Future MLS expansion: April 2021

Sacramento Republic FC stadium rendering April 2019-4

You know that things are getting back to normal on the economic and COVID-19 fronts when discussions of future MLS expansion emerge in league circles. So here’s the latest, as of the end of April.

When COVID-19 halted the U.S. economy—including the sports economy—talk of future MLS expansion immediately halted. The plan for a Sacramento expansion team, first planned for 2022 and then delayed to 2023, collapsed when lead investor Ron Burkle withdrew from the project. Burkle was key to landing the expansion team in a bid also backed by a contingent that included entertainment executive and producer Matt Alavarez and local business leader Kevin Nagle, but also part of the bid was a city-backed $300 million soccer-specific stadium anchoring the redevelopment of Sacramento’s downtown Railyards area.

The bones of that expansion proposal still stand via the secondary investors and the city support for a soccer stadium, but obviously that support won’t last forever. In his 2021 MLS season preview comments, MLS Commissioner Don Garber held out hope that the Sacramento bid could be revived:

“On Sacramento, I call this expansion project leading up to this season as a COVID casualty,” Garber said. “We had a lot of momentum, we were working very closely with Ron Burkle, Mayor [Darrell] Steinberg and other local leaders to launch a great new team. There’s still a lot of energy in Sacramento. It’s a good soccer market. Mayor Steinberg is very focused on putting a new ownership group together, we’re going to work with him to see what can be achieved.”

(The current MLS expansion slate: Austin FC this year, Charlotte FC in 2022 and St. Louis in 2023, which would raise the circuit to 29 teams.)

Before COVID, expansion to 30 teams was achieved before Sacramento dropping out. And we could easily see that Sacramento bid revived. It’s not clear that MLS was ready to stop expanding once Sacramento launched, and if there is enough interest, it’s hard to see MLS owners stop at 30, and instead move toward a 32-team league. So talk of future MLS expansion may encompass a single team or three more in coming years.

In this monthly update, we’re not offering odds as in the past; it’s way too early for that. But there has been some activity on the MLS expansion front in recent weeks worth noting.

In Las Vegas, the two groups seeking an MLS team are still active in their pursuit, albeit on a delayed basis. Bill Foley, owner of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, continues exploring an MLS expansion bid, potentially placing the team at Allegiant Field, home of the Las Vegas Raiders (NFL) or elsewhere in the region. However, putting an MLS team as a secondary tenant at a facility already hosting NFL and NCAA football may not fly with the league’s emphasis on teams playing in soccer-only facilities—a goal that would be fulfilled by a new stadium built as part of a larger redevelopment of 62 acres of the Cashman Field property. Talks between the city and The Renaissance Companies were iced in early 2020 by COVID, but those plans apparently have been revived. A 25,000-capacity retractable-roof MLS stadium would be the core of a mixed development led by billionaire hedge-fund manager Seth Klarman of the Boston-based Baupost Group.

And in a statement, Mayor Carolyn Goodman reiterated support for a stadium/development project:

“Las Vegas is a major league city, and we know that soccer is the world’s game,” Goodman said. “It only makes sense for Major League Soccer to have a franchise in Las Vegas. We look forward to continuing our work with the league to explore having an MLS club join the Golden Knights, Aces and Raiders.”

In San Diego, discussions about an MLS team playing at a new San Diego State University stadium have reemerged. As you’ll recall, two groups fought it out for rights to be built at the former Qualcomm Stadium site, with San Diego State winning out over the SoccerCity bid. At the time of the vote SDSU officials said they envisioned adding pro soccer to Aztec Stadium—a hope that continues today.

“Throughout the design and construction of the stadium, we have placed a high priority on providing the very best venue for soccer in general, and Major League Soccer in particular,” John David Wicker, SDSU’s Director of Athletics, said in a statement. “In support of this priority, we regularly provide project details and updates to Major League Soccer as we march towards the stadium opening.”

There are plenty of issues here: there’s no identified San Diego ownership group, for example. And as of now the stadium isn’t ready for pro soccer, though on a basic level it was designed to accommodate MLS: the pitch of the seating sections is more suited to soccer fans than for football fans. And the stadium was designed in such a way to accommodate expansion for pro soccer in terms of locker rooms and such.

In Phoenix, the Phoenix Rising FC ownership group never went away, moving its stadium for the 2021 season and waiting patiently for a shot at MLS. With it increasing looking like the Arizona Diamondbacks will stay at Chase Field and the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes new-arena effort stalled, the market could be ready to support MLS soccer, perhaps on the east side of the Valley.

Finally, we have Louisville. There’s been plenty of talk about local residents wanting to see MLS soccer, and if the early response to Lynn Family Stadium is any indication, the demand may be there. But it will take someone with very deep pockets to acquire the MLS expansion team and lead an expansion of the stadium.

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