Charlotte FC: David Tepper’s ‘own’ goal
David Tepper leaned out the second-floor window of a center-city Charlotte bar one night last December and looked down triumphantly into an alley filled with soccer fans.
“Screw that city!” Tepper shouted, a reference to Atlanta United, the instant rival of Charlotte’s brand-new Major League Soccer team that had been announced earlier that day by MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
The crowd cheered, then sang to MLS’s newest owner: “David Tepper … he buys what he wants!”
The powerful scene last Dec. 17 was just how the leaders of Charlotte’s bid to join MLS had envisioned it. Steve Argeris, who was general counsel for the Carolina Panthers and Tepper Sports & Entertainment before leaving the role earlier this month, guided the expansion effort and had imagined Tepper celebrating with fans at the city’s favorite soccer bar, Hooligans. That became a reality when Charlotte was named the league’s 30th team.
“That was a fun night,” Tepper told Sports Business Journal recently, “the first of many for soccer fans in the Carolinas.”
The pandemic has slowed down the fun a bit since then. The team’s name, Charlotte FC, and color scheme, a Panthers-like blue, black, white and silver, were announced last week after several delays caused by COVID-19, while renovation work on Bank of America Stadium also reportedly fell behind due to coronavirus-related interruptions. That was one factor in MLS’s decision to delay expansion plans by a year, moving Charlotte’s debut season from 2021 to 2022.
In some ways, though, having 20 additional months to build and launch the team is a blessing, especially after a faster-than-usual bidding process. Charlotte FC’s birthday in late 2019 culminated a 15-month process to beat out at least a half-dozen other cities whose bids were more established. How did it happen? Charlotte overcame the perception that it offered little more than the wealth of Tepper, whose $12.7 billion net worth makes him the 138th-richest person in the world as of July 23, according to Forbes. And bid leaders coalesced community and corporate support and proved that the city’s 24-year-old NFL stadium was a suitable soccer host.
In a series of in-depth interviews, key players involved with the bid took SBJ behind the scenes to explain how Charlotte caught up with, then blew past, several cities that had an earlier start in the MLS expansion race. Working mostly out of the public eye, Argeris was there from the start. Seated on a bar stool back in February, he thought for a moment about how to describe the expansion bidding process.
“It’s a political campaign,” he said. “But you don’t know when the election is.”
The Other Football Project
Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers in May 2018 and mentioned bringing an MLS team to Charlotte at his opening NFL press conference. Then Tepper hired Tom Glick from global soccer giant City Football Group in August 2018, though Glick said he was brought in primarily to be the Panthers’ president. During their first meeting, Tepper talked about his ambitions.
“And on that list was the idea that we might be able to win a Major League Soccer franchise,” said Glick, who guided New York City FC through its first MLS season in 2015.
In mid-2018 when Tepper informally entered the race for a new MLS team, the league was in the midst of a growth spurt from 16 teams in 2010 to 30 by 2023. Charlotte seemed like a long shot. St. Louis and Sacramento, whose team was already playing in USL, were the clear expansion front-runners in a group that also included Las Vegas, Phoenix and Raleigh, who also had active USL clubs. San Diego and Detroit were interested, but their bids crumbled before the end of the year.
The fledgling Charlotte bid, internally called the Other Football Project (OFP), needed a leader. During a Tepper Sports & Entertainment meeting to organize the bid in September 2018, Argeris, an avid MLS fan as a kid growing up in New Jersey, raised his hand. “I’m pretty sure there were no other volunteers,” he said.
Argeris assembled a 10-person team from across the Panthers’ operation to work on the OFP, which they did in Bank of America Stadium’s Private Dining Room 4C1. The space was originally a VIP dining area that gradually turned into a dusty storage unit, southern facing with blinding natural light and spotty heating and air conditioning. The stark surroundings kept the OFP group focused on laying the bid’s groundwork.
“Our job was to get the team,” Argeris said. “Our job was to build a coalition, privately, among the community to try things on without going super public with it.”
Keeping it hush-hush
Many of MLS’s past expansion teams have conducted very public bid processes, usually in an effort to drum up corporate financial backing or taxpayer support to build a new stadium. But initial meetings between the OFP and the city of Charlotte established that their effort would mostly be kept out of the media if possible. A previous effort to bring MLS to the city in 2017, led by Speedway Motorsports Inc. executive Marcus Smith, had failed publicly, and other cities competing against Charlotte this time around had already been transparent about their efforts.
“Your audience isn’t the public,” said Argeris. “Your audience is the commissioner, Don Garber, [MLS President] Mark Abbott, senior executives at the league office, and your audience is inherently the owners. We felt we had a clean, tight story to tell and that we wanted to focus on the people that were voting.”
Argeris also informed the city that Tepper was going to build a team headquarters and training facility and was interested in doing so at Charlotte’s Eastland Mall site, a 69-acre expanse that was once a thriving shopping center but had sat vacant for a decade or more.
Tepper could have easily added a soccer component to the new practice facility that the Panthers are building just across the state border in South Carolina. But soccer offered Charlotte a chance to create a positive and lasting impact at the Eastland site, and it offered Tepper a chance to have a positive impact on a less affluent part of the city filled with potential Hispanic soccer fans.
“That’s a part of the community that would really appreciate the presence of MLS and soccer,” said Charlotte Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson. “There wasn’t a big sales job for [Tepper Sports & Entertainment], they got it. And I think as they’ve gotten more immersed in the east side, they really see the potential in it.”
A good sign in ATL
A trip to Atlanta in November 2018 for the second leg of the MLS Cup semifinals turned Tepper’s MLS pursuit from “academic to emotional,” according to Argeris. Tepper, Argeris and Glick were three of the more than 70,000 fans that packed Mercedes-Benz Stadium for the second leg of the Atlanta United-NYCFC matchup. The Charlotte group was given two pregame options: tour the stadium or join Atlanta United President Darren Eales on his ritual visit with fan groups outside. Tepper opted to make the rounds with Eales.
“You can read the articles, see the numbers on spreadsheets, until you’re actually there seeing the sheer number of fans and their excitement and engagement, it’s hard to really get a sense of,” said Eales, a fast-talking Englishman and former Premier League executive.
Tepper tailed Eales as he strolled around the stadium, making Eales laugh at one point when he asked him to please speak slower. Eales said Tepper asked incisive questions and soaked up the atmosphere as they watched Atlanta United fans parade into the game. Tepper sat next to Garber during the match and showed the commissioner a photo of himself coaching his daughter’s soccer team when she was a child.
“It really captured for me the passion and party atmosphere of a Major League Soccer game,” Tepper said of the Atlanta experience.
Early in 2019, the OFP began community outreach in Charlotte, sending out surveys to local youth soccer parents, establishing relations with a soccer-focused supporters club called Mint City Collective and making inroads with the Hispanic community, whose support would be crucial.
Argeris, Glick and Tepper met with MLS executives at least once in each of February, March and April that year. From these meetings, Tepper said that his group realized it needed to prove two things to get the required support of at least two-thirds of MLS owners: that Charlotte represented a big region full of soccer fans with a vibrant, supportive corporate marketplace; and that a renovated Bank of America Stadium, which opened in 1996, would be a great place to host and watch soccer.
The first opportunity to present to the league’s owners came just before the April 18 board of governors meeting at the Beverly Hilton in Los Angeles. The league decided to expand to 30 teams, important news for Charlotte. St. Louis and Sacramento seemed in pole position for Nos. 28 and 29, but now Tepper’s group saw an opportunity for No. 30.
St. Louis bid organizers were quoted in a newspaper in early 2019 saying that MLS told them they lacked strong demonstrations of local corporate support. That prompted the OFP to steer its focus to landing that kind of support in Charlotte. Glick reached out to some of the city’s major corporate citizens and quickly dialed in on Detroit-based Ally.
La Belle Helene
The main reason Ally Financial Chief Marketing Officer Andrea Brimmer clearly remembers her April 2019 lunch at La Belle Helene in uptown Charlotte isn’t the salad with rotisserie chicken. Brimmer’s meal with Glick and Ally CEO Jeffrey Brown spawned the idea of a unique jersey sponsorship deal between Ally and a soccer team that didn’t yet exist. After the two-hour meeting, Brimmer and Brown returned to Ally’s Charlotte office and said to each other, “This is a really, really good fit for us.”
GOOAALLL: Timeline for Charlotte's MLS franchiseMay-July 2018 — David Tepper mentions bringing an MLS team to Charlotte twice within the first three months of his Carolina Panthers ownership.
