MLS expansion: An in-depth look at the many bids for the league's next four clubs
MLS was a very different place just 10 years ago, when the league’s dozen clubs attracted around 15,500 fans per game.
The first expansion teams of the 21st century, Real Salt Lake and Chivas USA, were in their sophomore seasons in 2006. The former was launched by Dave Checketts, a well-known sports executive and University of Utah graduate who awkwardly decided to name his new club after Real Madrid and base it in a small market with next to no soccer tradition—Salt Lake City. MLS wasn’t in any position to say 'no.'
The latter was started by Chivas de Guadalajara owner Jorge Vergara, a capricious and controversial Mexican billionaire who made his fortune selling dietary supplements. He was convinced fans across Southern California would flock to support a team wearing the Guadalajara crest on its jerseys. MLS wasn’t in any position to say 'no.'
Checketts and Vergara each paid some $7.5 million to join the league. In 2006, Toronto FC was preparing for its inaugural campaign the following year. MLS’s first Canadian entrant spent more—around $10 million—for the privilege.
Those numbers seem impossibly quaint now, like when a grandparent reflects on the days when a few thousand dollars bought an entire house. MLS attendance during the 2016 season surpassed 21,600 per game. Only one club, FC Dallas, failed to beat the 2006 league average. There will be 22 teams in 2017 as the Uniteds Minnesota and Atlanta take the field, and those following them will have to pay $150 million just to get a foot in the door. Sponsorships, a stadium, a proven fan base and more will be expected along with the expansion fee. And the line to get in is long.
Ten years ago, MLS was desperate. Then last week, it revealed a list of ten markets vying to be awarded one of the four slots that will take league membership to 28 (it’s still assumed Miami will be No. 24). It’s a race with considerably more intrigue than the league’s regular season, from which more than half the teams move on to the MLS Cup playoffs. The stakes are higher as well.
MLS has set a Jan. 31, 2017, application deadline and is committed to identifying teams No. 25 and 26 by next fall. The number of hopefuls likely will grow—the list unveiled last week is limited to those who’ve gone public.
From now through January, Planet Fútbol will take a closer look—one by one—at each prospective MLS market and delve into its strengths, weaknesses and expansion prospects. Sacramento and St. Louis top the list and are the early favorites to be named next year. After that, MLS parity reigns.
MLS expansion city profile: Sacramento
It’s overshadowed by the larger cities along the coasts, but Sacramento, California—the capital of an economy with the world’s sixth-largest GDP—is bigger than you think. Most are surprised when they hear it, and that comes from the preconception Sacramento has been battling since its USL team, the Republic, took the field in 2014: Sactown anchors the 20th-largest DMA (or media market) in the USA. And it’s the only member of the top 20 with only one major league sports franchise (only two have fewer than three). There’s plenty of merit to Sacramento’s claim that it’s the most underserved pro sports market in the country.
It’s a diverse city—around one-fifth of the population is Hispanic or Latino—at the heart of California’s Central Valley and a metropolitan area that’s the country’s 25th most-populous. A study conducted by Texas-based Conventions Sports & Leisure found that Sacramento would rank ninth in MLS in median household income and fourth in sports spending per household. The regional economy is growing.
Sacramento’s nearest MLS rival would be the San Jose Earthquakes, who play about 120 miles to the south in Avaya Stadium.
Republic’s MLS effort is spearheaded by club co-founder and president Warren Smith and lead investor Kevin Nagle, who founded health care and pharmaceutical benefit management company EnvisionRX Options. Rite Aid bought it last year for $2 billion. MLS likes investors with pro sports experience/connections, and Republic has two of them. Jed York and his family, who own the San Francisco 49ers, have a significant minority stake. And the Sacramento Kings won’t be the competitor MLS may have feared. They’re invested in Republic as well (Nagle also owns a share of the NBA franchise).
Republic is ready to roll as soon as it gets the green light from MLS. The club has access to a plot of land in the 224-acre Railyards district just north of downtown, where a massive redevelopment project already has been approved by the city council. It’s supposed to include a medical campus, offices, retail, more than 1,000 hotel rooms, parks and a new, 19,000-22,000 seat MLS stadium. The city is handling the bulk of the required Railyards infrastructure and Republic will finance construction of the arena. The club and city signed a term sheet in 2015, and the environmental impact report and basic architectural and design elements have been approved. Work on the finer details is well underway, although a stadium naming rights sponsor has yet to be secured.
MLS has no interest in admitting Republic before the stadium is ready, meaning there won’t be games in a temporary facility. But the league also doesn’t plan to add a 25th team before 2019, at the earliest. So there’s time.
