There was one certainty in this convoluted, whirlwind MLS expansion race: if St. Louis could build a stadium, it would get a team. The country’s 20th-largest market lost its NFL franchise and had a renowned, deep-seated passion for soccer. MLS had wanted to be there for years, was happy with the prospective ownership group and proposed stadium plan and was ready to say ‘yes’ once the latter was finalized.
The hurdle for the St. Louis investors, however, is that they needed $60 million in city funding to build their stadium next to Union Station. That required a vote, and elections are never certain. They made their case, held rallies, conducted a social media campaign, promised a minimum $255 million investment, scholarships and even received endorsements from the mayor and the city’s police union. It wasn’t enough. The proposal to funnel the proceeds from a half-cent business use tax toward the stadium was defeated 53%-47%, or by about 3,000 votes.
The outcome is neither a repudiation of soccer in St. Louis or of MLS. There were two primary reasons for the defeat. The first is that voters who felt burned by the Rams departure and the money still owed on what is now called The Dome at America’s Center apparently weren’t ready to believe the claims, which were seconded by Mayor Francis Slay, that the soccer stadium would have a net positive economic impact.
The second reason is that a significant part of St. Louis’s soccer support comes from the suburbs, where youth clubs, ethnic enclaves, churches and schools have anchored the sport for generations. Those were the fans who’d be coming into the city for MLS games. But they were ineligible to vote. Tuesday’s election was decided by 58,000 voters in a metro area of 2.8 million. It was city money on the table, however, so fair is fair. The result doesn’t mean St. Louis isn’t a soccer town. It just won’t be an MLS town.
Potential, future soccer stadiums in America
In a statement, investor Jim Kavanaugh wasn’t ready to declare the bid definitively dead. But unless something totally unexpected occurs, MLS won’t be going to St. Louis.
“Our ownership group was clear from the start that without a successful passage of Propositions 1 and 2, there would be no path forward to see this project through and bring Major League Soccer to St. Louis,” said Kavanaugh, who owns the USL’s St. Louis FC and was partnering with former Bain Capital managing director Paul Edgerley on the bid. “While this is likely the final stage of our journey, we owe it to ourselves and to the thousands of people who believed in this effort, and voted for Proposition 2, to step back for a day or two before making an official announcement. In the short term, we will be thanking supporters and volunteers, both within the city and throughout the region.”
So what now? For St. Louis, it’s USL soccer in suburban Fenton for the foreseeable future. For MLS, Tuesday’s result is a disappointment but not a setback. There still are 11 groups/cities lining up outside trying to get in, and although they can’t match St. Louis’s soccer history, some have wealthier investors, some come from larger markets and some are requesting no public money. The league will have no trouble filling its four expansion slots.
For bidders, their chances obviously increased with a shoo-in now out of the way. The cities that might benefit most from Tuesday’s result are Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis and Nashville. MLS seeks a national footprint and if it wants greater representation in the Midwest and a chance to enhance the weaker rivalries in that part of the country, it now must look beyond St. Louis. The league may not have chosen two markets there.
Elsewhere on the expansion landscape: