MLS Expansion Handicapping: September 2017

Proposed Detroit MLS stadium

With MLS expansion decisions expected before the end of the year, there is plenty of jockeying among potential ownership groups for a slot in one of sport’s hottest leagues. As we pass Labor Day, here is our latest set of odds regarding who’s in and who’s out.

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 enter the league in 2018, and we are assuming the David Beckham expansion bid will succeed, making Miami the 24th MLS team. Now, when that happens remains to be seen: the new Miami stadium plan is still stalled, but the Beckham team could actually begin play at a temporary facility before the new stadium opens.

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, and investors buy into the league, not just their specific teams. 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 big consideration, so the groups with firm stadium plans in place will fare better in the evaluation process. In short: 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 September 5, 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. The last time we posted this list we ranked Sacramento, Cincinnati, Detroit and Nashville (in that order), and at the MLS All-Star Game MLS Don Garber spoke favorably about those four markets in several media appearances.

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. Work is already beginning on the new downtown stadium, suggesting the owners are pretty confident of landing that MLS expansion team.

Nashville: 2-1 A framework of a deal for a new stadium at The Fairgrounds Nashville is in place, and the Nashville SC owners are following a familiar blueprint by launching a USL team in 2018. There’s little doubt Nashville is a sizzling-hot market. Add in six Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Nashville, additional big-buck owners in the form of the Wilf family, and Nashville has plenty of advantages in this competition. Any bid with a strong ownership group and governmental support will have an advantage.

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. It looks like all sides agree on a framework of a deal to swap a downtown site currently housing a half-finished jail in exchange for a stadium site and a new jail elsewhere, clearing the way to a successful MLS bid. 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 Give Phoenix Rising FC credit: the owners certainly are acting like they’re first in line to land an expansion franchise, announcing backing from Goldman Sachs for new-stadium financing and holding a public cattle call for potential stadium architects. 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.

Cincinnati: 3-1 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, but it’s not clear whether there’s any public money for a new soccer facility. 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.

San Antonio: 5-1 City officials are solidly behind public funding of an expansion of Toyota Field for MLS, but Spurs Sports & Entertainment has been quiet about its MLS expansion efforts. Great crowds at Toyota Field for USL games and friendlies have impressed many. 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. Whether San Antonio has the corporate base and demographics to land a team in a state already hosting two MLS teams is another question.

San Diego: 8-1 At one point San Diego was a lock to land a franchise, but political battles there have put the the SoccerCity initiative, a huge development at the Qualcomm Stadium site that includes a new MLS stadium, on hold. 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. There are some big names with the San Diego bid, but it may be a matter of too little, too late. As with Detroit, the San Diego bidders would need to build a soccer infrastructure from scratch.

Raleigh/Durham: 9-1 North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik presented a new stadium plan in July, 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 it’s not clear whether a split state legislature would come up with aid. 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.

Tampa Bay: 10-1 When St. Petersburg voters approved an expansion of Al Lang Stadium to accommodate the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ bid for an MLS expansion team, they didn’t vote for any public funding. Tampa Bay is a hot market, and a stylishly upgraded Al Lang Stadium on the waterfront could be a major community amenity. Rowdies owner Bill Edwards needs to come up the $80 million to expand Al Lang Stadium and the reported $150-million expansion fee–but he does have a big lawsuit against his St. Petersburg-based Mortgage Investors Corp. to defend, leading to some question whether he can pull off the financials needed for a new stadium.

St. Louis: 45-1 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. Still, there is talk about reviving the MLS bid, but it’s awfully late in the MLS expansion process to launch a new effort. Is any MLS expansion to St. Louis dead? It sure sounds like it, but we’ve seen stranger things than a potential MLS expansion franchise rise from the dead.

Charlotte: 50-1 With Mecklenburg County bailing on public financing/funding of a new stadium and the city of Charlotte totally uninterested in owning Memorial Stadium, much less funding an expansion for MLS, it looks for the moment that a bid once considered a strong contender is now a definite long shot.

Indianapolis: 500-1 Ersal Ozdemir’s Indy Eleven has been tremendously successful in the NASL, but he’s come up short in attracting any public financing for a new stadium. It would take a miracle to see Indianapolis snare an expansion team.

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