The head of the city’s economic development committee told the Charlotte Business Journal on Monday that Charlotte’s bid for the first round of Major League Soccer expansion is dead — and the lead investor for a local team confirmed it. Charlotte is one of 12 cities competing for two new teams to be awarded in December and begin play in 2020.
James Mitchell, a council Democrat who has been the most enthusiastic local politician in support of using tourism tax money to help build a $175 million stadium for a new team, said the combination of upcoming elections and a competing bid by Nashville dashed any remaining hopes. Tension and, ultimately, disagreement last summer between city and county government over funding the stadium started the backslide.
For the past couple of months, Mitchell and representatives from MLS4CLT, the private entity formed to own an expansion club, have tried to keep dwindling hopes alive for the December selection. Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith leads MLS4CLT and has committed to pay the $150 million fee to acquire a team if Charlotte’s bid succeeds.
“It’s disappointing that it looks like we’re not going to be able to make that deadline,” Smith told me Monday. “I’m disappointed for the 50,000 families whose kids play soccer every weekend and I’m disappointed for all the fans who told us they were excited about having an MLS team (come to Charlotte).”
Last week, his chief strategy officer, Mike Burch, told me MLS4CLT was waiting to hear from the city about possible stadium sites. Mecklenburg County owns 16 acres on the edge of uptown, where a new 20,000-seat, $175 million stadium was proposed and approved by county commissioners in January.
That plan unraveled when city government opted against matching the county’s $43.75 million investment to pay a combined 50% of the construction cost. When the city declined an offer from the county to take control of the land for soccer but only if the stadium was fully funded by the city and MLS4CLT, a scramble ensued to find alternate locations.
On Monday, Mitchell told me city administrators and the committee have run out of time and won’t be able to cobble together an MLS proposal by December. Mitchell said the city would be interested in trying to help with a stadium plan for the next round of bidding, which the league has said will be its final expansion, to 28 clubs.
The league has said it will add two more teams at an undetermined date — opening the door for Charlotte and other cities that lose out in December — but the entry fee is all but certain to go up. Burch, of MLS4CLT, told me last week that any increase to the entry fee would require new analysis to determine whether the team could still be competitive on the field and whether Smith’s ownership group could still make the business side a success.
Smith said Monday he is uncertain whether MLS4CLT will pursue the next round of expansion. He praised Mitchell for leading the political effort to help bring a team to Charlotte “in spite of a lot of headwinds.”
The councilman cited a proposal in Nashville for a $250 million, 27,500-seat stadium as an example of the kind of competition Charlotte can’t match. At least not immediately.
“The Nashville proposal is a game-changer,” Mitchell told me. “We can not come anywhere near the Nashville proposal.”
An MLS spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A city spokesman in Nashville told CBJ the council will consider the stadium on Nov. 7. The sports authority and the board that runs the city fairgrounds — 1.5 miles from downtown, where the MLS stadium would be built — have already approved the plan, the spokesman said.
Nashville is touting its stadium pitch as one that would be paid for with private money accounting for 90% of the cost. It includes $25 million in cash from the local ownership group, $25 million in bonds for related site work that would also benefit the fairgrounds and $200 million in public bonds to be repaid by the team at a rate of $13 million annually.
It also includes a ticket tax that will help repay bonds and, after an increase in later years, provide money for stadium improvements.
Another rival bidder — Sacramento — broke ground in July to begin site preparation for a proposed stadium as an indication of its commitment toward MLS. More recently, the Sacramento ownership group landed a five-year jersey sponsorshipcontingent on landing an MLS team. In soccer, jersey sponsors are the most lucrative and most important for a team.
Next month, voters will decide all 11 council seats and the next mayor. Incumbent Jennifer Roberts, a Democrat, lost in the primary in September. Vi Lyles and Kenny Smith, the Democratic and Republican mayoral candidates, respectively, have both said during the campaign they do not support using city government money to help pay for a soccer stadium.
At least five of the 11 council members will be newcomers when the council and next mayor take office in December. Smith told me Monday that an MLS bid must include at least some public financing or else it will fail.
Last week, an MLS supporters’ group known as The Queen’s Firm began campaigning for a team here. Co-founder David Dowell told me Monday that, as long as there is a chance to bring an MLS club to Charlotte, his group will try to help the cause. Queen’s Firm has 150 members and a mailing list of 3,000 people and is seeking more members online and through soccer watch-parties at uptown sports bar Courtyard Hooligans.
Charlotte Business Journal