Handicapping MLS Expansion: April 2017 Edition

Orlando City

With voters shooting down public funding of a new St. Louis MLS stadium, the emergence of Didier Drogba as a potential Phoenix Rising owner and public support for a Al Lang Stadium upgrade, the pecking order for future MLS expansion is upended in our monthly review of the contenders.

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. There has been some under-the-surface activity in Miami regarding a new stadium, we are told. 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. Keep that in mind as you evaluate the odds on your own.

When we evaluate these odds, we rely on a few factors. First, MLS officials have made it clear they judge bids by several criteria, and a prime criterion 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 ado, here’s our summary of the 12 expansion bids and their odds for success.

Sacramento: 1-1 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. Sacramento is already a USL success and has should easily make the transition to MLS.

San Diego: 2-1 There’s still some uncertainly around a San Diego MLS bid, but league officials are giving the San Diego ownership group every chance to succeed. San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer is working with San Diego State University on a stadium agreement that will please the MLS group, FS Investors, as well as the school. If that happens—and every indication is that it will—voters will be asked to approve the larger SoccerCity development at the Qualcomm Stadium site, via fall referendum. (There is no hurry: MLS Commissioner Don Garber says no decisions on expansion will be made until the San Diego situation is resolved via the referendum.) 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—as well as MLS legend Landon Donovan. The bid would certainly fill the perceived void created by the departure of the NFL’s San Diego Chargers. 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.

Cincinnati: 2-1 Attracting hordes of fans to Nippert Stadium is impressive, but MLS officials have made it clear that a new stadium is a must. (That may change after an analysis of per caps in 2017: the team’s 2016 success can be partially attributed to cheap seats, but FC Cincinnati added multiple beer gardens and other revenue enhancers for the 2017 season.) And the FC Cincinnati ownership has launched a training academy and youth program – two items on the MLS expansion checklist. With an ownership group with deep pockets and documented sports-business experience, those huge crowds will be a huge temptation to MLS officials.

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. The Detroit ownership group has been negotiating with Wayne County over a swap that would move a half-finished county jail to another site, freeing the downtown location for a new MLS stadium. A final decision on any land swap is expected in May. One potential drawback for immediate approval: Detroit would need to build a pro-soccer organization (youth academy, secondary affiliate) from scratch, along with the stadium.

Phoenix: 3-1 Phoenix Rising FC went from nothing to something in a matter of weeks. The Phoenix Rising bid features a solid ownership, an interesting stadium plan and some star power with the addition of Didier Drogba as a player/owner. The issue will be a new permanent stadium, though the location side of the equation seems to be solved. Still, 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.

Nashville: 4-1 The Nashville MLS Organizing Committee has come a long way in the last year, 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. The organization is building infrastructure and launching a USL team in 2018. Any bid with a strong ownership group and governmental support will have an advantage.

Tampa Bay: 4-1 May will be a big month for MLS expansion hopes. St. Petersburg voters will be asked to approve an expansion of Al Lang Stadium to accommodate the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ bid for an MLS expansion team. Tampa Bay is a hot market, and a stylishly upgraded Al Lang Stadium on the waterfront could be a major community amenity. Polls show overwhelming support for the Al Lang Stadium expansion.

San Antonio: 4-1 Spurs Sports & Entertainment will face a huge challenge in seeking any public funding of its home stadium for MLS: taxpayer support. On the plus side, the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs is behind the MLS application, and the organization has managed to please local sports fans with great times and a great arena experience. But 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.

Charlotte: 5-1 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. Smith continues to meet with MLS officials, we hear, but the city of Charlotte continues to be cool to the idea of using hotel taxes to help fund a new stadium.

Raleigh/Durham: 9-1 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 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.

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.

St. Louis: 12-1 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. Turns out the departure of the Rams turned voters against the idea of public funding of a new stadium. The potential MLS ownership say they have no interest in pursuing a new stadium, but we’ve seen stranger things than a potential MLS expansion franchise rise from the dead.

Image courtesy Orlando City SC.

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