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Future MLS expansion: September 2021

Las Vegas MLS stadium rendering Cashman Field

With optimism about the future of professional sports and soccer in these COVID-19 times, 2024 MLS expansion—and, specifically, a 30th team—is a subject of conversation in league circles. Welcome back to your ranking of MLS expansion options.

You’d think that after almost two years of reduced revenues, 2024 MLS expansion wouldn’t be a prime subject. But MLS went into the 2020 pandemic season in relatively good shape—no teams in bad shape, no outstanding stadium issues—and while the 2021 season has been a mixed bag, the financials have not been horrible. The new Austin FC team has been a solid draw, and work continues on new St. Louis and Nashville stadiums, with Charlotte poised to join league members in 2022 and St. Louis in 2023

The only casualty of the COVID-19 era: a decision by Ron Burkle to drop his plans for a Sacramento expansion team in 2022. With the additions of Sacramento, MLS was slated to be a 30-team circuit by 2023. Now, that number is at 29. Commissioner Don Garber has acknowledged the challenges in finding a new lead investor for a Sacramento MLS team; it’s not the sort of market where there are a lot of folks with the deep pockets needed to pay for a stadium and launch a team. The success of Sacramento Republic FC has shown interest in pro soccer in the city; the next step is finding investors who share that vision.

So, with that in mind, we’re bringing back our monthly look at MLS expansion options, focusing on 2024 MLS expansion. We last looked at the options in April, but enough has changed to where we can confidently post some odds on expansion. Expanding to 30 will not be a simple task, but looks to be doable; expanding to 32 may be much more of a challenge. In pre-COVID times expanding to 32 was seen as doable, but it may a few years before the league seriously considers the notion of a 32-team circuit.

Having said that, here are our odds for future 2024 MLS expansion, as of September 2021:

Las Vegas 1-2 With three seemingly solid ownership groups vying to own a team in a very hot market, it seems like it’s a matter of when, and not if, the league expands to Vegas.

That Las Vegas is a hot sports market is undeniable: the Vegas Golden Knights (NHL) are hugely successful, and the Raiders and Allegiant Stadium have made Las Vegas into a leading NFL market. Las Vegas thrives on the event economy. Can a team throughout a full MLS season promote enough game events? And can a deal be made before the Oakland Athletics potentially engineer a move to the market?

It looks like we will find out, with three solid ownership groups expressing strong interest in the market. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley, the owner of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, is interested in owning a Las Vegas MLS team. Also contending is Seth Klarman, who had been working with the city of Las Vegas via Renaissance Companies on a plan for the Cashman Field site for a stadium and residential/office/retail development. His exclusive negotiating period with the city for the site has ended, but city leaders love his vision of an MLS stadium anchoring a major develop on an underused site near downtown Las Vegas, and his firm remains very interested in an MLS teamThe latest contenders to go public: Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris emerging on the scene with their own Las Vegas MLS aspirations. The pair co-own the Premier League’s Aston Villa, while Edens co-owns the NBA champions Milwaukee Bucks with Marc Lasry. Edens and Sawiris have been successful with the first-division Aston Villa team, and their vision include the MLS team working with Aston Villa. All three have signed on to the MLS blueprint: a soccer-specific stadium, academy camps and top-level training facilities. 

San Diego 10-1 San Diego State University athletic-department officials have been open about wanting to see MLS soccer at the under-construction Aztec Stadium and have made some design decisions to accommodate a team. At one point two groups were seeking a MLS team, but after SDSU won the rights to the Qualcomm Stadium site, those efforts ceased. MLS isn’t thrilled with the idea of its teams sharing a stadium as a secondary tenant, so it’s not very likely we’ll see a team at Aztec Stadium. Somewhere else? Maybe.

Tampa/St. Pete 15-1 The largest U.S. market without MLS soccer, Tampa Bay is a good sports town where the state of facilities is up in the air. Could we see a new soccer stadium at the Trop site should the Rays leave for Tampa? It’s an interesting idea.

Sacramento 20-1 Ron Burkle left behind city support of a new stadium and some minor investors when he withdrew his MLS bid. The issue has been finding a new deep-pocketed lead investor, and league officials admit this has been a huge battle.

Phoenix 30-1 Phoenix Rising has been a success at USL Championship, and at one point investors put together a stadium and financial plan that impressed the league. Since then the Phoenix market has been a little more unsettled, with the Arizona Diamondbacks (MLB) still exploring venue options and the Arizona Coyotes (NHL) moving forward with a new Tempe arena

Louisville 40-1 With Louisville City FC being one of the bright spots in USL Championship this season and Racing Louisville off to a solid start in NWSL, there will surely be calls for MLS to look at Louisville. With Lynn Family Stadium reportedly built to be expandable to MLS specs (it currently sets 11,6000), the groundwork is there, and Louisville has shown appetite for big-league sports in recent years.

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