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Last week, the city of Sacramento shut down a section of L Street just off the Capitol grounds and hosted a mid-day block party for a few thousand soccer fans. They ate, drank, watched the UEFA Europa League on a big screen and welcomed MLS commissioner Don Garber for a rally designed to demonstrate the city’s support for an expansion team. The Republic, now entering its third season in USL, has won a championship, attracted record crowds and established a youth academy. And now it wants to make the leap.
While in California’s capital, Garber met with city and business leaders, toured Republic’s stadium site at the Sacramento Railyards and answered questions from fans and media. He confirmed the league’s intention to expand to 28 clubs after Atlanta United FC, Los Angeles FC, Minnesota and Miami come aboard and even mentioned several additional candidates. MLS intends to convene an expansion committee of four-to-six owners who will assess the options this year and make recommendations concerning when and how to proceed.
None of those candidates is as far along as Sacramento but as the Republic have demonstrated, the expansion landscape is volatile. They were nowhere close to the conversation three years ago. Now, Sactown practically is a shoo-in. We can only assess the race as it stands now, however, so here’s a breakdown of where potential expansion cities stand following Garber’s visit to California. And we have little choice but to place the markets he mentioned in the lead.
Nearly a done deal
The club and city have checked every box, and last week Garber himself said, “We hope and really we expect Sacramento will be one of the next four [additions].” Now it’s just a matter of when Republic gets the green light. While it waits, it’s continuing to move ahead on its plan to construct a stadium at the Railyards. The facility, which will seat up to 25,000, will anchor a $226 million public-private partnership that’s already been approved by Sacramento’s city council.
Just about every concern the league once had about this unexpected expansion candidate has been resolved. Fan interest isn’t an issue. The robust ownership group led by pharmaceutical investor Kevin Nagle features local real estate executives and representatives from the Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers, among others. And politicians appear to be just as unified.
Although no Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in the city, there’s sufficient corporate presence and support thanks to its role as the state capital. “I’m actually very encouraged, having sat with some corporate leaders,” Garber told The Sacramento Bee. And for a league eager to expand its TV presence, Sacramento’s place as the country’s 20th-largest media market should be more than adequate for a circuit comprising 24-28 teams.
Republic obviously would like to come in as soon as possible, but there’s almost no chance MLS will permit it to do so while still playing at 11,400-seat Bonney Field. The Railyards stadium should be ready to go by 2019.
The best bet for team No. 26
MLS wants to be in St. Louis, and when MLS wants to be in a market, it finds ways to get it done. The city’s long-term love affair with soccer is well known, and the league took note of the 43,000-plus who showed up for the U.S. national team’s World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines last November. St. Louis FC of the USL sold out its home opener in suburban Fenton on Saturday.
In 2008, a bid led by Jeff Cooper and anchored by a potential stadium in Collinsville, Illinois, lost out to the Philadelphia Union. Interest in other markets was increasing as well, and Cooper’s timing and location weren’t exactly right. The city fell off the radar for a bit and focus eventually turned to keeping the NFL’s Rams in town. Ultimately, $400 million in public funding for a downtown stadium, plus a naming rights deal, weren’t enough to keep the team from leaving for LA. But that doesn’t mean the effort was a failure. It demonstrated that the city and local business leaders could get things done, and it certainly captured the eyes of MLS.
People gradually are moving to downtown St. Louis again, and there’s land about a half dozen blocks north of the Arch and a short walk from the riverfront that’s earmarked for a stadium. In February, local sports and business executives formed a task force that could work with the league, politicians and potential investors. It includes the presidents of the Blues and Cardinals, the owner of St. Louis FC and the chairman of the St. Louis Sports Commission, among others.
Plenty still needs to happen. But where there’s a will on both sides, there’s likely a way.
Best of the rest
Size does matter, especially when it comes to TV markets. MLS’s bid to compete worldwide depends on an increase in TV revenue, and that depends partly on appealing to more homes in bigger cities. And once Atlanta enters the league, the largest media markets without a team will be Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Detroit. Tampa has the NASL’s Rowdies and is quite close to Orlando, while whatever interest there may be from the USL’s Arizona United is very preliminary.
That leaves the Motor City, an established sports town with a downtown that’s returning to life. It’s the largest market Garber mentioned last week. MLS has had conversations with potential owners in Detroit, although they remain unidentified. It also just so happens that Mayor Mike Duggan has a brother in the business. Dan Duggan owns the two-time PDL champion Michigan Bucks, who play in nearby Pontiac.
The city’s soccer fans have made news recently for their support of the NPSL club Detroit City FC, which raised some $740,000 recently to fund renovation of a 6,000-seat stadium in Hamtramck. DCFC’s games draw crowds in the thousands, but it remains to be seen whether those fans will support an MLS effort or stick with their current team.
