Handicapping MLS Expansion: February Edition

San Diego MLS Stadium rendering

With the submission of 12 bids for an MLS expansion franchise at the end of January, our handicapping of the horse race to land a team takes a different format. Here’s our monthly evaluation of the expansion process.

This list handicaps the 12 contenders for an MLS expansion franchise, as the league plans for a future 28-team circuit. We know LAFC will be the 23rd MLS team, and we know MLS officials are saving the 24th slot for Miami. Now, we all know MLS loves Miami. We know MLS wants to have David Beckham as the face of a Miami franchise, and we know the David Beckham will be given every opportunity to put together a game plan that includes a privately financed stadium. But a new stadium is not a done deal, as there’s always the chance the Miami franchise could fall through. If that happens, we could be see five bids accepted for coming years, not four. So keep that in mind as you evaluate the odds on your own.

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. (The size of the market isn’t as important as the financial strength of a market.) Finally, facility issues are always a consideration, so the groups with firm stadium plans in place will fare better in the evaluation process. Without further adieu, here’s our summary of the 12 expansion bids and their odds for success.

San Diego: 2-1 Here’s a tell: MLS commissioner Don Garber was on hand this past Monday to personally receive the MLS expansion application during a ceremony on the deck of the USS Midway. Also on hand: San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer and MLS legend Landon Donovan. The San Diego bid includes some very prominent members of the local business community—former Qualcomm president Steve Altman, Bridgewest Group technology entrepreneurs Massih and Masood Tayeb, San Diego Padres managing partner Peter Seidler and sports media executive Juan Carlos Rodriguez—and would fill the perceived void created by the departure of the NFL’s San Diego Padres. With a plan for a privately financed $200-million stadium at the current Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley, the San Diego bid would see to meet every MLS checklist item.

Sacramento: 2-1 We have an ownership group filled with big names—H-P’s Meg Whitman, the 49ers’ Jed York, as well as several Sacramento Kings owners—and a stadium plan that’s already been approved by city officials. What could derail the bid: Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle made the bid on behalf of his own firm, freezing Sacramento Republic FC in the process. MLS officials responded by saying that the principals on both sides will be given time to combine efforts; if they can’t, the Sacramento bid may falter. Update: Nagle and Warren Smith have patched their differences, leading to a united bid.

Detroit: 3-1 Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons owner) and Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers owner) may be the strongest ownership group in this competition, and the combination of business acumen and sports-business experience is certainly appealing. But the proposed stadium plan, while having the merit of being privately financed, faces some serious opposition from Wayne County officials, who are moving ahead with plans to completed a stalled jail plan on the site. If the stadium issue were more clearly defined, we’d rate this as even money.

Nashville: 3-1 The Nashville MLS Organizing Committee has come a long ways in six months, garnering the support of mayor Megan Berry for a new stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville. Add in six Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Nashville and the status of being a very trendy market, and Nashville has plenty of advantages in this competition.

Tampa Bay: 3-1 In a less-crowded field, a bid from Bill Edwards built around the Tampa Bay Rowdies and a renovated Al Lang Stadium would be a shoo-in. But with so many strong bids submitted to MLS, this needs something to cut through the clutter. Still, we would not be surprised if this bid isn’t a finalist.

San Antonio: 4-1 Spurs Sports & Entertainment, owner of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, submitted an application. While that represents a huge advantage on the ownership side, the stadium side of the equation will be a challenge. Opposition to public spending on sports facilities has stalled development of a new Triple-A ballpark, and that opposition could spill over into any debates over an expanded stadium for MLS.

St. Louis: 4-1 A solid ownership (Paul Edgerley, Jim Kavanaugh, Dave Peacock, Terry Matlack) and a perceived hole in the marketplace with the departure of the NFL’s Rams certainly drew the attention of MLS officials. But the whole stadium situation is still unsettled, with public funding up in the air. If we see a solid financing plan with a clear public participation, the odds become better immediately.

Cincinnati: 4-1 Attracting hordes of fans to Nippert Stadium was quite the feat, but MLS officials have made it clear that a new stadium is a must. Still, with an ownership group with deep pockets and documented sports-business experience, those huge crowds will a huge temptation to MLS officials.

Phoenix: 5-1 Phoenix Rising FC went from nothing to something in a matter of weeks. Like most of the players, the Phoenix Rising bid features a solid ownership and an interesting stadium plan. But the stadium plan is still not finalized, and there’s a lot of uncertainty in the Phoenix sports market with the Suns, Diamondbacks and Coyotes all seeking new facilities—and the sports marketing dollars to match.

Raleigh/Durham: 6-1 North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik did indeed submit an expansion application, but he’s not talking yet about how he would address the stadium issue. That’s a biggie. Raleigh/Durham is a tweener market: minor-league sports like baseball do really well, but it’s no secret the NHL Carolina Hurricanes are struggling. Bonus: high-tech industries in the Triangle are a natural fan/sponsorship for a sport like pro soccer.

Charlotte: 7-1 While there’s a solid owner in Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith, there’s less firm news about a new stadium, and without the participation of the USL’s Charlotte Independence, there’s less momentum behind the application.

Indianapolis: 10-1 Ersal Ozdemir, whose Indy Eleven has been tremendously successful in the NASL, has put together a pretty impressive ownership group for an MLS bid. But opposition to public funding of a proposed 20,000-seat downtown stadium will hinder the bid—unless private financing is in the offing. Still, it was very smart business to make a bid: it tells the Indianapolis market that Ozdemir is serious about making pro soccer work.

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