Handicapping the Next MLS Expansion Round: November 2019 Edition

Las Vegas MLS stadium rendering Cashman Field

There is now little doubt about the next MLS expansion round, as Commissioner Don Garber announces Charlotte as the leader to land the circuit’s 30th franchise, with Las Vegas and Phoenix still in serious contention.

Currently MLS is at 24 teams with the addition of FC Cincinnati for 2019. Five more expansion teams have been announced—Nashville SC (2020), Inter Miami CF (2020), Austin FC (2021), St. Louis (2022) and Sacramento (2022)—so the debate is what city lands #30. Garber had previously said that MLS would take a break before moving ahead with the selection of team #30, to give some contenders a chance to finalize their plans. But the break, apparently, will be shorter than anticipated.

In his annual state of the league address, Garber came right out and said Charlotte was the leading contender to land the 30th MLS team, citing Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper’s commitment to landing another tenant for Bank of America Stadium:

“It’s fair to say that Charlotte has done a lot of work, to move their bid really to the front of line,” Garber said. “It starts with David Tepper, the owner of the [Carolina] Panthers. He’s a very passionate guy about sport, he’s very passionate about Charlotte….

“[Tepper] is reminding us that the league didn’t see what Atlanta would become. I would be the first to admit that. There are lots of things happening in Charlotte that are very similar to the things that are happening in Atlanta in terms of the diversity of their fan base and a lot of the corporate energy that’s going on down there. We’ve been engaged with them and will continue to do so. … I think the Carolinas are a good state for soccer. You know that from the women’s soccer perspective and the youth soccer perspective. Should we be able to move forward, and end up with a team in Charlotte, I’m confident we’ll be successful.”

One big issue in Charlotte is Bank of America Stadium and the future of joint NFL/MLS facilities. It’s no secret the league did not anticipate on the extreme success of Atlanta United, which shares Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons under joint ownership, showing many observers that joint NFL/MLS facilities can indeed work. And the continued success of the Seattle Sounders, playing out of an NFL facility in the form of CenturyLink Field, is another argument for joint NFL/MLS facilities. But as currently configured, Bank of America Stadium is not an ideal MLS facility. While Tepper and crew have been deciding whether to push for a new facility a la Mercedes-Benz Stadium or lobby for stadium improvements, Garber’s comments indicated that public funds for Bank of America Stadium upgrades would be the preferred and much cheaper path. Obtaining public money for a new stadium in Charlotte would entail a massive political fight, with upgrades probably the more publicly palatable path.

Garber added it still will be a few months or more before the league is ready to announce the 30th expansion market. And he also noted that Las Vegas and Phoenix remain in contention to land MLS teams—which will certainly fuel talk that the ultimate goal for MLS expansion is 32 teams, not 30. We’re ranked both markets highly in past evaluations of potential MLS expansion—rankings basically confirmed by Garber.

It’s pretty apparent there is demand for expansion—and a move toward a 32-team league would make some sense. So whichever groups failing to land the next slot will immediately be the frontrunners for the next round. 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.

Las Vegas: 1-2 With two heavyweight ownership groups emerging, Vegas is in a strong position to land a team. And the uncertainly surrounding the status of two competing bids will be a prime reason why the league is likely to take its time awarding the #30 team. The Las Vegas City Council is working on a plan for a new stadium at the 62-acre Cashman Field site, negotiating with Renaissance Companies to develop a master plan for a mixed-use development, anchored by a new stadium (as shown in the rendering at the top of this page). We’re near the end of a 180-day negotiating period between the city and Renaissance Companies. This sort of large-scale investment anchored by a soccer stadium is particularly loved by MLS officials and owners; it’s the model used for Allianz Field and a proposed Miami facility. The effort is headed by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group and would involve the sale of USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights. Klarman is not alone: Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is leading an effort for an MLS expansion franchise at the upcoming Allegiant Stadium, scheduled to become home of the relocating Oakland Raiders in 2020. It’s not clear how MLS would react to this arrangement, as generally the league is not thrilled with its teams being a secondary tenant in an NFL facility.

Phoenix: 1-1 With a solid ownership group that includes star Didier Drogba, Advantage Sports Union CEO Alex Zheng and Fortuitous Partners’ Brett Johnson, 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.

Indianapolis: 5-1 This may be the stealth candidate that ends up surprising a lot of people, as Indy Eleven owners snare 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.

Raleigh: 20-1 Coming up with a stadium plan is one thing; convincing Wake County to fund it is another. This is a bid that will depend on public funding of a new development built around a stadium, but the plan is flexible enough that a USL stadium will do. 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. One big roadblock: If Charlotte lands a team, it’s hard to see Raleigh landing one, too.

San Diego: 45-1 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. But San Diego State is having its own issues putting together a financial plan for a new stadium.

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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