MLS Expansion Talks Still Abuzz in North Carolina

North Carolina FC Stadium rendering

The MLS expansion scene in North Carolina could become more intriguing, as North Carolina FC continues its pitch while the Carolina Panthers‘ new owner has expressed interest in MLS. 

In the previous round of expansion, both Raleigh and Charlotte were involved in discussions about a potential MLS club. North Carolina FC owner Steve Malik unveiled plans last summer for a new downtown Raleigh stadium (shown above), with the facility anchoring a larger development concept. Charlotte, meanwhile, had a bid led by Speedway Motorsports president and CEO Marcus Smith that called for the construction of a new soccer-specific stadium on the current site of Memorial Stadium.

MLS expansion efforts in Charlotte seemingly fizzled out late last year, as Smith’s proposal failed to gain traction among local officials. However, discussions of MLS in Charlotte have not stopped completely, thanks to a recent ownership change for the NFL’s Panthers. New Panthers owner David Tepper has talked favorably about adding MLS to the mix, which was acknowledged this week by MLS commissioner Don Garber. In his comments, Garber offered positive words about Tepper, while noting that Malik’s bid remains on the league’s radar. There has been little public discussion of late about North Carolina FC’s MLS expansion push, but Malik says that he is working to build momentum for his proposal over the coming months. More from the News & Observer:

“We’re intrigued by Charlotte,” Garber said. “We’re well aware of David Tepper’s interest and obviously that’s a great development for the city, for their football team, for their fans. The fact that he’s interested in MLS is a positive. We’ve also had lots of interest from Raleigh. Steve Malik who owns the NWSL and the USL team in that market is here this weekend, he’s a big close friend of the league, and is focused on perhaps MLS in that city. So it goes into the hopper to try to figure out how the path to 28 gets realized.”

Garber also had this to say about hedge-fund billionaire Tepper, who bought the Panthers from Jerry Richardson for $2.3 billion: “I have enormous respect for David. Everybody in the world of business does. He’s been doing a great job trying to hit the ground running on the facility front and getting engaged with the Panthers. I’m sure if that interest continues we’d be very interested in talking to him.”…

“We’re going to add two more teams. We’re not in a rush,” Garber said. “We’ve got lots of cities and every time I mention one, somebody calls up and says, ‘You’ve got to mention me.’ We’ve got a lot of cities that you’re well aware of that are bidding for those teams. And we haven’t established a specific timetable. We do want to lay out what the path to 2026 is in MLS. We want to be fully expanded by that point. We’ll finalize that timetable shortly.”

Malik said Wednesday that the relaxed pace of the next round of expansion is good for North Carolina FC, which is still continuing to bring together the various constituencies needed to proceed with the downtown Raleigh stadium that is, more or less, essential to the expansion bid. Visible progress has been scant, although Malik said he expected the process to accelerate this month and into the fall.

Tepper’s interest was noted in our MLS expansion odds for July. While his open expression of interest could certainly boost chances of MLS expanding to Charlotte, there are a few factors that remain unknown. A decision will ultimately have to be made about the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium, and whether it is eventually replaced or undergoes a significant renovation. That decision may end up factoring into Tepper’s MLS ambitions and the viability of the league expanding to Charlotte, as could the potential cost of a club.

MLS has also not provided much certainty about the next round of expansion. Teams 27 and 28 are still very much up in the air, as there’s no firm deadline for awarding the expansion teams and no set list of contenders.

Neither Charlotte nor Raleigh made a field of four finalists in the last round of expansion, leaving them on the outside looking in at a group that included Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento. Nashville was selected late last year and Cincinnati was chosen this spring, while Detroit and Sacramento are working refine their bids in order to bolster their chances for the next round.

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