ORLANDO — Representatives from eight potential MLS expansion markets attended Wednesday’s All-Star Game, but the focus remained on the leaders in the race toward 30 teams—St. Louis, Sacramento and Charlotte.
Multiple sources connected to the expansion process, as well as commissioner Don Garber, suggested that St. Louis is the furthest along. Although no franchise was awarded at Wednesday’s board of governors meeting, and no schedule for those awards was announced, Garber’s characterization of the league’s conversations with St. Louis was the most optimistic. The prospective ownership group, led by Enterprise Holdings Foundation president Carolyn Kindle Betz, made a formal presentation to the board, which followed their more in-depth meeting with the league’s expansion committee two weeks ago.
“We are in very advanced discussions in St. Louis, and we really appreciated the details that they provided,” Garber said. “We look forward to continuing those discussions in the weeks and months ahead.”
The commissioner used more modest language when referencing Sacramento and Charlotte, which now appear to be on level terms. In April, when MLS announced its intention to expand to 30 clubs, Garber said it “will deal exclusively with St. Louis and Sacramento for teams 28 and 29.” On Wednesday, those plans seemed slightly amended.
“We are in advanced talks with both of them,” he said, referencing St. Louis and Sacramento. “They are not exclusive talks. Exclusive means we’re not talking to anybody else. It doesn’t mean anybody’s leapfrogging anybody else. We are in discussions with Charlotte, but we are also in discussions with Sacramento and St. Louis.”
Also in Orlando for meetings and the game itself, which was played at Exploria Stadium against Atlético Madrid, were representatives from Indy Eleven, North Carolina FC (Raleigh), Phoenix Rising, Las Vegas and San Diego (Nick Stone, the point man for the SoccerCity bid).
Speaking to SI.com following the meeting, Kindle Betz said her family is committed to raising their city’s international profile, and she painted a cautiously optimistic picture.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if we weren’t confident that we could win this,” she said. “I think [MLS] just wants a little bit more proof, which is exactly what we’ve been focused on this entire time. This is a big commitment, and there are still some questions out there. But in our mind, this is what we’re doing Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.”
The ownership group, which also includes St. Louis FC’s Jim Kavanaugh, still plans to build a privately-financed stadium on a downtown site west of Union Station, about two miles from the Arch. The land currently is under state control and is the process of being transferred to the city, with which Kindle Betz and her colleagues are working. A stadium opening and MLS launch in the spring of 2022 remains the goal.
Sources said there’s some concern over corporate support as well. Kindle Betz addressed that issue, saying that Garber attended a March lunch in St. Louis that attracted 27 area CEOs. The Blues and Cardinals were present as well.
“Every time we call somebody, they talk the meeting,” she said. “It’s turning out to be a jigsaw puzzle, in the sense of making sure that on our side, we put together the best sponsorship package for that customer or that corporation. St. Louis is also a tight community. You don’t want to necessarily make any enemies.
“In some of our presentations [to MLS], there have been a lot of great names up there but we’ve also been transparent about the fact that, we know there’s a number. We’ll get there. We’re just trying to figure out how to get there in a way that both parties feel they have a win-win. There’s room for everybody.”
The league wants to be in St. Louis, a traditional soccer market with a downtown that’s on the rebound. It’s possible that a good chunk of an expansion agreement with Kindle Betz’s group is in place, and that they’re waiting close the deal on the stadium site. Both Garber and Kindle Betz said there was no formal vote on Wednesday.
“We still have some things that we probably need to make sure we get more in line,” she said. “Just continuing the conversations with the corporate sponsors, making sure we’re in a good place with the city—because we need their help. Those two things, and the stadium design of course. Those things are really the top of the list right now.”
Regarding Sacramento, new majority owner Ron Burkle may be slower to comb over, negotiate and agree to an expansion agreement. The analogy that several have drawn here was the last round of expansion, which featured a quick announcement in Nashville and then months of waiting in Cincinnati.
“These are lifetime decisions for a board to make and for an investor to make,” Garber said. “There’s a process that we go through that is really really time consuming. These are massive commitments at this point. When you get involved in an MLS team now with the [$200 million] expansion fee and the stadium, it’s a minimum of $500 million dollars. And finalizing those deals take time.
“Both of those teams [St. Louis and Sacramento] are looking at coming in 2022, so we’ve got plenty of time for them to get their projects finalized.”
He said conversations with Burkle “are positive and they will continue.”
Charlotte is the unexpected entrant in the race, a wildcard bid fueled by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper’s billions and a growing market in an empty spot on the map brimming with corporate largesse. Tepper and Panthers president Tom Glick, who used to run New York City FC, also presented to the league’s expansion committee this month.
Garber lauded Tepper’s enthusiasm and said the league has significant interest in the Carolinas (NCFC also has MLS ambitions, but there’s room for only one). But there’s work to do on Charlotte’s stadium plan, which imagines filling the Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium.
“We are primarily in the business of having teams that play in soccer specific stadiums,” Garber said. “His plan does not include one. So it’s not something that we’re running with very quickly until we’re very, very, very comfortable that that could be a different path for us. And we’re intrigued by that path because of the success we’ve been having in Atlanta and in Seattle and [the Chicago Fire’s impending] move down to Soldier Field. … It’s an aspect of his bid that puts it sort of in a different path.”
The MLS board is scheduled to meet again in December, although Garber said work on the expansion front could continue in the meantime. Part of that would include visits to both Charlotte and Sacramento “in the next 30 days.” The New England Revolution’s Jonathan Kraft chairs the expansion committee.