MLS Expansion 2020: Never Say Never Again

Las Vegas MLS stadium rendering Cashman Field

With the addition of Charlotte as MLS’s 30th team, Commissioner Don Garber says that further expansion likely won’t happen again, but with stadium and development projects in the works, fans should never say never in 2020.

When making the announcement that Charlotte had landed the 30th MLS team, Garber had this to say about future expansion: “This is likely the last expansion team in Major League Soccer.”

Truth is, many folks within the industry don’t take him seriously. After announcing four expansion teams in 2019—Austin, St. Louis, Sacramento and Charlotte—it would indeed make sense for MLS to take a break and evaluate the performance of the current team lineup. MLS teams simply don’t move, as the league philosophy is to work to improve facilities and bring in new owners rather than move to a new market, as it’s been since 2006 since a team moved. That was when the San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Houston, and a new Earthquakes team was awarded to the current ownership for the 2008 season. Though there was the potential for the Columbus Crew to move to Austin, the league instead worked out a move where Crew owner Anthony Precourt was awarded a new Austin team and the Crew stayed in Columbus, with local municipalities contributing to a new stadium. Without the option of expansion, relocation would be the only other way to procure a new MLS team.

But look through the MLS lineup, and it doesn’t appear like there’s a team ripe for a move, with several new stadiums in the works after several new facilities opened in the past few years. The only real clouds on the horizon hover near St. Louis, where the possible loss of $30 million in state tax credits has caused some uncertainty on the funding front. But the uncertainty doesn’t mean there won’t be any state tax credits down the road, and the loss of the credits doesn’t seem like it will threaten the project. Similarly, there’s been some jockeying in Nashville over a new MLS stadium at The Fairgrounds, but it’s too early to tell whether the project is in any real danger. There’s little indication that these expansion teams won’t be playing in new stadia in the next few years.

So, we make our way back to expansion. Garber has said in the past that expansion was on hold, only to open talks for new teams soon after—and a hot market like Las Vegas could potentially tempt MLS to keep the expansion train rolling. The city of Las Vegas has been negotiating with The Renaissance Companies on a master development plan for the 62-acre Cashman Field site on the edge of downtown Las Vegas, anchored by a 25,000-capacity retractable-roof MLS stadium. The stadium development would be led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group, who has an option to buy USL Championship’s Las Vegas Lights. Cashman Field, the Lights’ current venue and former home to Minor League Baseball in Las Vegas, sits on a site that is seen by city officials as ripe for redevelopment because of its proximity to downtown and freeway access.

The deadline for the Vegas development plan is now February 5, 2020. Despite Charlotte being awarded the 30th MLS team, Las Vegas officials say discussions over the Cashman Field proposal will continue, with city leaders striking a positive tone about the current state of negotiations. And, with a bid from Phoenix Rising quietly lurking in the shadows, a move to 32 teams could be part of the 2020 planning. MLS leaders do love the idea of mixed-use developments anchored by new stadiums, and a plan to redevelop such a prime spot like the Cashman Field acreage is surely catnip to them.

With interest rates low and the economic markets humming along, this is the time to look at big developments. And the old advice about striking while the iron is hot would seem to apply here: MLS is a hot commodity and developing into a marketer’s dream, delivering on a highly desirable younger demographic. If a Vegas development plan works out, it would be hard for MLS to pass on expansion in 2020.

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