- Stay up to date on the latest across the MLS expansion landscape, with the league continuing to churn on its decisions for the next franchises to enter the fold.
Once again, the future of an MLS expansion effort is in voters’ hands. Three weeks ago, the citizens of St. Louis decided against providing funding for a soccer stadium. Next Tuesday, the St. Petersburg half of the Tampa Bay metro area will decide whether the Rowdies’ bid will move forward.
There isn’t nearly as much money at stake in the St. Petersburg vote and thus, a much greater likelihood the Rowdies will get the result they need. But Rick Baker is taking no chances. The president of The Edwards Group (led by Rowdies owner Bill Edwards) knows a thing or two about elections. He was elected mayor of St. Petersburg twice. And he told SI.com this week that no matter the odds or outlook, there are only two ways to approach a vote:
“One is unopposed. The other is scared,” Baker said.
So he’s literally been going door to door in an effort to share the Rowdies’ plans with area residents. Unlike the very public campaign waged in St. Louis, the MLS hopefuls in Tampa Bay are staying relatively quiet and working the grassroots. Baker said he’s visited some 50 groups in person over the past two months: neighborhood and homeowners associations, condo boards, rotary clubs and business owners. The Rowdies also sought the opinion of area stakeholders and event organizers during the stadium design phase.
“It was important to Bill that we reach out to the community directly … and have a chance to see people face-to-face and give us an opportunity to respond to concerns,” Baker said. “We’ve used this opportunity of a referendum to explain why we think [the vote] is a good thing and also to try to help them understand why we think soccer is important to the city’s future.”
Edwards and the Rowdies aren’t asking for money. Instead, they want permission to sign a 25-year lease with the city of St. Petersburg that will allow the club to upgrade Al Lang Stadium to meet MLS standards and then play there for the long term. Any lease on city-owned waterfront property that’s greater than five years requires public approval. Edwards is financing the special election himself to the tune of $280,000, and plans to spend $80 million of his own money to transform Al Lang into an iconic venue that looks out onto Tampa Bay and sits alongside the 2,000-seat Mahaffey Theater and the Salvador Dalí Museum, which holds the largest collection of the Spanish artist’s work outside Europe.
Edwards also will foot the $150 million MLS expansion fee.
So who would vote against it?
“At this point, there really is no organized opposition that I’m aware of,” said Baker, who was mayor from 2001 to 2010. “People have questions about whether we have sufficient parking. Have you accommodated the lighting? In order to deal with the condominiums surrounding the stadium, do we have transportation covered—those kinds of questions. So we wanted to get around and talk to people.”
The city has 168,000 eligible voters and nearly 22,000 ballots already have been sent in by mail. Saint Petersblog, a local news blog, conducted a poll in early April and reported that 70% of voters are expected to approve the referendum, with 19% opposing and 11% undecided.
“If we pass the referendum, there’s a high degree of certainty associated with our stadium plan. That’s a pretty good advantage we have in our corner,” Baker said.
But there’s no telling whether it’ll be enough to sway MLS. Competition for the four available expansion slots—at least two are expected to be awarded by the end of the year—is fierce. In Tampa Bay’s corner: it’s the 11th largest media market in the country and now the biggest without an MLS team, the aforementioned stadium certainty and the history behind the Rowdies brand. Potential pitfalls could be Tampa/St. Petersburg’s proximity to Orlando (plus a possible expansion team in Miami) and perceived competition from the Lightning, Rays and the array of annual or one-time sporting events staged in the area.
“Everything that we’ve heard either privately or publicly from folks at MLS about Orlando is that not only is it not seen as an impediment, but it’s seen as a positive thing because of the opportunity to have a great rivalry down the I4 corridor,” Baker said.
Orlando City plays about 110 miles from Al Lang and Miami is 260 miles to the south—that’s greater than the distance between Washington, D.C., and New York City.
“I haven’t heard how [Miami] would impact us either way. Our perspective is that we’re just doing our thing,” Baker said.
Whether the Rowdies can keep doing their thing will be determined Tuesday.
“Hopefully we get over the hurdle. It’s still a hurdle,” said Baker, who will remain “scared” until the final votes are counted.
Meanwhile, the Rowdies have averaged 5,591 fans at their four home games so far this season. That ranks eighth in the 30-team USL, behind rival MLS expansion bidders FC Cincinnati, Sacramento Republic, San Antonio FC and Phoenix Rising.
