After multiple attempts to achieve acceptance into Major League Soccer (MLS), St. Louis was awarded one of the final remaining spots (28th franchise) as the league moves towards their goal of expanding to 30 teams in the next few years.
The St. Louis bid to land a spot in the elite soccer circuit in North America was marred by issues over the past three years regarding the political support for the stadium proposal. The former Governor of Missouri had pulled the state funding from the original stadium proposal which cost the city an earlier bid for entry into the league.
St. Louis and MLS had mutual interest because the city had at that point in time recently lost the Rams NFL franchise to a relocation (the Rams moved to Los Angeles) and MLS saw an opportunity to capture fans with less competition for sports dollars in that market. St. Louis also has a rich soccer tradition and a history that dates back to the origins of the sport being played in America.
The original ownership group had some issues as well, and that coupled with the uncertainty of the financing for the stadium project doomed their initial attempts at landing a franchise (see my previous article on this situation). However, the city and their business community remained committed and resilient and they reformatted the stadium proposal to a privately-financed structured plan targeting land near Union Station, the public transit hub of St. Louis.
They also recalibrated their ownership group with the Taylor family (Enterprise Rental Car owners) and Jim Kavanaugh (owner of the St. Louis minor league soccer club) and it will be the first franchise to be majority owned by female investors. The land for the stadium site has to be formally transferred over so construction can begin, but that is considered a done deal at this point.
The franchise will begin play in 2022, with the announcement of the name of the club, and the team logo to follow in the coming months. In the meantime, some other cities are set to make their respective MLS debuts: Nashville and Inter Miami will join the circuit in 2020, and Austin will join in 2021.
Nashville SC will begin play in the NFL stadium used by the Tennessee Titans for a couple of years while the construction of the largest soccer specific stadium in the United States is being assembled at the Fairgrounds site. That project seems to be on target and that city will be an intriguing addition to the league.
Inter Miami, the 5 -year quest by David Beckham, is a whole other story. In an earlier piece I detailed the plan for the team to build a soccer stadium at the Freedom Park site in the downtown area. That site has encountered some significant environmental issues with contamination from when that site was used for waste incineration.
The remediation of that site is going to be costly and is going to potentially set back the time frame for the opening of the facility. The initial plan was for that facility to open in 2022, and the team has another stadium project underway for a temporary site. The Miami club is the only expansion bid with two stadium projects: the other one being the construction of a temporary stadium and new practice facility in Fort Lauderdale at the Lockhart Stadium property.
The club will play in Fort Lauderdale in 2020 and 2021 before moving to the Freedom Park stadium (if it is operational by then) but Lockhart Stadium was very old and it required a full teardown and a rebuilt stadium to conform with current construction codes. The original Miami MLS team, the Miami Fusion, played at the old Lockhart Stadium, but it folded due to low attendance.
This reboot of MLS in Miami should be concerned about having to play longer than two years in Fort Lauderdale because it is so far from downtown Miami and has no public transit options, it was part of the reason why the Fusion failed to gain momentum in the market. The timeline is also very tight, they have to be ready to play games at Lockhart Stadium in five months or so.
One of Beckham’s partners, Jose Mas, gave a press conference recently where he stated that both projects were progressing well. Mr. Mas felt that the Freedom Park land issues would be resolved and that everything will stay on track. He also stated that the team plans to have some sort of test event at Lockhart in February, so they are ready for opening night. I guess time will tell.
The Austin franchise is progressing forward with their marketing and promotional efforts while preparing to build their new stadium on the site of a former shopping center in North Austin. They recently announced the addition of Austin native, Matthew McConaughey, as a minority partner investor in the team.
The announcement of St. Louis as the 28th franchise leaves the league with two final spots for expansion. The two most likely candidates are Sacramento and Charlotte. The Sacramento bid is a topic I have covered in various articles over the past four years. They are the group that keeps getting passed over and have had some financial issues with the ownership group that have left them at some points treading water in the race to the MLS approval. The addition of Ron Burkle, the billionaire investor who also saved the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League from relocating to another city, has bolstered the chances of Sacramento gaining a successful bid.
Burkle is known to be very methodical in his approach, and this is a huge commitment in dollars with $200 million for an expansion fee and the private financing of a stadium being around $300 million that is a tremendous amount of capital to invest, so it will take time. The Sacramento bid is looking at 2022 as a launch date anyway, and it has a proposed stadium site at the Railyards in the downtown area.
Charlotte has come from out of the woodwork to emerge as a really legitimate bid for the 30th and final spot. The group is led by billionaire David Tepper and Tom Glick who ran the NYC FC franchise in MLS for a period of time. Mr. Tepper also owns the Carolina Panthers of the NFL, and the plan is for the team to play in the NFL stadium, Bank of America Stadium.
MLS has some reservations about that part of the bid, but they have also seen success with Atlanta and the Seattle Sounders both playing in NFL stadiums and drawing large crowds on match days. I think the market demographics and the ownership group will be the deciding factor in Charlotte eventually gaining acceptance into the league at some point in the future.
It is an exciting time for soccer in America, and it is a very exciting time for fans around the country to get the opportunity to have MLS soccer in their city.