There’s no question San Antonio wants to be part of MLS—the city expressed interest five years ago—and there’s now an ownership group with the sports smarts to get them there. The dissolution of the NASL’s Scorpions and the sale of Toyota Field paved the way for the Spurs, arguably the NBA’s best-run franchise, to get into the soccer business. The Spurs are leasing and managing the stadium. They launched a USL team, hired veteran administrator Tim Holt away from Orlando City to run the show and committed to paying a $5 million penalty to the city and county if they don’t own an MLS club within 10 years.
There are two significant issues with San Antonio, however. One is that it’s only the 32nd-largest media market in the U.S. The other is that Toyota Field isn’t the sort of stadium MLS is looking for. Now that it can afford to be a bit more choosey, the league likely is imagining playing a few minutes from the River Walk and the Alamo, not 12 miles north in the suburbs.
Further down the list
The gorgeous weather and potential stadium construction shuffle involving the Chargers, San Diego State and the University of San Diego is appealing. But there are questions about whether the 28th-largest media market, which is sandwiched between soccer hotbeds in L.A. and Tijuana, has the wherewithal to support an MLS club. The league is keeping tabs, however, and Garber told SI.com in January that there have been conversations with interested parties. Those are preliminary, however, and there’s plenty to sort out with San Diego’s existing teams before an MLS bid can take shape.
Former Padres owner John Moores saw his bid to buy into Everton thwarted in February. He had expressed interest in perhaps launching an MLS club that might partner with a Premier League outfit, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune, and his real estate company remains a factor as the city, Chargers and universities ponder their futures.
The Texas capital would be the smallest market in MLS. It ranks 39th overall, just below Greenville, S.C., and West Palm Beach, Fla. Its USL team, the Aztex, is taking the season off after its House Park stadium was damaged by floods last year. There’s political interest but no potential ownership, at least publicly. Nevertheless, Garber mentioned Austin last week, so it’s mentioned here as well. Institutions like the University of Texas and SXSW certainly boost the city’s profile, and the fact that it’s less than two hours from San Antonio might leave some hoping it’s a viable south Texas option. But Austin is the least likely expansion site among the cities Garber referenced.
Unmentioned, but worth watching
As Sacramento has shown, and Orlando before it, sometimes a city or team can rise quickly as an expansion candidate. Although Garber didn’t mention these cities, they’re worth keeping an eye on. In alphabetical order:
Charlotte - At No. 22, Charlotte boasts a market size and a potential base of corporate support that should appeal to MLS. The USL’s Independence launched last year and already is talking to city officials about the possible renovation of Memorial Stadium, an 80-year-old facility on the western edge of downtown. Owner Jim McPhilliamy, a former Hornets executive, has been in touch with MLS and there’s a lot of empty space on the league map between D.C. and Atlanta.
Cincinnati - USL expansion team FC Cincinnati drew a league-record 20,497 fans to Nippert Stadium on Saturday night, a figure that dropped jaws around the American soccer community. It’s early days, of course, but sustaining that sort of support will go a long way toward establishing some MLS traction. Club executives have said they’re interested in pursuing MLS, and coach John Harkes and MLS veterans like Austin Berry, Omar Cummings and Antoine Hoppenot lend additional legitimacy. Owner Carl Lindner III comes from a family worth billions and is co-CEO of investment and insurance giant American Financial Group.
Indianapolis - Indy Eleven owner Ersal Ozdemir has met with Garber and MLS executives, but there’s no indication he’s considering taking his club out of the NASL. The Eleven led the league in attendance each of the past two years but it’s been unsuccessful securing land for a downtown stadium. Former club president Peter Wilt has returned to Chicago, where he helped launch the Fire, to lead the city’s NASL expansion effort.
LasVegas - A bid to bring MLS to Sin City was rebuffed early last year when uncertainty over the timing and funding for a publicly-subsidized stadium in the downtown Symphony Park district prompted the league to look elsewhere. MLS said that it wouldn’t consider Vegas for the current round of expansion, leaving the possibility of a post-2020 return possible—at least rhetorically. Considering the potential competition, MLS may have moved on permanently from the country’s 40th-largest media market. But then again, publicly funded stadiums can prove very persuasive.
Phoenix - Arizona United owner Kyle Eng said in February that he’d like to take his USL team to MLS by 2020 and he told KPNX he has investors lined up. Hiring coach Frank Yallop looks good, but playing in suburban Peoria won’t cut it. If the land and funding come together, however, you can bet MLS will pay attention. Phoenix anchors the country’s 12th-largest media market.