Assessing MLS expansion candidates: The front-runners and favorites
An MLS expansion race that officially kicked off in January looks set to reach its first milestone in mid-December. An MLS Board of Governors meeting set to take place around MLS Cup will see owners decide which two of the 12 contending cities will be selected for teams 25 and 26. Teams 27 and 28 will be chosen at a later date.
To that end, the 12 prospective ownership groups have been jockeying for position for the entirety of 2017. Some cities that looked to be locks fell by the wayside. Others were never in the running. Yet several candidates have emerged with strong stories to tell.
In the first part of a two-part series, Jeff Carlisle assesses the front-runners and favorites to join the league with a month to go until MLS picks its latest two candidates.
California's capital city has long been the front-runner to get one of the first two expansion slots. The Sacramento Republic have the second-highest attendance in the USL. Lead investor Kevin Nagle is in the process of finalizing agreements with the organization's investor group, one that has previously received commitments from the limited partners of the NBA's Sacramento Kings, the York Family -- owners of NFL's San Francisco 49ers -- and Hewlett Packard Enterprise president and CEO Meg Whitman.
That doesn't mean Nagle is leaving anything to chance, and the organization continues to find more boxes to tick. Sacramento already has deposits for more than 10,000 season tickets. This includes existing USL season ticket holders, those putting money down just for the hoped-for MLS edition of the team and corporate commitments. Site preparation has begun at the organization's stadium site at the downtown rail yards. Last month it secured a jersey sponsor for when it hopes to enter MLS.
Of course, there are no absolutes in the expansion race, but Sacramento is making it nearly impossible for MLS to say no.
No city has made more progress in the calendar year than Nashville. When the 12 candidates first filed bids back in January, Nashville looked to be in the middle of the pack at best. But since then the ownership group led by local billionaire John Ingram has made significant progress on all of the requisite fronts. The Wilf family, who missed out on an expansion team in Minnesota, is now on board, bringing with them plenty of professional sports experience thanks to their ownership of the Minnesota Vikings. The market has been witness to some big crowds this summer, including a Gold Cup group stage match between the U.S. and Panama that drew 47,622.
Granted, one-off international games aren't definitive proof of a city's support for the game, but a viable stadium plan trumps all. That aspect of Nashville's bid has fallen into into place, as the Nashville Metro Council approved a $225-million funding package for a 30,000-seat stadium on the city's fairgrounds.
With that hurdle cleared, Nashville has all of the primary components satisfied. The big question is whether MLS would be willing to go with two of the smaller -- albeit growing -- metropolitan areas. But locales such as Portland and Kansas City are of similar size, and those are two of the healthiest organizations in the league. Given how Nashville has executed, combined with the way other cities haven't, it looks to be in the lead for the second spot that will be named in December.
Still in the discussion for December
Cincinnati is really the only candidate that can stand in the way of Sacramento and Nashville. FC Cincinnati continues to draw sizable crowds, leading the USL in attendance, and that track record is certainly an area where it has an advantage over Nashville, whose USL side will begin play next year. The ownership group led by billionaire Carl Lindner III has pockets more than deep enough to join the MLS club. But the hurdle has always been finding a stadium site, as well as the $100 million in public financing the ownership group desires.
Now it looks like progress has been made on both fronts. FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding has been touting three potential sites to build a $250-million, 25,000-seat stadium. One site is the west end of the city, another in the Oakley neighborhood and the final one across the Ohio River in Newport, Kentucky. The west end site is comprised of 16 different parcels, making that site more complicated to finalize. So Berding is now engaged in a parallel process with the Oakley and Newport sites to see which one works best. Both options would utilize tax increment financing (TIF) to provide the bulk of the public component.
"We've made enormous progress [on the financing] and I feel very confident we're going to get there before the end of the month," said Berding.
There is already a memorandum of understanding with the owner of the Newport site to build a stadium. Berding indicated that the TIF for Newport has the greater upside in terms of dollar generation, but it isn't generating money now. The Oakley option is generating funds given that there is already development around the site.
There is another advantage for Oakley in that it is in Cincinnati proper instead of Kentucky, and according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, some fans have been lobbying to have the stadium located in Ohio. The recent re-election of Cincinnati mayor John Cranley, a supporter of the project, provides another boost to the Ohio option as FCC continues to work with the city and Hamilton County.
The fate of Columbus Crew SC, which may be relocated to Austin, Texas, creates a wrinkle, but both the league and Berding insist that the Crew's future is a separate issue not affecting Cincinnati's candidacy.
That will become clearer down the road, but at the moment there looks to be a path forward in terms of stadium and financing, with the ownership group providing $300 million (to cover the $150 million expansion fee), about $50 million of which will be borrowed.
"Some time next week we'll announce publicly the financing plan," said Berding. "That will start a process where legislative hearings are held, public input is gathered, and ultimately there will be votes by Nov. 30; in time for the MLS decision-making process."
If that comes to pass, Sacramento and Nashville will have some competition come mid-December.
The investor group led by Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert now has a stadium story to tell. It's just not the one MLS wants to hear. So while Detroit checks off the requisite boxes, it's tough to see it being named in December, although it's still in the discussion.
Last week Detroit's investor group announced that instead of constructing a new venue at a site where a half-completed jail now sits on Gratiot Ave. in downtown, the Ford family was brought in as additional investors and 65,000-seat Ford Field, home of the NFL's Lions, was touted as the team's venue. But MLS has been insisting that expansion candidates have plans to play in their own, smaller-sized venues and responded in tepid fashion, which when reading between the lines felt like a rebuke.
According to Arn Tellem, who is handling the bid process for Gilbert and Gores, the group looked at what was happening in Atlanta and thought they could replicate the same success at Ford Field, which he said satisfied their desire for a downtown venue. The recent $100 million in upgrades made to Ford Field, as well as its ability to be configured based on ticket demand, was also appealing.
"Atlanta is knocking it out of the park," Tellem said by telephone. "We believe we have that potential, and what Ford Field does versus a standalone stadium is it gives us great flexibility to adjust to our seating capacity. We believe the fan interest is there. There is greater fan interest in Detroit than in Atlanta going in. There's more participation. Atlanta was viewed as a city that only supported football and in particular college football; Detroit has supported its teams more broadly. And in soccer there is much greater participation."
Atlanta seems an outlier, however, and not indicative of the extent to which expansion teams are supported.
The timing is certainly conspicuous, given that there is but a month left to go until MLS makes its decision on which two cities will be granted expansion franchises first. There are hundreds of millions that can be spent elsewhere now that the group doesn't have to build a new venue, although it remains to be seen how much bringing the Ford family on board will cost Gores and Gilbert, who are expected to maintain majority interest in the franchise.
Yet Tellem kept coming back to the appeal of Ford Field, which he called "underutilized" and that Detroit is "unique and different."
"It would be irresponsible to add another stadium into the mix," said Tellem. "We believe we have a compelling case and looking forward to making the argument when we meet with them."
When that will be is still to be determined, but if it comes down to a choice between a city like Nashville and Detroit, it seems clear which way MLS will go, and Gores and Gilbert may come to find that its decision to play at Ford Field has backfired, at least in terms of being selected in December.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.