Like the final weeks of a political campaign, the Major League Soccer expansion sweepstakes has become a game of one-upmanship.
One city breaks ground on a new stadium, another announces its soccer club has added a wealthy ownership partner. Political bodies are scrambling to approve stadium subsidies and fan groups are organizing to show that their club and city have the most loyal followers.
It’s all building up to a pivotal meeting within the next few weeks by a committee of six MLS owners tasked with analyzing the expansion bids of 12 cities, including Sacramento. That committee is expected to recommend two cities for expansion to the rest of the league’s owners, who will then vote on the winning bids in mid-December. The league plans to announce the expansion awards in the winning cities the week of Dec. 19.
Two more expansion spots will be announced in the future, bringing MLS to 28 teams.
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In the meantime, Sacramento has maintained its position as one of the front-runners. MLS Commissioner Don Garber continues to praise the city’s efforts, touting “great progress” in Sacramento during remarks at a Yahoo Finance summit on Wednesday.
However, Sacramento wasn’t the only city Garber mentioned this week – or in recent months. He said there’s also been “great progress” in Detroit, that Cincinnati was doing “a great job” and that Nashville was generating a lot of support for an emerging stadium plan. Other major U.S. cities remain interested, including Phoenix, San Antonio and the Tampa Bay region.
Sacramento leaders said they are aware the competition is tough.
“We are in a very strong position, but we cannot let up and we are not going to let up,” Mayor Darrell Steinberg said. “We have to make it clear to the league that we are hungry and that we are the perfect community for expansion.”
David Carter, a sports-management consultant and director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said the league will want to ensure the winning markets have dedicated fans with “historic commitments to the sport.” He said it’s also vital that cities present MLS with viable stadium plans and steady income streams from sponsorships and stadium naming rights.
“They want to see financial stability right out of the gate,” Carter said.
Sacramento has met two of these standards and is working on the third.
Sacramento Republic FC has been at or near the top of attendance charts in the second-division United Soccer League since launching in 2014.
The club averaged 11,569 fans for home games this season, placing second in attendance behind FC Cincinnati, which plays in a much larger stadium. This week, the club announced it had commitments from 10,000 fans to buy season tickets if the team is promoted to MLS.
The team recently prepared the site of a planned 20,000-seat soccer stadium in the downtown railyard for construction, allowing Republic FC to pledge to MLS that the facility would open by the 2020 season. The City Council has already approved the stadium, which Republic FC has said will be privately financed by the team’s owners.
The club is also building its sponsorship base. UC Davis Health recently signed a contract to sponsor the team’s jersey for five years – if the MLS award is made – and the team is expected to announce more sponsorship deals in the weeks ahead.
“It’s crunch time in the MLS expansion race, and Sacramento is once again rising to the occasion,” Republic FC Chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle said in an email. “The outpouring of support we’re seeing from fans, businesses and the community as a whole speaks volumes about the strength of Sacramento’s bid and our passion for MLS.”
Chad Smith, a writer for sports website SB Nation who has closely followed the expansion issue, said “things are looking pretty good for Sacramento.” Still, he said fans have a right to be nervous, given that Minnesota’s Twin Cities was granted an expansion franchise after Sacramento entered the race.
“Everything’s in line (for Sacramento) and the fact they’ve started construction on a stadium, that says to me that someone had told them this is going to happen,” he said. “I don’t know who spends millions of dollars on something they might not need.”
As for the other cities mentioned by Garber:
After seeming like a long shot earlier this year, the rapidly growing city of 660,000 people has emerged as a serious contender.
Garber said during a visit to Nashville in July that the city has risen “pretty high on the list” of 12 cities vying for an expansion spot. The commissioner pointed to the bid’s strong ownership group – led by local businessman John Ingram – and its rapidly growing population.
The week Garber was in town, a crowd of 47,622 watched the U.S. men’s soccer team play Panama in a CONCACAF Gold Cup match at Nissan Stadium, home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans.
Then, a month later, the family that owns the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings joined Nashville’s ownership group. The Wilf family had lost out on its bid to lead an expansion proposal in the Minneapolis area.
With a strong ownership group and energized fan base, the only piece missing in Nashville’s bid is a stadium plan. That is also gaining momentum.
The Metro Council – the city’s elected body – is scheduled to vote on a stadium funding plan Nov. 7. The local sports authority has already signed off on the deal, which would lead to a new stadium, apartments, offices and restaurants in the city’s fairgrounds just south of downtown.
Carter said the big crowd that turned out for the U.S. match may not indicate future soccer success. “You can never project based on a single special event once the sport becomes a commodity,” he said.
However, he said Nashville has emerged as a national destination city and “a very sexy market” for sports leagues.
Of the four markets considered finalists, Detroit is by far the largest, with roughly 4.3 million people in the region, and is the 13th largest media market in the nation. Sacramento has about 2.3 million people and is the center of the country’s 20th largest media market.
But unlike the other cities on this list, Detroit has a packed sports market. It has teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, and the University of Michigan is less than an hour from downtown. Soccer would face stiff competition for fans.
Still, there’s a lot going for Detroit’s bid. The NBA owners of the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers are leading the proposal, bringing with them billions of dollars and expertise in running successful pro sports franchises.
Detroit’s stadium plan needs some work. The ownership group is trying to buy land downtown, but it appears a final decision on the deal is far off.
Smith, the soccer writer, pointed out Detroit’s current soccer club – Detroit City FC – draws decent crowds despite playing in a semi-pro league. The club averaged more than 5,200 fans per home match in 2016.
Detroit could be a serious contender, he said, “if they could get a stadium site sorted out.”
In terms of sustained fan energy, Cincinnati may be the only city that competes with Sacramento.
The city’s franchise averaged 21,199 per home match this season in the United Soccer League; that would have been higher than 15 MLS teams.
FC Cincinnati plays its matches at the University of Cincinnati’s Nippert Stadium, where the school’s football team also plays. FC Cincinnati leaders want their own stadium, saying MLS has pressed expansion clubs into playing in “soccer-specific” venues.
The city’s expansion bid is missing a concrete stadium plan. Three possible sites have emerged – including a front-runner across the Ohio River from downtown in Newport, Ky.
But there’s also a big financing gap. FC Cincinnati has pledged $100 million to what could be a $200 million project, but will likely rely on public subsidies to fill the gap. Cincinnati is also smaller than the other cities, ranking as the 36th largest media market in the nation.