The result: a signed letter of agreement spelling out Ally’s sponsorship if Tepper Sports & Entertainment was awarded an MLS team. The main aspect is that Ally’s name and branding will adorn the front of the Charlotte FC jersey, which will be unveiled in late 2021 or early 2022. Glick declined to share the deal’s financial specifics, other than that it’s a long-term agreement, but the Charlotte Business Journal reported earlier this year that the deal was worth $7 million annually.
The deal turned heads in Charlotte’s powerful banking community, which includes Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Truist (Winston-Salem-based BB&T and SunTrust before a merger) and Fifth Third among the financial firms with either headquarters or major presences in the city as well as the sports sponsorship community. Glick said that Ally, which has 1,800 employees based in Charlotte and is building a 26-story tower, doesn’t have financial exclusivity included in its sponsorship. That’s notable given that the team will play in Bank of America Stadium — its naming-rights deal runs until 2024 — and that Wells Fargo has been MLS’s exclusive retail banking and commercial lending sponsor since 2013.
“You may see us doing some selective other things within the financial services sector,” Glick said.
Brimmer said Ally knew it was entering a crowded banking market in Charlotte, much like its home in Detroit and the automotive industry, so Ally didn’t press for aggressive terms at the expense of other local banks. Like MLS, a huge portion of the digital-only bank’s customers are millennials.
“We saw a locally headquartered, digital-first financial institution, very customer-centric, very fan-centric, who are great marketers,” Glick said. “It was very clear that these were very smart, driven marketers and they were excited for soccer.”
Glick said there was significant interest in Charlotte MLS sponsorship from major Charlotte-based companies in various sectors. Duke Energy and Wells Fargo confirmed to SBJ that they held discussions with Tepper Sports & Entertainment, but Bank of America declined to comment.
The big month
Tepper called Garber in June 2019 to ask if Charlotte could formally present its bid during the MLS expansion committee’s July 15 meeting in New York, and the commissioner agreed.
Some MLS owners were still skeptical, thinking Tepper merely wanted an MLS team to fill his NFL stadium during the football offseason. And Tepper needed to show some of the owners that built soccer-specific stadiums — including Sporting KC’s Cliff Illig and Minnesota United’s Bill McGuire — why Charlotte didn’t require a new soccer-specific venue, too.
Many viewed 75,000-seat Bank of America Stadium as the bid’s weakness because it seemed too big and old. But Argeris said the basic design of the stadium meant soccer modifications could easily be added; it’s located in the middle of the city’s thriving center, which MLS wants; and had averaged over 50,000 fans for the four games the Mexican national team played in Charlotte during the past decade, games that were organized in part by MLS’s Soccer United Marketing.
“This is the other thing that we needed to demonstrate to the commissioner and the other owners, which is that it’s a great place to watch soccer,” said Glick. “I think we needed to remind people of that.”
Argeris said that Charlotte’s bid never involved building a new stadium. Plus, he said, “we knew the demand was so high that it made no sense to build a 30,000-seat stadium. We’d be leaving money on the table.”
Tepper, Glick and Argeris successfully made their case for using an NFL stadium, and for Tepper’s sincerity about the project, during a three-hour July 15 meeting with the eight-member expansion committee.
“When David came and made his initial presentation to the expansion committee, it was very clear the depth of his commitment,” said Aboott, MLS’s No. 2 in command. “That’s when discussions began in earnest.”
Two weeks later, Charlotte’s trio quietly reserved a boardroom a floor below the media gathered at the Orlando Waldorf and met with more than a dozen owners during MLS All-Star week in Florida. In addition to the Ally jersey sponsorship, Tepper and company also unveiled 60 commitments to purchase suites for a potential Charlotte MLS team, worth $100,000 per commitment.
“That resonated really well around that boardroom table,” Glick said, “and I think gave us some additional lift and momentum for sure.”
Two crucial developments emerged from Orlando: One, Garber pledged to visit Charlotte in August. And two, the commissioner singled out Charlotte’s bid during a televised All-Star Game interview.
“Garber’s phenomenal at signaling without saying,” Argeris said. “We’re not the audience there; it’s the other owners.”
A key visit
Charlotte weather usually feels like a terrarium in August, but Garber arrived on a breezy, 80-degree day and was welcomed by more than two dozen executives from the city’s corporate community. The businesspeople took turns explaining their companies’ affinity for the region. Representatives from stadium architects Populous strapped a virtual reality rig over Garber’s head so he could see what a soccer-modified Bank of America Stadium would look like.