Soccer and Sports Scene
Sacramento has a decent history of supporting its teams, both in the stands and at city hall. The Kings were famous for their sellout streaks at ARCO Arena. And when the NBA team threatened to leave town without a newer, larger building, the city and then-mayor Kevin Johnson—the former Phoenix Suns star—helped recruit a new owner and then kicked in around $220 million to help build Golden 1 Center. It’s been full so far this season. Johnson’s successor, Darrell Steinberg, is supportive of Republic and the Railyards development.
Before he got into soccer, Smith helped bring the Sacramento River Cats to town. The San Francisco Giants AAA affiliate plays just across the river from downtown and led all of minor league baseball in attendance from 2000 through 2007. Their average crowds ranked second in 2015 and sixth this season. The Cats have won four Pacific Coast League titles.
But that’s about it, and the relative lack of competition has helped Republic put down roots quickly. Sacramento can claim to be a soccer town as well. The club averaged more than 11,200 fans during its 2014 inaugural season—a USL record—and then surpassed that total in 2015. This year’s average of 11,514 ranked second all-time thanks to FC Cincinnati’s astonishing gates. Republic also has set league records in season ticket sales (it currently has more than 8,000), sponsorship, merchandising and other metrics—the sort of stuff MLS looks for—and it’s attracted foreign clubs like Newcastle, Sunderland, West Brom and Rangers for midseason friendlies. Republic won the 2014 USL title and finished first in the Western Conference this year.
Despite a somewhat limited history with the sport (with all due respect to the 1979 ASL and 2010 NPSL champion Sacramento Gold) Sacramento has demonstrated its soccer support off the field as well. The CS&L study claimed the market had the sixth-highest U.S. TV rating during the 2014 World Cup and ranked fifth for last year’s Women’s World Cup. It’s per capita rate of adult and youth league soccer participation ranks second.
There’s no reason Republic can’t become another “smaller-market” MLS powerhouse like Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake and the Portland Timbers.
If the league wants a club that’s ready to play right out of the gate in 2019 or 2020, Sacramento is the low/no-risk choice. The stadium deal is done. It already has an academy up and running that’s fully-funded down to U-12. It has a jersey sponsorship agreement signed with the UC Davis Health System, which is the city’s third-largest employer. And that shirt is pretty nice—the Republic brand, its California-flag inspired crest and unique burgundy-and-beige color scheme is tremendously and deservedly popular and would bring value to the league. So would its natural rivalries with the Earthquakes and LA Galaxy. The latter already has blossomed in USL.
Republic also is a good story. Sacramento was not a city sought out by MLS. It wasn’t given a pass on any of the league’s criteria—in fact, MLS arguably has raised the barrier of entry to Sacramento higher than any other market. But each time, Republic raised its game, leaving MLS almost no choice but to say ‘yes.’ MLS commissioner Don Garber told fans during a spring visit that, “We hope and expect Sacramento will be an expansion team very soon.”
Sacramento can throw out all the statistics it wants—it’s still not a city that would bring a whole lot of big-league cache to MLS. Clubs like Sporting KC and RSL can overcome that, of course, but the competition is a lot tougher now. There’s concern in some quarters that it's too close to San Jose and an Earthquakes club that still hasn’t broken through in the Bay Area. That 120-mile separation is similar to the one between Washington and Philadelphia. Those are bigger cities with a lot more people and corporations between them.
The Quakes can’t stop Republic from coming in, but they may be concerned about competition for sponsorship. There are no Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Sacramento, although many do business in the state capital. The same CS&L study cited long-term support from corporations and premium ticket buyers as the key issues facing Republic’s expansion bid. The city would rank 18th in MLS in the number of companies with more than $5 million in annual sales and at least 25 employees.
“We've always said to both the mayor and Kevin Nagle and his partners that we'd be establishing a formal process …. In no way have we used any market to leverage any other. Sacramento, like all other expansion prospects, will have to go through the formal process so that they're sure they have all the pieces in place to ensure their success and certainly we'd want to understand the same,” Garber said last week during a conference call with reporters.
“What I will say is that I spent a lot of time with Kevin and his group, and I've come away being impressed with what they've been able to put together. We probably speak to him more than any other expansion prospect, quite frankly. We’re encouraged by their corporate support and I know they put a great deal of time and effort into their effort to bring MLS to Sacramento.”
