion markets has shifted once again in the New Year.

The backstory: We know that MLS expansion will happen down the road, as the league looks to add up to four new markets. We know Miami is in the driver’s seat when it comes to league preferences and the core of an ownership group. But the lack of progress on a new stadium and a search for additional investors is certainly alarming. MLS wants Miami something fierce: it’s a trendy market and the demographics are perfect. So until we hear otherwise, we’ll continue with the assumption that Miami via the Beckham ownership group is the leading contender to land an expansion team. (Yes, we know it’s far from a sure thing.) Here are our odds on the rest of the pack.

When we evaluate these odds, we rely on a few things. First, MLS officials have made it clear they judge bids by several criteria, and a prime criteria is a solid ownership group. Makes sense: MLS is built for the long haul, not just for a season or two. Next is the strength of the market on a financial basis: Fortune 500 headquarters and large corporate presences. So take these odds knowing that they may not have the same criteria as you do.

Nashville: 2-1 Here we have a solid ownership group in what many consider to be a good–and very trendy–market. There is still the need to prove whether the city can consistently support pro soccer, but so far there’s been civic enthusiasm for the launch of a USL team in 2018.

Sacramento: 3:1 Sacramento keeps moving in and out of the list of frontrunners to land a team. Curiously, nothing really changes with the merits of the Sacramento bid or ownership group; what changes is the quality of bids and owners in other cities. So let’s just say there’s a lot to like with the Sacramento bid, and being a model of stability in an ever-shifting world is a plus.

San Diego: 4-1 The departure of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers to Los Angeles creates a void in the local sporting scene that could be filled by pro soccer. It also clears the way for San Diego to finally tear down aging Qualcomm Stadium and replace it with a scaled-down facility perfect for San Diego State and an MLS team. With a well-regarded ownership group in place, the potential of a San Diego MLS team has never been brighter.

Detroit: 5-1 A solid ownership group with a solid stadium plan. We should know soon whether county and city leaders buy into the MLS vision, however.

Tampa Bay: 5-1 Rowdies owner Bill Edwards received a very warm reception from city officials on a privately financed Al Lang Stadium renovation plan, expanding the former ballpark into an 18,00-seat MLS venue. Tampa Bay seems to be the kind of market that would do well with an MLS team in terms of demographics and climate, and it seems to be gaining some momentum in league circles.

Cincinnati: 6-1 A visit by MLS Commissioner Don Garber to Cincinnati in late 2016 didn’t yield commitments, and he seemed unconvinced that Nippert Stadium was a long-term home for MLS. A solid ownership group, it seems, needs to make the leap to a new stadium — upgrades to Nippert Stadium may not be enough.

Charlotte: 7-1 It may end up being a money thing in Charlotte, where the city and Mecklenburg County are being asked to a combined pay $100 million for a new stadium at the current Memorial Stadium site. At a time when other current and potential MLS owners are privately financing their own new facilities (Minnesota, Tampa Bay), this may be a hard sell.

Las Vegas: 10-1 The city of Las Vegas wants MLS and is working to land a team, which may or may not be part of the grand plan at a new Raiders stadium. But with Las Vegas officials pushing MLS again, the chances of a team there went up.

San Antonio: 10-1 Besides Tampa Bay, San Antonio may be the biggest dark horse here. The demographics are good, but the lack of a huge corporate base may be the biggest issue.

St. Louis: 10-1 The loss of potential state funding for a new MLS stadium certainly lowered the chances of the city landing an MLS team. The impasse may be fatal, though there may be private investors (associated with a rival MLS bid, though) willing to step up.

Research Triangle (North Carolina): 11-1 Another ownership group using the FC Cincinnati blueprint. Steve Malik says research indicates the region can support MLS, but plenty of work needs to be put into proving it can support a second-division team, and talk of a new stadium is extremely preliminary. But the demographics and corporate support are sound.

Louisville: 50-1 There’s a roadmap for Louisville to play in the USL in a new stadium that can be expanded for MLS. But the market may be too big for USL and too small for MLS.

Oklahoma City: 100-1 With so many ownership groups expressing interest in MLS, talk of the sport’s future in Oklahoma City has been curiously muted. We may hear more later this year.

Phoenix: 200-1 If, in two years, we have a new Tempe stadium and a truly resurgent Phoenix Rising in the USL, we can think about MLS down the line. But some serious groundwork needs to be laid in the meantime. We’ll learn how much Phoenicians want pro soccer after the next few USL seasons.

Austin: 500-1 No ownership group, no stadium and no team for 2017.

Rendering courtesy Tampa Bay Rowdies. 

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