The hints have been there the whole time, and they haven’t been that subtle. In fact, David Tepper hadn’t even paid for the Carolina Panthers the first time he mentioned the possibility of buying a soccer team, too.
Roger Goodell was standing just to Tepper’s left in May 2018, shortly after the hedge fund billionaire’s bid to purchase the NFL franchise was approved, when Tepper referenced “an MLS team or something like that, which might make sense in Charlotte.” He was answering a reporter’s question about the Panthers’ ownership structure.
When the sale closed a couple months later, Tepper was discussing facilities funding when he said, “If we do development here—that’s new development that keeps people here, not just on [NFL game] days—and we open up for other things and I make an investment in MLS, and I bring that in here, [then] I bring that many more dollars into the community.”
And last January, during a media availability that followed the end of his first season as an NFL owner, Tepper already was looking forward.
“We are having ongoing discussions with Major League Soccer,” he told reporters. “We’re talking about when they’ll take extra teams and when the time comes, we’ll be [ready]. We’re very much studying, very much focused on it. I personally believe that’s something that belongs in Charlotte.”
And if claiming he was serious wasn’t enough to convince you he was serious, then the summer 2018 hiring of Tom Glick should have sent a message. If the Panthers’ president’s name sounds familiar to soccer fans, it’s because he’s the same Tom Glick who ran Derby County for four years and then spent another six with Manchester City and City Football Group. He helped launch New York City FC in 2015. You probably don’t hire someone like Glick if the NFL is all you care about.
“David is a highly-engaged and committed owner in the NFL, and he is excited about soccer,” Glick told SI.com. “He’s convinced and sees that MLS is not only needed here, but the market is ready for it and it’ll be highly successful.”
And so over the past year-plus, quietly—apart from the press conference shoutouts—Tepper, Glick and their colleagues have been laying the groundwork for an MLS expansion bid. In February, league officials took their first tour of Bank of America Stadium. Panthers representatives have made multiple trips to New York City to meet with commissioner Don Garber and others.
“We’ve had a lot of engagement already,” Glick said. “We’ve been consulting with them and doing our homework here, and we’re now in a position to say that this is going to work incredibly well and we can play earlier or later to best suit their needs. We’ll be meeting with the commissioner and perhaps the expansion committee very soon.”
It appears “very soon” will be next month. Glick wouldn’t/couldn’t offer dates and details (and MLS declined to confirm), but the expansion framework already unveiled by the league provides some clues. In April, MLS confirmed its intention to expand to 30 clubs, which would require the addition of three new teams to the current 24 and the incoming Nashville SC and Inter Miami (2020) and Austin FC (2021). At the same time, Garber said MLS “will deal exclusively with St. Louis and Sacramento [Republic] for teams 28 and 29.” The fee for those two spots was set at $200 million.
Both St. Louis (the Taylor family that owns the Enterprise rental car company) and Sacramento (Ron Burkle) have new lead owners. “The ownership group in St. Louis has never met formally with our ownership through the expansion committee and neither has Ron Burkle and the Sacramento group,” Garber said in April. They were invited to do so. Sources connected to the Sacramento and St. Louis bids indicated those presentations are set to take place during the week of July 15—before the MLS board of governors meets in Orlando at the All-Star Game.
It’s safe to assume that the enlarged expansion committee, chaired by Jonathan Kraft (New England Revolution) and comprised of Arthur Blank (Atlanta United), Andrew Hauptman (Chicago Fire), Cliff Illig (Sporting Kansas City), Carl Lindner (FC Cincinnati), Bill McGuire (Minnesota United), Anthony Precourt (Austin FC) and Jay Sugarman (Philadelphia Union), won’t convene more than once between now and All-Star.
So pencil in Charlotte for a visit to NYC in mid-July. Garber said there was “no timetable set” for team 30, and there likely will be owners who believe it’s in the league’s interest to stand pat and let a bidding war develop. But Charlotte’s upcoming meeting suggests Tepper is eager to move quicker. With a stadium already in place, he theoretically could have a team on the field by 2021, Glick confirmed. Either way, Tepper’s apparent determination adds an intriguing wrinkle to the expansion race. If Sacramento or St. Louis falter or delay, Charlotte is there. Meanwhile, other 30th-team hopefuls like Las Vegas or Phoenix now have catching-up to do.
“We’re in their hands on the process. We will now be emphasizing that we are turnkey,” Glick said.
Charlotte’s MLS bid is a modern (post-Atlanta) one, in that it forgoes the new “soccer-specific” stadium that’s been the centerpiece of so many others. Tepper will argue that an upgraded Bank of America Stadium is more than suitable for a growing league and that Charlotte’s other attributes are too attractive to ignore.
The country’s 23rd-largest media market fills the 630-mile wide hole between Washington and Atlanta, and Charlotte anchors a metro area of more than 2.5 million people. Glick said there are 26 Fortune 1000 companies within the potential club’s catchment area, with more on the way, and that the organization’s research indicates full season ticket commitments will be “in the high 20,000s, maybe in the 30,000s.” Sponsorship revenue will be “in the top quartile [of MLS] based on our initial conversations, at least,” he added.
Charlotte’s other asset is Tepper himself. MLS likes billionaires, and Tepper is one almost 12 times over. He’s the 118th wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes, and now is the richest individual owner in the NFL (trailing Paul Allen’s estate) and likely would be in MLS (trailing CFG/Abu Dhabi). Heft like that is hard to ignore.
How much money Tepper is willing (and able) to spend or raise for upgrades to BOA Stadium, which just hosted a pair of Concacaf Gold Cup games on Sunday, will be critical. As much as Charlotte sees Atlanta as a model, the key difference between the two is that United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium was finished in 2017 and designed with soccer in mind. BOA opened in 1996, and although it’s been renovated since, there’s no roof or draping system in place to create the smaller, enclosed atmosphere preferred at soccer games. Constructing the roofing or trusses required would be expensive, and if talks with Charlotte progress, MLS will have to decide how much it's willing to demand or compromise considering the bid’s other attributes. The stadium is downtown, which is a plus.
These surely will be among the primary questions posed next month, and Glick said there was no specific solution in place. But the fact that the conversations already have started and now appear to include the expansion committee indicate that MLS is interested in exploring the idea. Charlotte is in play.
“This has been building for the past year,” Glick said of the Panthers’ MLS expansion effort. “Everything we’ve seen has given us great conviction. Part of this has been convincing ourselves that this is going to work, and part of this is showing the commissioner, the board of governors, and the expansion committee that we can bring an incredible new club to MLS that will add to this amazing growth story.”