After recently announcing that the future 29th team in Major League Soccer would be Sacramento Republic, the expansion train could head back to the east coast for the landmark 30th franchise.
At his annual MLS State of the League speech, Don Garber revealed that Charlotte, North Carolina has jumped to the top of the MLS expansion race. David Tepper, owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, has been leading the bid to bring MLS to Charlotte. The city currently hosts a USL franchise, Charlotte Independence, though they play their games at the Sportsplex in Matthews, North Carolina, 15 miles from the city center.
Phoenix and Las Vegas were also mentioned on the shortlist as MLS expansion shows no signs of slowing down. MLS has already announced teams 24-29, despite none of them having kicked a ball yet.
Tepper’s bid is attractive to MLS for many reasons. First, he’s a multi-billionaire, the founder and president of a hedge fund, and bringing Tepper in adds to the list of deep-pocketed MLS owners. Secondly, it fills another open space geographically for the league, which has no teams between Atlanta and Washington D.C. in the Southeast U.S. And third, Tepper appears interested in renovating his downtown NFL arena, Bank of America Stadium, to regularly host soccer games as well. Each year, at least one match from the International Champions Cup is held in Charlotte, with mixed crowds over the years.
According to reports from the Charlotte Observer, Tepper initially asked the city of Charlotte to fund, or help pay for a brand-new stadium, despite the Bank of America Stadium opening as recently as 1996. However, per a report in September, Tepper is now asking for the city to pay for stadium renovations and upgrades, as well as helping create a practice facility and headquarters for the new MLS club. The report states Tepper is requesting the city pay for stadium upgrades, while he covers the cost of operating the team and paying the estimated $200-million plus expansion fee, which is standard for all MLS investor-operators.
It’s unclear whether the city will agree to Tepper’s demands or wave them off, but from where Tepper is starting, it appears there’s still a long way to go until Charlotte will have MLS-dedicated facilities.
That being said, if New York City FC has shown us anything, it’s that an MLS team can still survive as a tenant in someone else’s stadium and on someone else’s fields. Only recently, more than a half dozen years after NYCFC was founded, did it move into its own practice facility.