MLS expansion city profile: St. Louis
The four-term mayor of St. Louis, Francis Slay, played on youth soccer teams affiliated with his local parish and went on to win three NAIA titles at Quincy University, which is just across the river in Illinois. While competing for Southern Equipment Co. (known as SECO)—a club moniker fitting for a city that produced U.S. Open Cup champions named after a hat company, a department store, a car dealership and a funeral home—Slay met his wife. She was the sister of a player on an opposing team. They went to a St. Louis Stars game on their first date.
That’s a ho-hum story if you’re from St. Louis. Because if you’re from St. Louis, there’s a good chance you’ve got a connection to soccer. The sport’s deep roots were planted decades ago by immigrant populations that spread throughout the area, which in many ways remains defined by that cluster of suburban communities and the schools and churches that anchor them. Those roots were fostered by the litany of pros and internationals that hail from the region and the 10 NCAA titles won by the SLU Billikens.
What the city itself has lacked since the NASL Stars moved to California in 1977, however, is a top-tier pro soccer club. It’s a bizarre bit of discord that MLS has hoped to correct for some time. An effort by local attorney Jeff Cooper to secure a team fell through a few years ago—probably for the best. He planned to build his stadium in suburban Illinois and his second-division team, AC St. Louis, lasted only one season (2010).
The city waited, and MLS continued to hope investors would step up. St. Louis is at the center of the country’s 21st-largest media market and 20th most-populous metro area. It’s home to nine Fortune 500 companies—an impressive number for its size—as well as Anheuser-Busch, which doesn’t count because its parent is headquartered in Belgium. TV ratings have been a mixed bag—they weren’t great for the 2010 or 2014 World Cups, but last year’s Women’s World Cup did fabulously well in St. Louis, which ranked No. 1 among U.S. markets. There are around 30,000 registered youth players in the area.
The city’s prospective MLS investors say they’re not worried about drawing crowds, however, especially among the millennial population that’s leading the slow but welcome migration back to downtown St. Louis.
It’s a large one, led by Boston-based investor Paul Edgerley, who grew up in Kansas City and owns a piece of the Celtics and AS Roma. In addition to working as Bain Capital’s (see Romney, Mitt) managing director, Edgerley invested in a Jamba Juice franchise run by Dave Peacock, the former president of Anheuser-Busch and current chairman of the St. Louis Sports Commission.
Peacock, who earned his MBA at Washington University, has been wanting to bring an MLS team to St. Louis for years. And things started to take shape in 2011-12, when World Wide Technology founder and CEO Jim Kavanaugh took over the St. Louis Scott Gallagher youth club and the Fenton, Missouri soccer park that includes a small stadium. Naturally, Kavanaugh played. He turned out for SLU and the U.S. Olympic team ahead of the 1984 Games and spent time indoors with the Los Angeles Lazers and St. Louis Steamers. In 2015, he launched St. Louis FC at renovated World Wide Technology Soccer Park. The USL team plays in Scott Gallagher’s blue and green colors.
Kavanaugh is the vice chairman of the ownership group and also holds a stake in the Blues. WWT had revenue of $7.4 billion in 2015.
The group includes nine more minority partners, including Peacock, Lodging Hospitality Management chairman and CEO Bob O’Loughlin and Cleveland Indians vice chairman John Sherman.
It all hinges on this. The renderings look great and the location is ideal—a 24-acre site just west of the city’s historic Union Station, which is undergoing its own redevelopment and eventually will include restaurants, retail, an aquarium and a Ferris wheel. The stadium would be made available for other events and would lie just one mile from Busch Stadium and even less from the Blues’ Scottrade Center.
SC STL, as the MLS hopefuls are called, wants to build a 20,000-seat arena that could expand to 28,500 if needed. And the group says it's willing to spend more than $300 million on the franchise rights (the league’s expansion fee will be $150 million), the stadium and start-up costs. But it also wants about $80 million in city money and another $40 million in tax credits from the state covering land acquisition and site development.
Peacock told SI.com that the tax revenue that will be generated by the stadium will exceed the $80 million, and he added that a state study agreed with that finding. Furthermore, SC STL intends to fund stadium maintenance, operation and cost overruns even though it won’t own it. It intends to sign a 30-year lease, and the group hopes that an April vote on a half-cent increase in the city’s sales tax, which could generate up to $20 million annually. Some of that would go toward building the $200 million stadium, which would be ready in 2020.
The campaign hasn’t started well. Missouri’s governor-elect, Republican elect Eric Greitens released a statement this week calling the project “nothing more than welfare for millionaires.” He added, “Right now, because of reckless spending by career politicians, we can’t even afford the core functions of government, let alone spend millions on soccer stadiums.”
