Will Cincinnati, Sacramento or Detroit join Nashville as an MLS newcomer?
With an expected announcement on Wednesday that MLS has granted Nashville an expansion franchise, focus now shifts to the cities in contention for the second spot. Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento are still in the running but that the league is waiting to announce -- perhaps until after the New Year -- is telling in terms of how close the contest is.
The reality is that each of the bids is compelling, but has its flaws. Cincinnati is trying to convince that its stadium deal is done, even though it isn't. Yes, FC Cincinnati was able to acquire $51 million from the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County to be applied toward infrastructure costs. And FCC has stated it is moving forward with a site in the Oakley neighborhood. But final buy-in hasn't yet been secured. There has also been talk of pivoting to another site in the West End neighborhood.
MLS has been through enough stadium gymnastics in other locales -- lately it has been Miami -- to know that a deal isn't done until the ink is dry and the litigation options of opponents have been exhausted. So as impressive as Cincinnati's USL attendance has been -- more than 21,000 this season -- and, even though it has a billionaire lead investor in American Financial Group co-CEO Carl Lindner III and a jersey sponsor lined up with Mercy Health, MLS is still mulling things over.
Sacramento's stadium solution is completely done, so much so that it has begun preparing the site. It also has more than 10,000 season-ticket deposits and a jersey-sponsor deal with UC Davis Health. Its problems focus more on the investor side, and it's beginning to look like Sacramento has been caught in a game in which the value of certain criteria changed.
MLS has stated that the viability of an expansion bid was basically a three-legged chair comprised of ownership group, market and stadium. That last criteria has long been viewed as the most important, given the drawn-out process that accompanies getting approval and ultimately building a facility. It was a finalized stadium plan that made Sacramento's bid so compelling, along with its record of crowd support.
There has been a shift, however. If this expansion process -- one that has seen fees reach $150 million -- has proven anything, it is that the financial strength of the ownership group has taken on more importance and, if you don't have a billionaire as a lead investor, then MLS will require a higher threshold of proof in order to let a city in the door. And this is what Sacramento is up against.
Just prior to its Dec. 6 presentation before the expansion committee, Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman and her husband, Dr. Griff Harsh, joined the investor group, one that also includes lead investor Kevin Nagle, San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York and Fulcrum Property Group president Mark Friedman. The addition of Whitman was seen as the final piece in the puzzle but, now, it appears as though there remain a few more pieces to slide in.
The fact remains that Nagle doesn't have the same financial heft as the three bids he's competing against. In February 2015, he sold pharmaceutical company EnvisionRx to RiteAid Corp. for $2 billion but, according to a report in the Sacramento Bee, the share that he and other investors held amounted to 35 percent. Nagle is wealthy but not in the same stratosphere as the competition. And it's worth noting that, out of York, Friedman, Whitman and Harsh, none of that quartet was brought in to be the lead investor.
Meanwhile, Sacramento's long, methodical path toward expansion, once thought to be beneficial in terms of time, has also worked against it in some ways. When this journey began in 2014, expansion fees were around $70 million and its proposed stadium was set to cost $180 million. Now the fee has more than doubled and stadium construction costs are set to go up by $70 million, making for a $150 million increase.
The extent to which this is hampering Sacramento is unclear, though it was enough for it to lose out to Nashville. It is also worth noting that the $51 million FC Cincinnati received for stadium infrastructure costs was $19-24 million less than what it asked for.
Detroit's situation shows that, while strength of ownership has become more significant, a stadium plan remains critical. The city had no such problems on the financial end, given that it is backed by two billionaires: Cleveland Cavaliers owner and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner and Platinum Equity CEO Tom Gores.
However, the investor group's decision to designate Ford Field as its home venue instead of building a smaller, more soccer-centric stadium pushed it further down the expansion pecking order.
So yes, the stadium still matters but, like most things in MLS, when everything else is more or less equal, money conquers all. That's why at present, Cincinnati has its nose in front of Sacramento, though it's by no means a done deal.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.