Financial institution Barings hosted a 45-minute gathering at its tower overlooking Charlotte’s west side. Most of the meeting was spent standing at the window drinking in the panoramic view. Bank of America Stadium sat in the foreground.
“I was struck by how interested in Charlotte Mr. Garber was,” said Barings general counsel Sheldon Francis. “The conversation wasn’t really around MLS or soccer or the sports aspect. He was genuinely interested in the community, the infrastructure in Charlotte in general. He had more questions than you would have expected.”
Francis told Garber that in 2008 Barings planned to develop the lot where its tower now stands but pulled the plug on the project because of the Great Recession. Because of Barings’ bullishness about Charlotte’s potential, the company decided to go forward with the project in 2014, the first major development in the city’s uptown following the recession.
People at the meeting said the story resonated with Garber. At one point, Argeris tried to get the commissioner to peel away from one conversation to speak to another executive. Garber gave him a look that suggested, “It’s OK, you’re good.”
Sooner than later
The OFP felt like it had gotten over the hump. “The question,” Argeris said, “was how long it would take to get to a deal.” The pressure increased when MLS awarded St. Louis the 28th team a week after Garber’s Charlotte visit, and Sacramento landed No. 29 two months later, both for $200 million expansion fees. Argeris began to ponder whether the aggressive bid strategy of beginning MLS play in 2021 was possible; with several expansion teams already on the way, MLS would need to add another team in 2021 if it wanted to keep its numbers even.
Two inadvertent happenings nearly doubled the expansion fee in a matter of months and increased the OFP’s desire to play sooner than later. Joe Mansueto bought the Chicago Fire in September 2019 for over $200 million, a price that put a $400 million valuation on the club. Then a leak to the media from a member of the Charlotte City Council intimated that Tepper was going to pay MLS a $325 million expansion fee. But Argeris said the plan initially was for the $325 million to encapsulate all of Tepper’s initial spending on the team, including the expansion fee, transfer money for players and funds for stadium improvements.
Landing the team
In November, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles confirmed the city’s backing of the MLS bid, sending a letter to Garber detailing the city’s pledge to pitch in up to $110 million to support the soccer project.
Several weeks later, Glick, standing on a Brooklyn sidewalk, was vague but positive during a TV news interview following the MLS board of governors meeting. The reality was better. Charlotte had gotten the two-thirds vote from MLS owners that it needed, and the expansion committee had empowered Garber to engage in final negotiations with Tepper to add Charlotte to the league for a reported $325 million expansion fee.
Sources pointed to Tepper’s wealth — and billionaire status — being a “major factor” for why he arguably jumped to the front of the latest MLS expansion race, but his NFL alignment, connection to the broader Charlotte business community and wide-ranging capabilities housed within Tepper Sports & Entertainment were attractive, too. Soccer insiders also cited Glick as a huge boost to Charlotte’s bid. As one source put it, “‘The club is in very, very good hands.”
Less than two weeks after Glick’s sidewalk interview, Charlotte officially joined MLS’s ranks on a rainy, windy Tuesday in December. Garber took the stage inside an art museum hall to announce “the best kept secret in sports” — a joking grin — then said: “Now it’s my pleasure to welcome Charlotte to Major League Soccer.”
Tepper stepped to the dais and the crowd cheered.
“We’re gonna have one big party all season long for soccer in Charlotte,” he said.
Several hours later, Tepper, Argeris and others slipped into Hooligans through a back door. MLS’s newest owner stepped behind the bar and began pouring beers for all of the fans gathered in the tiny joint, before making his way to the second-floor window to drink in the fan group’s adulation.
Argeris said he tried to absorb the moment on that wet Dec. 17 night. He had no way of knowing that the new MLS team would quickly collect initial deposits for 25,000 season tickets, or that a historic pandemic was already underway on the other side of the world and that it would hit the U.S. hard, delaying Charlotte’s MLS debut. Argeris also didn’t know he would leave his job within seven months.
As they celebrated, everyone involved with the OFP had one thing on their minds that night: They had to build an MLS team, ready to play competitive matches, in less than 14 months. One incredible whirlwind project had just finished. Another one was just beginning.
“There was no pizza party,” Argeris said, grinning.
Staff writer Mark J. Burns contributed to this story.