Edgerley quickly postponed a meeting with a state board regarding the tax credits and released as statement reading in part, "While we were disappointed in the statement …We continue to believe in the substantial economic and other benefits of this project to the state and to the city of St. Louis …. We’re hopeful that Gov. Elect Greitens, who campaigned on a pro-business platform, will welcome the opportunity to learn more about the upside of the project for the state and city alike.”
Greitens has said he’ll meet with the group, but SC STL’s formal application is due to MLS on Jan. 31, well before the vote would take place.
“I think we’re in a really strong position with the league to get one of the next two franchises as long as we can nail down the balance of our plan,” Kavanaugh told SI.com. “We have a really good plan here in St. Louis. We’ve got a great investor group, one that has the financial wherewithal, the experience running businesses and sporting organizations and also the specific passion and expertise relative to the game of soccer. And now it’s about really nailing down the stadium piece.”
Soccer and Sports Scene
The Cardinals and Blues do well and Kavanaugh and Co. look forward to a good relationship with both. But it’s the absence of the Rams—who were set to command some $400 million in public money—that means the most to SC STL.
“There’s a certain level of sponsorship and ticket revenue and discretionary spending that left the market—that leaves a vacuum—and when you come in with the internal soccer passion and heritage in this market, it should lend itself to being successful,” Peacock said. “I think those are among the reasons the league is so interested in St. Louis.”
Kavanaugh’s St. Louis FC has done reasonably well at the gate. The club ranked sixth in the 29-team USL this season drawing 4,923 fans per game. It didn’t do very well on the field, where it finished 14th in the 15-team Western Conference. To fix the latter, Kavanaugh hired former Toronto FC, Chivas USA and Sacramento Republic coach Preki Radosavljevic in October.
The U.S. national team attracted 43,433 fans to Busch for a World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in November 2015. It was the first appearance for the U.S. men in St. Louis since 1997.
St. Louis FC is the USL affiliate of the Chicago Fire, but the plan is to bring it in-house as part of a comprehensive club pyramid that Kavanaugh touts as one of the strengths of the SC STL bid. The MLS team will sit atop an organization that includes USL, PDL, Academy, travel and recreational teams that already are in place. Scott Gallagher has more than 7,000 players at all levels.
The league has longed to tap in to the St. Louis market, which would bring a level of tradition and authenticity for which MLS has yearned. The ownership group is ideal. It’s well-heeled and has appealing ties to local communities and businesses as well as other pro sports organizations. The stadium location is perfect.
St. Louis also helps MLS fill out the midwest U.S.—the league cares about geographic coverage—and instantly creates a couple of promising potential rivalries. An I-70 derby with Sporting Kansas City could become one of the league’s premier showdowns, while the enmity Blues and Cardinals fans traditionally have for their rivals in Chicago could form the basis of another run rivalry.
The fact that SC STL hasn’t pledged to fund the entire cost of stadium construction is the only drawback, but it’s a significant one. If the tax increase passes in April, then all is well. If it doesn’t, then Edgerley and his partners will have to either ante up or pull out. The latter very well could send St. Louis to the back of the expansion line.
“I really do think this is an opportunity that if we miss it, it may go away and not come back,” Kavanaugh said. “Soccer in the U.S. is growing so fast. It’s at a bit of an inflection point …. It’s going to be a shame if we can’t figure out a way to make this work.”
He said that issues of jersey and stadium naming rights sponsorship, which is high on the league’s priority list, haven’t been resolved but shouldn’t present much of an obstacle. Kavanaugh stressed he’s had “very positive feedback from a number of large companies that are interested in sponsorship and being a part of this overall organization.”
As stated, it all hinges on the stadium. Get that resolved, and St. Louis is in.
"I think if the vote fails, it's in many ways a referendum on behalf of the community as to whether or not they want to support the plan for a stadium downtown …. The St. Louis ownership group needs to determine whether or not the public support exists. I think the question as to whether or not they remain an expansion candidate would be probably a question for them much more so than for MLS if they don't get the public vote,” commissioner Don Garber said in recent conference call.
“We're very encouraged by what we've been seeing there at a number of different levels. Both in terms of what the ownership group has put together. The political support of the mayor, the [current] governor, the viability of the market from a soccer perspective, the newly reduced amount of pro sports competition. We like their thoughts on stadiums, so we feel pretty encouraged by what we've been seeing.”
