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Volume 21 No. 13
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MLS narrows cities as focus shifts to venue plans

Expansion finalist Detroit has said it would use Ford Field as the potential home for a club.
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The four groups still in the running for the next two expansion spots in Major League Soccer reflect the league’s evolving approach to stadiums, as well as the inability of a majority of the overall bidders to navigate the process on the predetermined timeline.

MLS last week named the bids from Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento as the finalists for those berths. It is expected that the league will announce its two picks by the end of the month, and MLS has previously said those franchises will begin play in 2020. MLS will choose two other expansion teams from the remaining 10 bidders at a later date.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the decision to narrow the expansion candidates down from 12 to four for these two spots was due to the development and timeline for their stadiums.

“We’re in a mode now where you have to have a great stadium; we want that to be soccer-specific, we want that to be properly financed — to the extent it can be a partnership between the public and the individual owner,” he said. “All of these are big projects in the urban core, which is where we like them to be, but that makes them difficult to develop.”

On Goal
The ownership groups vying for two Major League Soccer expansion franchises

CINCINNATI
  Carl H. Lindner III, co-CEO of American Financial Group and owner, chairman and CEO of FC Cincinnati
  Scott Farmer, CEO of Cintas Corp.

DETROIT
  Dan Gilbert, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers and founder and chairman of Quicken Loans
  Tom Gores, owner of the Detroit Pistons and founder, chairman and CEO of Platinum Equity

NASHVILLE
  John Ingram, chairman of Ingram Industries and CEO of Nashville Soccer Holdings
  The Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings
  The Turner family, managing partners of MarketStreet Enterprises

SACRAMENTO
  Kevin Nagle, managing partner of Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings and minority owner of the Sacramento Kings
  Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers
  Mark Friedman, president of Fulcrum Property Group and minority owner of the Sacramento Kings
  Other limited partners

The 12 groups have been working toward fulfilling those specific goals on a shortened runway, with various levels of success. MLS formally announced last Dec. 15 that it was opening the expansion process, setting a deadline for applications by the end of January, and planning to select two markets by the end of 2017.

In the past, much of the league’s expansion process has been conducted behind closed doors, with teams announced only once all elements — ownership, stadium and market support — were secured.

Sacramento, long seen as the front-runner for MLS expansion dating to 2014, was the first to have a concrete stadium plan, sitting today at what it calls shovel-ready. Nashville reached a similar position in October when its stadium deal with the city’s government was announced.

Cincinnati is in perhaps the most tenuous stadium situation, still working through elements of its public funding and with three potential stadium sites in play. It is unclear which of the three the bid group, headed by Carl Lindner III, will present to Garber and the expansion committee.

Detroit was following the same path to present an urban soccer-specific stadium that would be built for the team. That position changed less than a month ago, however, when the group, led by Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores, announced that the Ford family would join the bid and that it would use Ford Field as its potential home, perhaps aiming to replicate the success that the Seattle Sounders and now Atlanta United have found playing in NFL stadiums.

Garber said that while the league would look at opportunities in big stadiums like Atlanta from expansion bidders, “it’s definitely not the model.”

“We’re in this evolutionary development phase; we’re still only 22 years old. So, we start playing as tenants in large football stadiums. Then Lamar Hunt came up with the idea to build small soccer stadiums, which evolved into what Lamar and Stan Kroenke did in Dallas and Colorado with large complexes. Now we’re seeing games like in Toronto where there’s a 27,000-seat stadium in the urban core,” he said. “Seattle came in and has averaged more than 45,000 in attendance, and Atlanta came in and is averaging almost 50,000. I still believe we need stadiums that are small and compact, and that sort of respect the game the way it’s meant to be played in an environment where we can be sold out.”

Other factors related to the four bid groups will likely be discussed next week by Garber and the expansion committee, whether it’s the net worth of their ownership groups, the size of their television markets or their ability to scale up the league’s national business the way that Atlanta has this year and that it expects LAFC to do next year. The two groups that provide MLS the type of stadium it believes leads to the most success, however, may be the determining factor.