MLS Expansion Handicapping Odds: October 2017 Edition

Atlanta United FC

As we approach the middle of December, we should see the first MLS expansion decisions before the end of the year—and, as a result, activity from contending ownership groups is growing more intense. That makes for an interesting ranking of MLS expansion contenders in our monthly handicapping.

This list ranks the 12 official 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. Indeed: in the last month, a judge tossed out a challenge to a land sale by Miami-Dade County, paving the way for a new stadium. Will we see a team other than Miami added for 2018? If so, that’s good news for Cincinnati fans: Nippert Stadium is a fine temporary facility, and there’s already a fan base that comes out to USL games in droves. That also relieves some pressure on Beckham and crew to deliver the new stadium, it allows Sacramento Republic to play in USL before moving to a new downtown stadium, and it allows Detroit and Nashville to develop their stadiums for a second expansion round. Really, this is now turning into a scheduling issue as much as a selection issue — and there is an abundance of riches for MLS.

MLS officials expect to be announcing the first round in the Dec. 19-20 timeframe. The expectation is that two teams will be announced before the end of 2017 and two more next year. We’ve been posting these odds since last fall based on chats with industry insiders, 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 Oct. 23, 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. Work has already begun on the facility, and the team announced a binding jersey sponsorship deal with UC Davis Health. The ownership group is certainly acting like an MLS bid is in the offing.

Nashville: 1-1 Public bonding for a new MLS stadium at the Fairgrounds Nashville has already been approved by the city’s Sports Authority and is expected to be approved by the full Metro Council in Nashville, 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.

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, 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. A bonus: MLS Commissioner Don Garber hinted that the soccer-only guideline in place for expansion teams may not be absolute.

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, and there’s really not much of a gap between the #1 and #5 cities in our list.

San Antonio: 6-1 City officials are solidly behind public funding of an expansion of Toyota Field for MLS. 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 and G-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. And the proposal by owner Anthony Precourt to potentially move the Columbus Crew to Austin would negatively impact any San Antonio bid.

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 San Diego State is openly seeking control of the Qualcomm Stadium site for its own stadium plan. 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: 12-1 Is there the state money to acquire land for a new downtown Raleigh stadium? North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik presented the plan for a $150-million, 22,000-seat facility constructed as part of larger development in downtown Raleigh. But it would require state aid of some sort, and so far there’s been little indication lawmakers will step up to put together the land parcel. 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: 15-1 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. Plus, the upcoming municipal election may bring forth a mayor more interested in keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in downtown than fostering MLS dreams.

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. 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: 500-1 With Mecklenburg County bailing on public financing/funding of a new stadium and Charlotte officials saying there’s no way they can put together a public funding plan to meet MLS deadlines, this bid is dead for now.

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.

Image courtesy Atlanta United FC.

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