The deadline for cities to apply for MLS expansion has come and gone, and twelve ownership groups have stepped forward with the intent of becoming one of the four newest teams in MLS. One of the two cities in the state of North Carolina to submit a bid is none other than the Queen City, better known as Charlotte. Here is the MLS Expansion Profile for the Queen City.
MLS Expansion Profile: Charlotte
Ownership Group and Stadium Plan
The bid for Charlotte was, surprisingly enough, the first expansion bid of the current twelve. Marcus Smith, president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, submitted a bid on January 31st at 5:37 PM Eastern Standard Time.
Marcus Smith is a well-off piece of the ownership group, with his reported salary at the end of the 2015 fiscal year was approximately $3.8 million. Smith is the son of Bruton Smith, who has a reported net worth of $1.5 billion. It’s safe to say that the Smith family surely has the financial clout to support a possible MLS franchise.
The major downside to the Charlotte expansion bid is that the Charlotte City Council voted down the proposed stadium plan. The vote that was turned down was a proposed plan to replace Charlotte’s Memorial Stadium. The Charlotte Observer, however, stated that the Mecklenburg County Commissioners voted 5-3 in favor of the proposed plan, and the stadium plan looks back on track. This uncertainty has caused many to be very reserved on the chances of Charlotte being approved for expansion.
One point, and one that needs to be out in the open, is that the proposed stadium plan for Charlotte would see both the city of Charlotte and the county each pay $43.75 million towards the estimated $175 million stadium. This proposed plan would also see Smith loaned a total of $75 million for the building of the stadium, all of which would be paid back over the course of the next 25 years.
It may not be the most stable of plans, especially in comparison to some of the more attractive bids like Nashville and San Diego, but it’s a plan in place and can keep Charlotte moving forward in their hope for an MLS franchise.
Current Soccer Landscape
Charlotte has one strong point going for them in their MLS expansion bid, and it’s that they already have an established soccer culture. Seeing as they already support (albeit with well below average attendance) a professional team in the USL, the Charlotte Independence, many believe they could easily do the same with a much more nationally recognized franchise, in a much more well-known league, both nationally and internationally.
The Independence currently play in Mecklenburg County, where the MLS expansion club would play, in a stadium that seats a very meager 2,300 in total. The reported attendance ratings for their first season in this stadium was a relatively poor 1,375 per game. This doesn’t bode well for their bid, but attendance at a USL, or even an NASL, club doesn’t always correlate directly with how an MLS organization would draw in attendance.
The best barometer to tell how an MLS franchise would do in a city is how well the national teams are supported when they play there. Unfortunately for Charlotte, there hasn’t been any there for the USMNT at the senior, U-23, or U-20 levels in the last two and a half years.
Despite their lack of USA National Team games, they do have an NCAA Division 1 program in the city, and do have a growing love for the game at the youth level. And for the league to grab ahold of a growing southern market, and one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, it would be good to grow the game in an area hungry for soccer.
Other Contributing Factors
The fact that the originally sketchy stadium plan being sorted out is a pivotal step forward in Charlotte’s bid for an MLS organization. Add this together with an ownership group that can easily support a club financially and you get a recipe for relative success.
Another contributing factor that lends favor to the Charlotte bid is that it is currently the thirteenth fastest growing city in the United States. Charlotte had a reported population growth rate of 1.84% in 2015, which is even more impressive when that’s the worst year when compared to 2014 and 2015. With a population of 2.38 million people in 2014, Charlotte came in as the 22nd largest metropolitan area in the United States.
Expanding on the market aspects in regards to soccer, Charlotte was ranked as the 46th best city for soccer fans. This ranking has them coming in above fellow expansion bidders San Antonio, Nashville, Detroit, and San Diego. This makes Charlotte a much more attractive location, especially when you combine it with the shear number of people in the city. When you add both of those factors together, it’s hard to imagine that they would have a hard time bringing in solid attendance.
Another relevant point, in regards to international matches and attendance, is that Charlotte has played host to three matches for the International Champions Cup. The games have all been played in the Bank of America Stadium, which seats 73,778 fans. The most recent ICC match in Charlotte, played between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, drew a crowd of 53,629, showcasing that the fans will come out for teams that aren’t even relevant to their local leagues. The other match between Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea also drew a crowd of 61,224. Impressive numbers that will surely lend a hand to the bid for Charlotte.
Another contributing factor to Charlotte being a good option is that they have already been a successful location for other professional sports organizations. The Carolina Panthers of the NFL averaged 73,792 per game in 2016, which is 100% of their stadium capacity. The other professional organization in Charlotte, the Charlotte Hornets, is currently averaging 17,200 fans per game, a number which represents 90.2% of their stadium capacity. For two teams that aren’t challenging for trophies in their respective sports every year this is an encouraging trend that an expansion team would do well there.
Regardless of how you spin it, it’s hard to say that Charlotte has any real chance of being one of the next four expansion cities. When you take into account that it’s competing with cities like Detroit, Nashville, St. Louis, Sacramento, and San Diego, it becomes less and less likely that Charlotte will be one of the next four cities to enter into Major League Soccer expansion. However, stranger things have happened.