MLS expansion city profile: Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg
Is there a symbol that sums up Major League Soccer’s early years better than that outer-space video game mutant bat thing? Nonsense names, loud colors and incongruous branding were just the beginning as top-tier soccer returned to the U.S. in 1996. There were the cavernous NFL stadiums, the aging foreigners, the unheralded American journeymen, lean times and lots of unpredictability. And shootouts. And 1990s soccer hair.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny had it all, from their incomprehensible logo and neon/puke green jerseys to the stylish Carlos Valderrama-inspired soccer inside the original Big Sombrero. But like MLS 1.0, the Mutiny didn’t last. The club was unable to find an investor, attendance dipped into the four digits and at the end of the 2001 season, it was contracted along with the Miami Fusion.
A lot has changed since MLS 1.0, and a lot has changed in Tampa and St. Petersburg. And so the Bay is back on the league’s expansion radar. Led by flamboyant local real estate developer Bill Edwards, the bid is anchored by the reborn Tampa Bay Rowdies, who will play this year in the USL after spending six seasons in the NASL. The Rowdies’ Al Lang Stadium, a converted waterfront baseball park, is their current and future home. It’s located in the St. Pete half of the country’s 11th largest media market and 18th-most populous metro area (around 3 million).
Now that Atlanta United is ready to take the field, it’s significant that Tampa Bay is the largest media market in the U.S. without an MLS team. Yes, it ranks higher than Miami, Detroit and Phoenix. And that’ll turn heads at MLS headquarters, where boosting TV ratings is paramount. It’s also worth noting, and Edwards did so when speaking with SI.com, that the Bay no longer is “God’s Waiting Room.” Residents aged 20-34—the Millennials MLS covets—now comprises around 19% of the region’s population, according to a 2015 study, and that’s expected to rise more than 10 points in the next five years. The region was home to only four Fortune 500 companies as of 2015.
Edwards had never seen a soccer game when he purchased the Rowdies in 2013.
“The community seemed to love [the team]. It was in trouble. My background is taking things that are broken and fixing them,” Edwards said. “I fell in love with the sport. I got hooked on it … I fell for the sport and I understand it. I understand the players. I understand the coaches. I understand a lot of things. I’m a hands-on owner. I’m the guy sitting behind the bench watching the game. I’m the guy on the field giving the sweaty guys a hug, saying ‘Good job! Good hustle!’ I love the game. I love the people in it.”
Edwards, 71, is all in. He was raised in Massachusetts, was wounded while serving in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War, and eventually entered the mortgage business. He’s now one of the Bay Area’s most prominent businessmen thanks to his significant real estate holdings and involvement in high-profile projects, the arts and now sports.
Edwards said he’s interested in bringing aboard additional investors—“the more the merrier,” he stressed—but he has every intention of remaining majority owner.
“There’s a lot of wealth in this town, and we all know each other pretty much. There are a lot of conversations going on,” he said. “This isn’t a job for me. This is a great experience and I’m really enjoying it after working my butt off for so long, to have some fun. I’m having a lot of fun with it and this is great way to give back to the city and the community.”
Beyond the ownership group, Edwards made news last week with the hiring of former MLS and U.S. Soccer Federation executives Brett Lashbrook and Forrest Eber, who are highly regarded for their work overseeing Orlando City’s transition from USL to MLS.
The Rowdies have one of the simplest, cheapest stadium plans among the expansion hopefuls. They already have refurbished seats, the video board, locker rooms and more at Al Lang, which sits on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront. Now Edwards is committed to putting $80 million (plus cost overruns) into expanding the stadium from around 7,200 seats to 18,000. He told SI.com that he intends to ask for no public money and that the city will be on the hook only for some infrastructure upgrades such as sewage.
Working with ICON Venue and Populous, both of which have been involved in the construction and/or renovation of numerous MLS stadiums, Edwards and the Rowdies intend to turn Al Lang into a facility with a unique configuration that leaves one corner open toward the Bay and the other toward the city skyline. Edwards has purchased a nearby parking garage to boost the number of spots and said he is financing a special local election this spring, which is required when there’s any significant construction or lease agreement on the city’s waterfront property. Edwards said he expects to operate the stadium under a use or lease agreement with St. Petersburg.
Al Lang is next to the Mahaffey Theater, the venue that relies on support from The Bill Edwards Foundation for the Arts, and the Salvador Dalí museum and is a few blocks from St. Petersburg’s downtown dining and nightlife district on and around Central Ave.