Speaking of rival bids, here’s an update on some other areas of the MLS expansion landscape:
Miami’s endless expansion effort continues. Now well into its third year, David Beckham’s quest to build a stadium at PortMiami or on the downtown waterfront or next to Marlins Park or in Overtown remains unfulfilled. His pursuit of additional investors also was fruitless, as potential partners from Paris Saint-Germain owner Qatar Sports Investment to Milwaukee Bucks owner Wes Edens expressed interest then backed away.
MLS is in a bind. Beckham exercised his option to purchase an expansion team at a reduced rate (originally $25 million, now more thanks to the delay). The league has an obligation. And it seems unlikely that Beckham would take a buyout on an asset worth so much more than he’s invested. That doesn’t mean a buyout is even being considered. MLS would love for Miami to work out, so much so that it’s endured the embarrassment caused by repeated failures and delay. Every time commissioner Don Garber has said it’s time for the process to reach its conclusion—and he was saying it as far back as last September—it hasn’t really been time. The feeling is that if Beckham is successful in Miami, no one will remember the nonsense along the way.
So, the league hangs in. There was discussion but no decision at this week’s board of governor’s meeting in Colorado and on Wednesday, the Daily Mail reported that Beckham was close to a deal with potential investor Todd Boehly. Later, The Miami Herald and ESPN reported Boehly was on board. He’s the chairman of Eldridge Industries, which owns Dick Clark Productions, Billboard magazine and other media properties. Boehly also is a part-owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The increased funding should help as negotiations drag on over a piece of Overtown land the Beckham group needs to construct a stadium.
Garber had this to say last Friday during a meeting with APSE editors: “We’ve all reached agreement, he included, that we’ve all put in an enormous amount of time and money and energy into getting something finalized. And we all agree it’s time to either move forward or not. And that time is upon us. It’s not a specific day, but that time is upon us.”
It’s remains unclear how MLS would end its relationship with Beckham if his group is unable to make the Overtown stadium happen. But it clearly doesn't want to. Absent an escape route, it seems Beckham will continue to get time and latitude.
Shortly after the request for $60 million in public funding from the city of St. Louis was voted down, SC STL vice chairman Jim Kavanaugh said the vote was “likely the final stage of our journey” and that the investment group led by former Bain Capital managing director Paul Edgerley would "step back for a day or two before making an official announcement.”
It’s now been 24 days since the election, and there’s been no announcement.
This is not to say that the St. Louis MLS effort is back up and running. When Edgerley, Kavanaugh and their colleagues said there was no 'Plan B', they meant it. They considered their options, did the math and were prepared to put up the $150 million expansion fee and around $100 million toward construction of a new stadium next to Union Station, along with other start-up costs. The $60 million in public money they were seeking would come from a tax on ticket sales and city businesses purchasing out-of-state goods.
When the voters said ‘no’ by a margin of 53% to 47%, SC STL’s only proposal was scuttled. There’s no alternative stadium site or contingency, and no source of additional funding. The plan made sense for Edgerley and Co. only with that level of outlay. Adding more investors and altering the individual stakes as they’d been defined also would’ve disrupted the investment model.
MLS almost certainly wouldn’t consider a stadium in suburban St. Louis, where such a project likely would get more support. But it still desperately wants to be in the market and was eager to bring Edgerley aboard. St. Louis was the clear expansion front-runner. So does the league’s interest, plus the lack of an official exit from SC STL, mean there’s still a pulse?
It does, sort of. There is no new proposal in place at the moment. But if something were to surface, SC STL would listen. They haven’t conceded entirely. And although it’s really tough to imagine MLS cutting the expansion fee, it almost surely would give St. Louis the leeway to get something done if an opportunity arises.
Charlotte’s bid, which his led by Charlotte Motor Speedway president and CEO Marcus Smith, also hit a political hurdle. Smith intended to pay the expansion fee and half the cost of a $175 million stadium that would be leased back from Mecklenburg County. The county and city of Charlotte would combine to kick in the other half. The county was in but in late January, the city council decided it wouldn’t even vote on the measure.
A lifeline remains, however. Smith and his colleagues have remained in touch with MLS and met with league officials in March. There’s been no public withdrawal. The city council could, at any time, reconsider its decision and vote on Smith’s request (the money would come from a fund that must be directed toward tourism or hospitality projects). In addition, several members of the city council and Mayor Jennifer Roberts are up for re-election in November. A different government might have a different perspective. So while Charlotte has been sidelined for now, it remains in play.
It wasn’t too long ago that Sacramento Republic’s transition to MLS seemed inevitable. Don Garber certainly left that impression.
“This is a soccer city, and frankly we don’t see that very often,” the commissioner said when visiting the city last year. “They’ve been able to check the boxes that are required,” he added. He called the corporate support in California’s capital “kind of unprecedented,” and even revealed at one point that MLS hoped to admit Sacramento while Mayor Kevin Johnson was still in office. Johnson left in December.
