MLS Expansion Handicapping: July 2017

FC Cincinnati Stadium rendering

As we hit the middle of summer, the heat is rising on MLS expansion efforts. Everyone is expecting the first round of expansion announcements to come before the end of 2017–November or December–and as a result we’re seeing local owners step up their efforts as MLS officials make the rounds.

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. That leaves four expansion slots for 2019 and 2020 at the earliest, and while the specific MLS expansion schedule isn’t set in stone, the expectation is that two teams could be announced before the end of 2017 and two more next year. We’ve been posting these odds since last fall, and it’s interesting to see how contenders rise and fall.

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. MLS loves new stadiums built for pro soccer. Without further ado, here’s our summary of the 12 expansion bids and their odds for success as of July 2017. There are plenty of developments behind the scenes that will alter this list in coming months, of course, but if decisions were made today, we’re confident this list would come close to any final ranking.

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 downtown stadium plan approved by city officials. Sacramento Republic FC is already a huge success, and the skids are greased to ease the organization right into MLS. Sacramento is already a USL success and has should easily make the transition to MLS.

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. To that end, FC Cincinnati owners have been working on a new-stadium plan, though it’s a hard sell in a city where some Hamilton County officials feel burned on the debt service for Reds and Bengals stadiums. 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 swap that would move a half-finished county jail to another site, freeing a prime downtown location for a new MLS stadium. The consensus seems to be that the swap is a good deal for all. 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.

Nashville: 3-1 With huge crowds at recent Gold Cup matches and plenty of civic and governmental support, Nashville has emerged as a very serious contender to land an MLS expansion team. Mayor Megan Berry has come out in favor of a new stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville, and there’s little doubt Nashville is a sizzling-hot market. Add in six Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Nashville, 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.

San Antonio: 3-1 Spurs Sports & Entertainment has been quiet about its MLS expansion efforts, preferring instead to work behind the scenes. That effort seems to be working. Great crowds at Toyota Field for USL games and friendlies have impressed many, and city leaders have come out explicitly for an expansion of Toyota Field for MLS. 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.

Phoenix: 4-1 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 (the team recently interviewed six architecture firms regarding new-stadium design) 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 from area corporations to allow for a new MLS stadium and associated sponsorship/naming rights. But Phoenix Rising ownership has quietly laid the groundwork to land an MLS expansion franchise.

San Diego: 4-1 At one point San Diego was a lock to land a franchise, but political battles there may doom the SoccerCity initiative, a huge development at the Qualcomm Stadium site that includes a new MLS stadium. A referendum to allow a land transfer has been pushed back to November 2018, and there are forces working to open the Qualcomm Stadium site competition to allow other bidders. Meanwhile, the SoccerCity development is basically on hold until the referendum, as investors ask MLS to wait for San Diego. 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. As with Detroit, the San Diego bidders would need to build a soccer infrastructure from scratch.

Tampa Bay: 5-1 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 now Rowdies owner Bill Edwards needs to come up the $80-million to expand Al Lang Stadium and the reported $150 million expansion fee–money dependent on landing an MLS franchise.

Charlotte: 5-1 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 $30 million in hotel taxes. But talks continue, and Mecklenburg County is solidly behind a new-stadium plan. Charlotte’s chances to land a team has dramatically risen the past few months, but the real challenge may be leapfrogging the many strong bids already in place.

Raleigh/Durham: 10-1 North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik presented a new stadium plan this month, which is good news for Triangle soccer fans. It’s a pretty cool plan: $150 million, 22,000-seat facility that would be constructed as part of larger development in downtown Raleigh. That’s a biggie. But it would require state aid of some sort (the proposed site is owned by the state), and Charlotte-area lawmakers are already warning against such aid. It’s unlikely both Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham could land an MLS team, so state politics will be an important factor here. (The Charlotte bid does not include any state participation.) 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: 30-1 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: 50-1 Voters emphatically shot down the idea of public funding for a new MLS stadium. Since then, reps from the St. Louis ownership 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.

Rendering courtesy of FC Cincinnati.

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