Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: April 2019 Edition

Sacramento Republic FC stadium rendering April 2019

MLS expansion remains a hot topic, as Commissioner Don Garber teases the issue after last week’s league meetings and leaves open the possibility that the process may not end after 30 teams are in the fold.

Currently MLS is at 24 teams with the addition of FC Cincinnati for 2019. Three more expansion teams have been announced—Nashville SC, Inter Miami CF and Austin FC—and Garber now says two more expansion teams (nos. 28 and 29) will be announced by the 2019 MLS All-Star Game. Earlier Garber had announced St. Louis and Sacramento are the last two bids standing to land the 28th team, but that may not be totally true these days, given some unexpected delays in St. Louis stadium financing.

“I don’t know that we have a firm handle yet on what the final number of teams in the league will be in the future,” Garber said in comments following the league meetings. “We have a lot of work to do to determine what the future state of Major League Soccer is in 10 years and in 20 years. We continue to believe that there are many many cities across the country that can support an MLS team.

“Of late, we have been in very positive discussions in Las Vegas and in Charlotte. We still believe Phoenix is a good market. We’ve been in discussions in Detroit. I’m regularly speaking to Mayor [Mike] Duggan in Detroit. I think that’s a great soccer market. So what we really need to determine is what it all means for our league 10 years from now or 20 years from now.”

After the next two expansion teams are announced, Garber says there will be a break before moving ahead with #30. Though it wasn’t addressed, there’s probably a very pragmatic reason to wait: it will give cities still formulating new-stadium plans time to work out a deal, fueled by the potential MLS expansion bid. The break would give David Tepper time to push a stadium renovation plan in Charlotte, with MLS as a selling point; it would give Las Vegas officials and Phoenix owners time to develop and finalize a new stadium plan.

“We’re going to take our time with team 30,” Garber said. “We have many cities that are interested in that 30th team. We don’t want to be unbalanced [odd number of teams in the league], but at the same time I think we do need to take a bit of a deep breath and onboard the teams that are going to be coming in over the next number of years.”

While Garber hedged on a final MLS size, it’s pretty apparent there is demand for expansion—and a move toward a 32-team league would make some sense. So whichever group failing to land the next two slots will immediately be the frontrunner for the next round.

Expansion is just one issue for MLS in coming months; also on the agenda for league officials will be profitability and a streaming-media monetization strategy at a time when pro sports broadcasting is undergoing significant changes. There are also a few stadium issues to resolve in both New York City and Austin (a new stadium there is still under a cloud of uncertainty), and some underperforming teams that need to address stadium and on-field issues. Still, given how quickly business and operational models are changing in the sports-business world, MLS is remarkably well-positioned to succeed in the next decade. At one point MLS expansion was set to end at 28 teams, but the impressive number of strong bids will surely lead to planning for a 32-team circuit.

That’s why there are plenty of contenders for a future MLS expansion team, as several solid ownership groups have been biding their time in the wings, waiting for the league to move forward. In the short term, we’re still looking at a two-city race to land the 28th and 29th MLS expansion teams, but in the long term we’re seeing some interesting bids take shape for the next expansion round.

Sacramento: 1-4 Ron Burkle’s decision to invest in MLS, Sacramento Republic FC and a new downtown stadium instantly catapulted that city’s bid to the lead. Sacramento has been mentioned as a leading MLS expansion market in recent years, thanks to a positive local economy, USL success and a new downtown stadium plan in place. The city is now committed to a stadium financing plan, so the final piece of the puzzle is in place. MLS has been patient in waiting for Sacramento to develop a strong bid; the patience should be rewarded.

St. Louis: 1-1 Another solid ownership group with lots of local ties, and a solid stadium plan. An MLS team would replace the NFL on the local sporting scene, and MLS management has spoken highly about the market in recent years. There’s still plenty of work to be done on the stadium plan, but MLS officials speak well of the market. Some uncertainty about public participation in any funding plan may delay an MLS decision.

