Handicapping MLS Expansion: May 2017 Edition

FC Cincinnati

With decisions about MLS expansion not expected until the end of 2017–November or December at the earliest, it appears–little has changed in the last month when it comes to cities where fans can expect a new Major League Soccer team.

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 it increasingly looks like the David Beckham expansion bid will succeed, making Miami the 24th MLS team. (Last month we noted some under-the-surface activity in Miami regarding a new stadium, and since then the Miami group emerged with a new stadium plan, a new design team and indications that the project will move forward.) That leaves four expansion slots for 2019 and 2020 at the earliest, and this list covers the 12 ownership groups submitting expansion applications.

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 that can afford both the reported $150-million expansion fee and enough capital for operating expenses, both for the MLS team and support operations like a training academy. 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, which includes 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, generates impressive revenues and should easily make the transition to MLS.

San Diego: 2-1 Voters will probably be asked to weigh in on the SoccerCity initiative this fall, and early polling indicates plenty of support. San Diego mayor Kevin Faulconer has been working with the MLS group, FS Investors, even after San Diego State University dropped out of the process. It’s no secret that MLS has been very supportive of the San Diego bid and consider it a good market, especially with the San Diego Chargers moving to Los Angeles. How supportive? 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. With a plan for a privately financed stadium at the current Qualcomm Stadium site in Mission Valley, the San Diego bid would seem to meet every MLS checklist item. One potential drawback for immediate approval: San Diego would need to build a pro-soccer organization (youth academy, secondary affiliate) from scratch, along with the stadium.

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, and FC Cincinnati owners have launched a search for a stadium site. 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: 2-1 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 land swap that would yield a new county jail elsewhere in Detroit, freeing the downtown location (where there currently is a half-finished jail) for a new MLS stadium. A final decision on any land swap is expected soon. 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.

Tampa Bay: 3-1 St. Petersburg voters approved 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. Now comes the hard part: the referendum merely gave public approval to the project, but Rowdies owner Bill Edwards needs to come up the $80-million to expand Al Lang Stadium and the reported $150 million expansion fee–dependent on landing an MLS franchise.

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.

Phoenix: 5-1 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 (complete with financing) and some star power with the addition of Didier Drogba as a player/owner. There is a lot of uncertainty in the Phoenix sports market with the Suns, Diamondbacks and Coyotes all seeking new or renovated facilities–and there may not be the sports marketing dollars to allow for a new MLS stadium.

San Antonio: 6-1 Things have been really quiet since Spurs Sports & Entertainment submitted an MLS expansion application. MLS loves a strong ownership group, and Spurs Sports–which also owns AHL, WNBA and D-League teams–certainly has the track record to be successful in MLS. We do have a facilities issue here: there’s been little talk of public money for pro soccer amongst city leaders, and general talk of any public spending on sports facilities has not been positive.

Charlotte: 15-1 While there’s a solid owner in Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith, the city appears to have no interest in funding a new MLS stadium via hotel taxes. City leaders say they have not been discussing funding of a new stadium, and without that $43.75 million piece of the puzzle, we don’t see an MLS effort moving forward.

Raleigh/Durham: 20-1 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. Raising the $150 million expansion fee and $100 million to launch operations will be a challenges well. 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 base for a sport like pro soccer.

Indianapolis: 20-1 Ersal Ozdemir, whose Indy Eleven has been tremendously successful in the NASL, 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: 50-1 Voters emphatically shot down the idea of public funding for a new MLS stadium. Since then, reps from the St. Louis ownership have emphatically shot down any suggestion that they could move forward with an alternative stadium plan. Is any MLS expansion to St. Louis totally dead? It sure sounds like it, but we’ve seen stranger things than a potential MLS expansion franchise rise from the dead.

Image courtesy FC Cincinnati.

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