MLS Expansion: What Comes Next?

Sacramento Republic FC Week 15

The MLS expansion process has never been transparent, and with the decision to delay additional decisions until the first few months of 2018, there’s much uncertainty as to future league markets.

That Nashville landed an expansion team late in 2017 was no surprise: with a strong and deep-pocketed ownership group, a financing plan for a new stadium and plenty of civic support, Nashville was a natural choice for league officials. By putting together a well-designed game plan, Nashville interests wooed MLS officials to the point where Commissioner Don Garber admitted the league fell in love with the market. (And what’s not to love? Nashville is one of the trendiest markets in the United States.)

But the decision to put off further expansions plans, while logical, inserts a high level of uncertainty to a league that’s been pretty disciplined on the business front. Pro soccer in the United States has been a boom-and-bust roller coaster in the past, but the MLS game business plan called for slow and steady growth, with a centralized ownership structure that puts league interests first. As the league grew in popularity, the fee to enter the league has risen as well.

A development that certainly hurt Sacramento Republic FC owners last month, as their application to move to MLS from USL was put on hold, pending additions to the ownership group. Owner Kevin Nagle was open about the reason why the application is on hold: the ownership group needs another billionaire or two to meet league requirements. For Sacramento to enter MLS, at least $400 million—and probably more—will be needed to pay the $150 million expansion fee and at least $250 million for a new downtown stadium. That MLS is giving Sacramento more time to put together a deep-pocketed ownership group says that city does indeed have the inside track on landing an expansion team; otherwise, the league could have moved forward with Miami, FC Cincinnati and Detroit and called it a day.

The temporary hold does give new hope to San Antonio and San Diego interests as well. Austin is still a work in progress, and if Anthony Precourt can’t come to an agreement for a new downtown stadium, San Antonio may be back in play. And the more delays we have in expansion, the more viable a SoccerCity development in San Diego becomes. And the more delays we have with an Miami expansion team, the more hope Phoenix fans have in landing an expansion team. True, San Antonio, San Diego and Phoenix remain long shots in landing an MLS expansion team. For the exceedingly well-organized MLS league office to create such uncertainty in the expansion process, though, is unusual. And while things may be sorted out in the next few months, for now the soccer fans in Sacramento, Cincinnati and Detroit will need to be content to wait things out.

Image courtesy Sacramento Republic FC.

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