Sports and Soccer Scene
When the original Rowdies kicked off in 1975, the Tampa Bay area had no teams in any of the country’s major sports leagues. It now has three—the NFL’s Buccaneers, NHL’s Lightning and MLB’s Rays. Each has had periods of success and struggle, and at the moment the Lightning are the most consistent winners and play to capacity in Tampa’s Amalie Arena. But down the street from Al Lang, the Rays have the worst attendance in baseball. The Bucs drew an average of 60,624 this season to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
It’s an unpredictable, eclectic sports town(s). The population is there, support wavers at times, but success is rewarded. It’s also an event town(s). Four Super Bowls, three Final Fours (one men’s, two women’s), two Frozen Fours and Monday’s College Football Playoff final, among others, have been staged in Tampa or St. Pete.
Like other sports, soccer’s results in the area have varied. The original Rowdies debuted in ’75 and immediately won the NASL championship. Average attendance broke 10,000 that year and peaked above 28,000 in 1980. Then the decline began, the NASL folded in ’84 and the Rowdies spent several more years as a minor league and indoor team before finally shutting down 10 years later.
In 1996, MLS and the Mutiny came to town. Again, things started well. Valderrama and Co. won the Supporters' Shield that first season and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. But average attendance never broke 14,000 and the league was unable to find an investor to operate the team. The financial losses continued through the 2001 season, after which MLS shut down the club. Malcolm Glazer, who owned the Bucs and soon would take over Manchester United, negotiated with the league but ultimately declined to save the team.
The Rowdies were resurrected in 2010 and joined the NASL the following season. Despite winning a championship in 2012, attendance was below 4,000 per game. Then Edwards stepped in, put some money into the club and stadium and plotted his entry into MLS. This season, the Rowdies averaged 5,878 at Al Lang, which ranked third in the league.
The U.S. men's national team has played six times in the Tampa Bay area, most recently in 2012, when it defeated Antigua & Barbuda in a World Cup qualifier. Average attendance for the six games staged from 1985 through ’12 is 22,508. Raymond James Stadium will host the U.S. as part of a CONCACAF Gold Cup doubleheader in July. The area’s other national team tie sits a few miles south in Bradenton, which is home to U.S. Soccer’s U-17 residency program.
The size of the market and Edwards’ stadium plan are huge plusses. MLS wants ratings and a population base, and the fact that the Rowdies would play in a downtown, waterfront venue that will cost half as much as many other grounds is unique and extremely appealing. Edwards’s wealth, enthusiasm and commitment are notable.
Tampa Bay would have an obvious rivalry with Orlando City, which has been heated at times even though they’ve never played in the same league. There have been preseason matchups and one U.S. Open Cup meeting, a 2014 affair won by Orlando. The enmity extends beyond the soccer field.
Edwards said sponsorship won’t be a problem.
“The biggest problem I’ve had in this town is not being in MLS,” he said.
Also, there are the Rowdies’ amazing green-and-yellow hooped jerseys. MLS needs those.
Orlando’s proximity also could be a negative, especially if City objects to an MLS team a little more than 100 miles away. The Lions reportedly have the rights to the Tampa Bay TV market, and that’s not necessarily something they’d be willing to cede without compensation. The two metro areas combined have a population of around 5.3 million, roughly equivalent to a city like Atlanta or Boston.
Then there’s Edwards himself, whose tendency to make waves could make for interesting times in an MLS boardroom that prefers things slow, steady and conservative. Edwards is outspoken, ambitious and no stranger to courting controversy, either in the media or in actual courts. Edwards is well-known for his philanthropy. He’s also no stranger to the witness stand. He’s a larger-than-life figure hoping to join a league influenced heavily by the stoic and/or quiet Phil Anschutz, Clark Hunt, and Robert and Jonathan Kraft.
Edwards ultimately left the NASL because he said he couldn’t find common ground with his fellow owners. But he made no friends with stunts like July’s team-produced video highlighting officiating mistakes and a press release that called referees “inconsistent, incompetent and unprofessional.” It seemed very un-major league. At the same time, he demonstrated what an asset he can be through his renovations at Al Lang and the signing of a player like English veteran Joe Cole.
Can his passion be channeled?
Edwards acknowledged he’s “not a typical owner,” but he stressed that his respect for MLS’s growth leaves him with little incentive to rock the boat.
“Why would I question MLS and what they do? They’ve got the road map to being successful,” he said. “They’ve got their act together. When I deal with idiots, I let them know I think they’re idiots. But when you’re talking to people who are versed in these things and know what they’re doing, I take advantage of it. I want to be with people who are smarter than me, who have more experience, who have their act together. Than I can invest my money wisely … I’m three years in. They’re 20. That’s why I’m taking my hard-earned cash and putting it in the right place.”
