MLS Commissioner Don Garber has been speaking about Major League Soccer expansion once again.
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Garber attended the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Panama in the 2017 Gold Cup on Saturday, with the game hosted in Nashville, Tennessee, a city bidding to have an MLS team.
With a crowd of 47,662 watching the U.S. at Nissan Stadium, Garber couldn’t hide how impressed he was with Nashville and admitted they’ve climbed high among the 12 cities pushing for the two expansion franchises (number 25 and 26, which will be announced in 2017), with a further two expansion teams planned but no time frame given on their arrival.
Speaking in a Q&A with USA Today over the weekend, Garber admitted that Nashville’s chances of getting a franchise have improved with stadium deals in St. Louis, Charlotte and San Diego stalling.
“I think there is an opportunity for Nashville to rise higher on the list because there appears to be a more streamlined process to have the third leg of the stool (needed to get an expansion team), which is the stadium,” Garber explained.
With Nashville recently hosting the Stanley Cup finals for the first-time ever, the energy in the city for sports soared to new levels. Garber was impressed as the NHL’s Predators captured the imagination of Nashville’s citizens.
“I think it’s one of the great recent success stories in the sports industry. The industry is very connected,” Garber said. “And we want to see great stories, whether it’s in the NFL, the NHL, NBA, MLB. I like seeing success. We saw that here in Nashville with the crowds outside the stadium and just the civic pride around a sports team.”
Although Nashville has the smallest market size from the 12 competing cities for a franchise, Garber went on to say that having an “engaged owners and passionate fan base” is more important than market size.
“Market sizes matters because it can help, logically, grow your national television audience. But success in markets and engaged owners and a passionate fan base are probably more important than market size,” Garber said. “You also have to look at growth. It’s important to go to growing cities. And growth isn’t just about population size — it’s about, what’s the vision for the city? Where do they want to be?
“There just seems to be a desire to take this city and just make it bigger and more international and to provide value to the people who live here. It’s part of why there’s such a disparate group of people to come together to try to bring MLS here.”
Garber was hosted by the Governor of Tennessee for dinner during his trip and the close connection with the investors and the public sector have certainly suggested a stadium deal won’t be too hard to arrange if Nashville is chosen to house an expansion franchise.
Nashville’s MLS bid is led by businessman John Ingram — who is in talks with Mayor Megan Barry’s office about a deal to finance a new stadium with a mixture of public and private funds — and Nashville will get another chance to show off its love for soccer later this month as Manchester City clash with Tottenham Hotspur in an International Champions Cup game at Nissan Stadium on July 29.
The Ingram family also bought a USL side, Nashville Soccer Club, which will begin play in 2018 and Garber called that “really smart” for the bid.
Right now the likes of Phoenix, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Cincinnati, Sacramento and San Antonio appear to be at the front of the queue for Garber and MLS, but judging by the success of this weekend and Garber’s words you can slot Nashville in towards the top.