Phoenix: 2-1 With a solid ownership group, a solid stadium plan, a great USL track record and a desirable market, the Phoenix Rising bid should be enough to land a team. This bid has been flying under the radar, but it seems to meet everything on the MLS expansion checklist. The sports-business scene in Phoenix is in flux, with the Diamondbacks and Coyotes seeking new facilities. Is this a good thing for MLS? If Phoenix doesn’t land a team this year, you can bet the group will be a strong contender when the next round of expansion opens.

Charlotte: 3-1 This is a very conditional estimate. Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has said MLS belongs in Charlotte and held focus groups to gauge fan interest. But decisions about a new stadium vs. a Bank of America Stadium renovation may determine if MLS is truly an option. Building a replacement, a la Mercedes Benz Stadium, would give the city a chance to host not only NFL and MLS but big events like Super Bowls and NCAA Final Fours, and MLS would be a big part of that mix. Renovating Bank of America Stadium, however, may dampen some enthusiasm for doing anything but focus on football, especially if there’s little or no public money for the project. Tepper already paid $2.2 billion for the Panthers and has hinted that he’ll be looking for public money for a practice facility and funding for future stadium plans. Adding an MLS team to the mix would bolster arguments for public funding on a stadium project.

Indianapolis: 7-1 This may be the stealth candidate that ends up surprising a lot of people, as Indy Eleven owners snared some key public support for an Eleven Park development that would include a 20,000-seat stadium. Indy Eleven owners are thinking big—and if one thing Anthony Precourt’s pursuit of Austin teaches us, fortune favors the bold in MLS expansion. Indy Eleven has quietly checked off many items on an MLS expansion checklist, including the bolstering of the team’s investment group.

Las Vegas: 10-1 Brent Lashbrook has proven Sin City is a viable MLS market by drawing fans to a downtown ballpark not very optimized for pro soccer. Can that USL success be extended to MLS? It would seem a discussion of pro soccer in downtown Las Vegas is worthy of consideration, but it would require a new stadium; we don’t see Cashman Field being capable of being upgraded to MLS standards. And we don’t know if there’s the appetite in Las Vegas or Clark County for another new sporting facility unless it’s privately financed. While Garber specifically mentioned Vegas in his most recent comments, the market may be saturated with NHL and NFL teams (and, honestly, we don’t see Mark Davis pulling an Arthur Blank), as well as a new $150-million-plus privately financed ballpark in nearby Summerlin.

San Diego: 15-1 With a new San Diego State University stadium in the planning stages, officials there have reached out to MLS about adding a team. MLS officials have spoken favorably of San Diego as a league market in the past, and while MLS officials don’t like to see their teams as a secondary tenant, the attractiveness of the market may be too tempting to ignore.

Raleigh: 25-1 Another bid that will depend on public funding of a new development built around an MLS stadium. North Carolina FC ownership put in a request for Wake County sales taxes to fund $11 million annually over 30 years for a new Raleigh MLS stadium. And while the North Carolina FC ownership group will need to bring in some big-buck investors to buy into the league and fund the rest of the project, landing this money would be a good start to the proceedings.

Detroit: 25-1 The decision not to pursue a retractable roof for Ford Field was a big blow to Detroit’s MLS chances: it forces soccer to be an indoor sport in Motown. There are strong owners here, to be sure, but the facilities issue may be too much to overcome. And while there’s also a huge challenge in being a secondary tenant in an NFL stadium, it works in Atlanta with Arthur Blank owning both teams, and it could work in Detroit with the Ford family involved with both teams. It is interesting to note that Garber called out city leadership and not any potential MLS investors, however.

Louisville: 100-1 Local officials want MLS. But the local ownership group says they have no interest in spending the money needed for MLS. Also, the new Louisville USL stadium will need to be upgraded to attract the attention of MLS. With more worthy contenders ahead in line, it would be a challenge to land a team in the next expansion round. Down the line? Yes.

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