“We love what Bill has been able to do. Al Lang Stadium is super cool. You can’t get a better environment, right on the waterfront. This is the largest market that we’re not in. If you look at the top 15-18 DMAs, this is the largest of those where we don’t have a team in, so that’s intriguing to us,” Don Garber said at a University of South Florida lecture in October.
“We’ve shown that we’re more successful in New York with two teams in New York. The rivalry between Red Bulls and New York City FC has helped the league and has certainly helped both clubs. And I think we’re going to see this thing just explode in LA with two teams in Los Angeles. In Orlando’s case, I’m convinced that at the time that we decide that we want to come back into this region, we’ll sit down and have a conversation with the owners there and figure out a way to make that work as we’ve done throughout the expanded rollout of our league.”
MLS expansion city profile: Nashville
The Nashville Predators are on a road trip through hockey’s heartland. They played Vancouver on Tuesday and are visiting Calgary and Edmonton before heading down to Minnesota—the ‘State of Hockey’—for a Sunday night game. The Predators are a team from the southeastern U.S., where kids don’t exactly grow up skating on frozen ponds. But the Preds won’t be cowed by the atmosphere in the arenas up north. They’re accustomed to colorful, raucous crowds. Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena routinely sells out (35 of 41 regular season games in 2015-16), and the fans there have come to represent North America’s closest approximation to Dortmund’s yellow wall.
The Predators launched in 1998.
“Nashville had no history with major league hockey and I think if you talk to people that visited for the  All-Star Game, it blew people away,” said John Ingram, a member of one of the region’s most prominent business families. “Nashville is on an incredible trajectory from a growth point of view. If you use Wayne Gretzky’s analogy about not just looking at where the puck is but trying to keep track of where the puck is going, Nashville is a serious city. It’s a branded city. People know about it and love to visit it and I’d like to see if I can help bring this globally branded city to the global sport.”
It’s Music City. It’s the Athens of the South. But is Nashville a sports town? The Predators and NFL's Titans are well supported but relatively new. They’ve combined for just one championship appearance and aren’t national/global brands. And Vanderbilt University is in the SEC but is more well known for what happens in its classrooms. Ingram, however, is convinced pro soccer will work in Nashville, and he’s ready to make a significant investment in order to make it happen.
The capital of Tennessee anchors the country’s 29th-largest media market and 36th most-populous metropolitan area. That leaves it just a bit beyond a league targeting 28 teams (for now). But Ingram said Nashville “is growing right into the sweet spot that I think MLS is looking for.”
It fills in a pretty significant hole in the map between Atlanta and Columbus, and Ingram said Nashville ranks second among the 10 identified MLS expansion candidates in millennial and foreign-born population growth. There’s your MLS sweet spot. There were six Fortune 500 companies in the area as of 2015 and it has the fastest growing Gross Metropolitan Product outside Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas.
If Nashville isn’t considered a sports town now, Ingram believes it will be.
“I think it’s fair to say we’re an [expansion] underdog. We’re later to start this effort than some other cities, but I think we’ll have a really solid application,” Ingram told SI.com. “I think we’re going to make a real effort that’s going to have to be considered.”
Right now, it’s a group of one. But that’s probably enough. Ingram, 55, is the chairman of Ingram Industries, a privately held company with interests in book publishing, barge and river transport, and information technology. The company founded by Ingram’s father took in about $2.3 billion in revenue last year. The family, which includes John Ingram’s mother, two brothers and sister, is worth around $4.1 billion, according to Forbes.
“I love sports. It would be new and exciting for me and the city, and hopefully a legacy for my family, so I said, ‘Yes, what the heck?’ I think I’m the guy in Nashville who can pull this off and I’m going to go for it,” Ingram said when asked why he wanted to invest in soccer.
Ingram is on Vanderbilt’s board of trustees—he earned his MBA there— and said he would “be happy” to add minority partners. He committed to be the primary investor only last month.
“There are a number of other families and individuals around Nashville we’ve got some very strong interest from. I think that will take care of itself,” he said.
While leading the charge, Ingram also is part of a 28-member organizing committee of business leaders, executives and officials dedicated to bringing an MLS club to the city. It includes Titans president and CEO Steve Underwood and Predators president and CEO Sean Henry. Nashville SC, the USL expansion team slated to take the field next year, is run by former MLS executive Court Jeske. All those names will appeal at MLS HQ. Ingram doesn’t have a stake in the USL club, but he’s working closely with the new USL team’s ownership group, which includes organizing committee member David Dill. A partnership may be down the road.
There isn’t much of one at the moment, at least publicly. That’s a function of Ingram’s recent entry into the expansion race. In fact, Nashville SC still hasn’t finalized its stadium for 2018. But MLS is planning to announce only two teams—Nos. 25 and 26—this year. That leaves Ingram some time before he’s got to nail down the specifics, although he’ll have to provide some information to MLS by the January 31 application deadline. He intends to do so, while highlighting Nashville’s history of engineering successful public-private partnerships.
“We did it with the Titans. We did it with the Predators. We’ve done it with a major convention center. And I’m hopeful [a soccer stadium] will be the next great example of how the private and public can come together to do something really valuable for Nashville,” he said.
Ingram and his committee have a “stadium vision” calling for a 25,000-30,000 seat venue in the city’s “urban core.” There have been reports that the city’s Fairgrounds site, which includes concert and event space, a flea market and a speedway, is under consideration. A potential partnership with Vanderbilt that may or may not include its football team also has been discussed. Because of his board membership there, Ingram said he had to “let Vanderbilt run its own process about evaluating it and whether it makes sense to participate.”
He said there are “several sites being evaluated” and that additional details would be available in the next month or two. Ingram’s job will be to deliver the specifics that will whet MLS’s appetite.
Soccer and Sports Scene
There are only three metro areas in the U.S. that have at least two teams in the traditional four major sports leagues and smaller populations than Nashville (Milwaukee, New Orleans and Buffalo). But as Ingram said, he's convinced there’s room for soccer.
The U.S. national team has done well there. Its four games between 2006 and 2015 averaged 31,998 fans, which was enough to attract one of the Americans’ CONCACAF Gold Cup matches this summer. Mexico also has shown well. More than 40,000 filled the Titans’ Nissan Stadium for October’s friendly against New Zealand.
The city had a pro soccer presence in the 1990s that included a five-year stint in the second-tier A-League by the Nashville Metros. They made a run to the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals in 1998 that included a 3-1 win over MLS's Kansas City Wizards. The Metros dropped to the PDL and eventually folded in 2013. More recently, NPSL club Nashville FC has tapped into the city’s soccer interest. Taking the field in 2014 as a supporter-owned team, NFC wore the blue and yellow of the Nashville flag and drew around 2,000 fans for its first game. The club’s grassroots success proved attractive to Dill and his partners, who are taking the colors and branding (and they hope the culture) to the USL.
Nashville and the surrounding region is home to some 32,000 youth players at 61 clubs.
The Ingrams are very wealthy, which will appeal in the MLS board room—as will the fact that Nashville is the North American headquarters for Nissan and Bridgestone. The city itself is increasingly regarded as a hip, up-and-coming tourist destination for more than just country music fans, and MLS wouldn’t mind being associated with a place that’s young and on the rise.
The league wants a national footprint, and Nashville helps provide that even though it’s not a large TV market. It’s a growing city and an MLS team there would be the closest one for more than 12.5 million people across nine states. Prove soccer can make it big in the Southeast and you’ve gone a long way toward building the “soccer nation” that MLS Commissioner Don Garber frequently references.
Without a definitive stadium plan in place this month, Nashville stands no chance of being awarded one of the next two expansion teams. That leaves it to compete with a bunch of other markets for Nos. 27 and 28—many of which are larger. And unless Ingram can secure a stadium site and the public-private partnership he referenced, Nashville won’t have much of a shot at those either. As he said, they’re just getting started. But that means there’s a lot to do before Music City can be considered a soccer city, and that smaller market like Nashville will have to blow MLS away when the next round of teams is identified.
"Nashville SC is set to launch as a USL club essentially being run by former MLS executives. And we're encouraged by the community's support, at least so far behind that team and kind of the political and business leaders who have come out and expressed interest in being a possible MLS expansion team,” Garber said last month.
“We also look at, and folks that have been around expansion for many years will know, we very carefully strategically see and test markets, potential MLS markets, with international games and U.S. men's and women's games. We've been doing that for over a decade. And the national soccer market has come out in really strong support for the U.S. men's team, the U.S. women's team. And the Mexican national team had an unbelievable event that we did this year … We continue to be focused to the extent that it makes sense as it relates to the entire geographical roll out in the southeast. It is still a place where we don't have a lot of teams and Nashville sort of falls in that category. I will say, Nashville is very early into this. I think we met with them for the first time within the last few months. They're not nearly as advanced as many of the markets.”