Earlier this week, twelve cities and ownership groups submitted expansion bids to Major League Soccer. These clubs/cities/ownership groups are now in the running to be the 25th or 26th team in MLS and could join the league by 2020. Here’s a full break down of St. Louis as a historic soccer city, Saint Louis FC, and #MLS2STL.
MLS Expansion Profile: St. Louis
Ownership Group and Stadium Plan
St. Louis had been seen as a potential MLS expansion city for years. It has rich history at both the college, club, and international level. St. Louis Scott Gallagher is one of the most productive youth clubs in the country. It had all the makings of a great soccer city. It just never had an ownership group to make it happen. And prior to Saint Louis FC, every lower division professional team failed to draw crowds.
Enter SC St. Louis (SC STL). This past November, they made headlines by acquiring USL side Saint Louis FC, Scott Gallagher (their affiliated youth academy), and beginning the MLS expansion bid process. The group hails from Missouri and is lead by Paul Edgerley of VantEdge Partners. Saint Louis FC will still have leadership ensuring a holistic and grass roots movement: Founder Jim Kavanaugh will stay on as vice chairman.
The group also has a stadium location in mind: Union Station on the edge of downtown. It’s less than two miles from the Arch and walking distance from many downtown highlights. Union Station already has its own stop on the MetroLink. And the area is in need of a makeover/freshening up.
The plan right now is to build a $200 million 20,000 seat stadium. There’s a bill in the city to provide as much as $60 million to help fund that construction. The bill’s details are still up in the air and it would need to go to a public vote before approval. Many citizens are still very skeptical about using taxpayer money to fund sports venues in the area, given the response to the bid that could have kept the Rams of the NFL in St. Louis.
The ownership group appears solid. The club has lots of infrastructure already (practice facility, operational academy). The soccer-specific stadium plan still needs some work.
Current Soccer Environment
St. Louis has one of the best soccer city cultures of the 12 on this list. Saint Louis FC had the sixth best home attendance in the USL in 2016 despite having a team at the bottom of the table. The club continues to sell tickets at and near capacity (~5,400) of World Wide Technology Park in the west suburbs of Fenton, MO.
The city has hosted the U.S. National Team several times in recent years as well as several high profile friendlies. St. Louis doesn’t have an ideal outdoor soccer venue at the moment. The Edward Jones Dome has an indoor turf field and the layout of Busch Stadium isn’t great for soccer.
Despite that, Manchester City and Chelsea sold out Busch Stadium in minutes back in 2013. The USMNT beat St. Vincent and the Grenadines in World Cup Qualifying in 2015 in front of over 43,000. The USWNT played in front of almost 36,000 in their most recent visit. St. Louis has also hosted recent friendlies for Real Madrid, AS Roma, and the Bosnian National Team, all with nice crowds even in poor weather.
With a soccer-specific stadium, St. Louis could follow the path of Kansas City as a regular fortress for the national team. They would have a decent showing from locals and are centrally located for fans from all over the US to travel to. Being in the Central Time Zone, they could easily fit into either conference, helping the league avoid moving other teams around.
Other Contributing Factors
St. Louis has the perfect balance location wise for expansion. MLS higher ups are on the record saying that they don’t want market saturation but value local rivalries to help the league grow. The league won’t be casting their net wider by adding a fourth team in Texas or California. The would however value adding a local rivalry such as the Cascadia or Atlantic Cup.
St. Louis is far enough away from Kansas City and Chicago to add to the footprint of the league. Those road trips are also 5 hours drives or 1 hour on a plane, making them great potential rivalries.
Young people might also be the one demographic Saint Louis FC hasn’t tapped into. They’ve got the hardcore soccer fan, the soccer mom, and the club team going out to watch a game. Fenton isn’t super convenient to get to if you live downtown. It’s near impossible by public transit. A downtown soccer stadium would attract young professionals in droves.
St. Louis is also home to Little Bosnia, one of the largest Bosnian populations in the country. There’s a reason every time the Bosnian National Team does an American tour, they make a stop in St. Louis. If Saint Louis FC signs a noteworthy national team player to a TAM/DP contract, Little Bosnian will show up to games (and they might bring flares). Regardless, this a minority they can draw fans from, much like other soccer markets with noticeable Hispanic populations.
Big corporate sponsors and partnerships might be the market’s biggest weakness compared to the other eleven bids. The city has only nine Fortune 500 Company headquarters. They do however have Anheuser Busch, which is very active in the market. Boeing also has a major office in the city.
Given AB’s sponsorship of the Cardinals new stadium (Busch Stadium), they would be a no-brainer shirt sponsor/partner for Saint Louis FC in MLS.
Given the recent drama with the Sacramento bid, I’d say St. Louis is a favorite to get picked by the league. They’d be a feel good story with all the history. They’ve got a clear fan base even with an under-performing USL side. They’ve got a home run stadium location (pun intended). The demographics of the city give them an added leg up. They’ve got an ownership group dedicated to doing things the right way.
The only uncertainty is the city bill that would help the ownership pay for the stadium. If SC STL can make the finances work, with or without public funding, Commissioner Don Garber won’t be able to say no.