“We believe and hope and expect that Sacramento will part of that next round of expansion,” Garber also said.
“Not if, but when” may as well be the Republic club motto.
But all that came before 11 other cities lined up to apply—before the multi-billionaires in Detroit, Cincinnati in Nashville declared their intentions, before Landon Donovan and Footy McFooty Face, before eye-catching stadium projects in Phoenix and Tampa Bay, and so on. Then, there was the awkward January presentation of Sacramento’s bid sans Republic branding. The USL team’s subsequent surprise stoked the flames, and the city’s new mayor stepped in to facilitate negotiations between Republic’s current chief owner, Warren Smith, and the man who will take the club to MLS, Kevin Nagle.
Since then, it’s been pretty quiet. But that's not because Sacramento’s bid has weakened. If anything, it’s a result of the city being ready so soon. They’ve been forced to wait while MLS established its expansion parameters and while other markets worked to catch up. Those cities have had make a case that Sacramento closed a year ago. Naturally, much of the conversation has focused on the newer bids.
But Sacramento’s remains the only “shovel ready” stadium plan among the 12 expansion prospects. The $180 million Railyards facility, which will be part of a development including 6.8 million square feet of office and retail space and 6,000 new housing units, already has been designed. Blueprints are nearly finished. The land is under control, financing has been arranged and all regulatory approvals have been received, including the environmental impact review that arrived last November.
Within the next couple months, work will begin on basic infrastructure at the stadium site—roads, utilities, etc. That would set up the club to begin construction by next spring for a 2020 opening.
That’s money already spent. Nagle has put some $8 million into the bid already. Meanwhile, the health care and pharmaceutical entrepreneur and Smith, who launched Republic in 2014, have reached an agreement on the transfer and are expected to finalize and sign the deal in the next couple weeks. Smith may retain a small stake in the MLS club, but it will be Nagle and his partners who will take charge.
The “delay,” for lack of a better term, hasn’t dented fan support. Republic has sold out both home games at 11,569-seat Bonney Field so far this season, and although FC Cincinnati draws larger crowds, SRFC leads the 30-team USL in ticket, sponsorship and overall revenue. This is Republic’s fourth year in the league.
On Monday, San Diego MLS investment group Goal SD submitted more than 100,000 signatures from eligible voters to the city. They were collected in under two weeks.
Goal SD needed only 71,646 signatures to put its SoccerCity development proposal before the city council. Although the council could simply approve it then and there, the investors want their plan sent to the voters in November in order to remove any doubt that it has the public’s full support.
“The fact that more than 100,000 people signed the petition in less than two week’s time speaks volumes to the enthusiasm that San Diegans feel for this proposal,” investor Nick Stone said.
The project in Mission Valley calls for the demolition of Qualcomm Stadium, the Chargers’ former home, and the construction of a 30,000-seat, expandable venue for MLS and San Diego State football. It also includes 55 acres of park, six public fields, land for a future NFL stadium, 3,520 housing units, 800 student dormitory units, 480 units of affordable housing, 2.4 million square feet of office space, 740,000 square feet of retail/restaurant space and two hotels. And it’ll all be privately funded.
So where’s the opposition? Goal SD investor Landon Donovan told SI.com last month that he expected it to come from four potential sources—those who want the property reserved strictly for a future NFL franchise, those who want it reserved for SDSU, those who want less development and more parkland and rival developers who either want the site for themselves or don’t wish to compete with SoccerCity.
So far, only the latter has really coalesced in the form of Sudberry Properties and HG Fenton, developers that are working on their own mixed-use projects nearby.
In late March, a study was published based on data from Esri, a demographic and geographic information systems company, that indicated San Diego leads all 12 MLS expansion applicants in soccer participation and TV viewership.
The city’s figures also eclipse the average of current MLS markets.
While the Predators roll through the Stanley Cup playoffs, Nashville’s MLS bid has come into a bit more focus. The effort is led by Ingram Industries chairman John Ingram, who’s part of an area family worth some $4 billion and that’s well-known for projects around the city. Ingram met with Garber and other MLS executives a couple weeks ago in New York City.
Stadium plans are focused on the Fairgrounds Nashville, an event space located a couple miles south of downtown. In late March, the state House of Representatives voted 87-2 to funnel sales tax revenue generated by the stadium project back to the city’s Metro Sports Authority. The funds would be used to offset construction costs
The city is set to host the USA-Panama and Nicaragua-Martinique matches at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and then a friendly between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur.