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Charlotte Lands MLS Expansion Team as Panthers' Tepper Pays Record Entry Fee

MLS will grow to 30 teams with the planned addition of two clubs apiece in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

MLS's 30-team picture is now complete.

Charlotte was awarded the league's latest expansion team on Tuesday and will join the league in 2021, a year before St. Louis and Sacramento round out the current, extended growth period. 

Inter Miami and Nashville SC will join the league for the 2020 season, giving MLS 26 teams for its landmark 25th campaign. Charlotte's to-be-named franchise will accompany Austin FC into the league in 2021, ensuring that the league retains an equal number of franchises during each year of growth.

The Charlotte bid, headed by Carolina Panthers owner and billionaire David Tepper, paid a reported $325 million entry fee, by far the most of any team in league history. Sacramento, the last team to get in, paid $200 million. Charlotte's team will play in the Panthers' Bank of America Stadium, an NFL venue that has hosted International Champions Cup, Gold Cup and U.S. women's national team games and will now house a club.

Charlotte is awarded an MLS expansion team

MLS commissioner Don Garber said prior to MLS Cup that Charlotte's appeal "starts with David Tepper, the owner of the Panthers, who’s a very passionate guy about sports, very passionate about Charlotte, and is reminding us that the league didn’t really see what Atlanta would become. I’d be the first to admit that. There’s a lot of things happening in Charlotte that are very similar to things that are happening in Atlanta in terms of the diversity of the fanbase and a lot of the corporate energy that’s going on down there."

The club's leadership isn't foreign to MLS either, with president Tom Glick formerly part of City Football Group, helping launch NYCFC in 2015. He'll have another go-around with an expansion franchise six years later.

Charlotte's bid appeared to come together quite rapidly compared to some of its counterparts. Tepper, one of the richest people on the planet whose net worth is estimated at $12 billion, has been the driving force, stating upon his takeover of the Panthers that he had interest in bringing an MLS franchise to the city. His group first had talks with MLS last winter, and league officials toured Bank of America Stadium last February for the first time. Representatives met with the league's expansion committee in July, and after St. Louis and Sacramento received their green light, it quickly became Charlotte's turn. As Glick told earlier this year, the club's bid was "turnkey" ready.

Charlotte joins the recent surge of MLS in the southeast, which had been a barren corner of the USA for the league following the folding of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny. Between Orlando City, Atlanta United, Nashville SC and Inter Miami and the eventual addition of Charlotte, that corner is now well represented.

Charlotte's emergence is not unlike St. Louis's in that it had an earlier bid under different leadership fail to materialize and then jumped to the front of the line when the proper pieces were in place. Motor sports mogul Marcus Smith was at the helm of the city's first push, one that was ultimately futile. Part of what killed Smith's bid was the caveat that his stadium plan required the city to supply $43.75 million to help fund the desired facility at the Memorial Stadium site. Oddly enough, the city will reportedly set aside in $110 million in tourism taxes over time to assist in stadium upgrades, the construction of practice and team facilities and the development of an entertainment district under Tepper's bid. 

MLS commissioner Don Garber and Charlotte expansion chief David Tepper

“The awarding of an expansion team for Charlotte by Major League Soccer is a proud moment and significant for Charlotte and everyone in our community,” said Tepper. “I’ve made clear for a long time that I have two goals as a team owner: sustained winning on the field and making a difference in the community. These will be our goals with Charlotte’s MLS team, and the work begins today.”

Charlotte will be a two-team city as it relates to pro soccer, with USL Championship club Charlotte Independence continuing to play in nearby Matthews, N.C.

Just because MLS is at 30 teams after the inclusion of Charlotte doesn't mean it will necessarily end there. Garber has stopped short of definitively saying this round of expansion will be the last, though, he did, in off-hand remarks at Tuesday's event, say "this will likely be our last announcement." With most recent interest stemming from Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, Indianapolis and Raleigh (though it's hard to see a second team in North Carolina after Charlotte's admittance) and previous interest in Detroit and Tampa, the league could be inclined to satisfy the demand to grow more. The road through 2022, at the very least, is set.