MIAMI, Fla. — (9 December 2019) — Charlotte is very close to being officially names as the next MLS expansion club, with some additional details in the process of being ironed out.
The investor-operators of what would be the league’s 30th franchise are led by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper. Some media reports are claiming that the league had awarded a team to Tepper and Charlotte already. However, at the league’s third and final meeting of the year of its Board of Governors taking place in Brooklyn, Commissioner Don Garber said that Charlotte must still work through stadium issues before an agreement can be finalised.
Tepper and Panthers president Tom Glick, who was president of New York City FC in 2015, attended the Board of Governors meeting and were seen exchanging pleasantries and handshakes with Garber and other MLS suits just outside the meeting room a couple of hours into the agenda.
Apparently what MLS did approve was an authorisation for its expansion committee to begin what Garber expects “to be final negotiations with (Tepper) to have Charlotte be our 30th team, but no formal approval was granted.”
Stadium issues highlight the remaining points that need to be worked out. The team proposes to play home games at the Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Panthers. The stadium is situated in downtown Charlotte (known to locals as “uptown”), but the venue, despite its relatively young age (it opened in 1996), apparently is already in need of renovations before it can host an MLS club. Among the demands the league wants met are a “proper supporters’ section, proper tunnels, better locker rooms and other competitive environments” and to finalise a plan for blocking off certain sections of the 75,000-seat stadium when the stadium is not sold out.
Taxpayer Money In Play
Tepper has requested $100 million in taxpayer money from the city to help fund those improvements and to assist in the construction of a training facility for the MLS team. The taxpayer money would be funded using a chunk of existing tourism tax revenue, according to the Charlotte Business Journal.
How fast MLS formally awards Charlotte a team depends on when that funding might be approved. A new Charlotte City Council was sworn in on Monday night, though only three members of the 11-person board changed. Democrats have a 9-2 margin on the council, and Mayor Vi Lyles also remained in office. The council’s next regular meeting is on Monday, Dec. 9th and it will close 2019 with a zoning meeting on Dec. 16th. The mood of the council members appears to favour the use of taxpayer money: recent comments to the Charlotte Business Journal that they’re on board with the funding plan and that they planned to respond quickly should MLS advance discussions with the Charlotte group.
The commissioner said on Thursday that he didn’t know if the council would discuss the funding proposal at their meeting next week. No stadium discussion is on the current agenda for the Dec. 9th meeting, and the agenda for Dec. 16th has yet to be posted, but the issue could conceivably still be discussed at either.
However, what appears certain is that unless something unexpected happens politically, Charlotte is only a question of what date. The city is the front runner for the 30th team and no other city is close at the moment. Garber said he’d like to “finalise something by the end of the year.”
Charlotte MLS would likely play its inaugural season in 2021. New teams in Fort Lauderdale (Inter Miami CF) and Nashville begin in 2020, while Austin FC joins the league in 2021. Sacramento and St. Louis will join for the 2022 season.
The expansion fee for the Charlotte team is expected to be at least $300 million; one report on Thursday put the fee as high as $325 million.
Tepper, 62, bought the Carolina Panthers in May 2018, won’t be sweating if the fee is $325 million, or any amount for that matter. He is estimated to have a net worth of $12 billion, which of course is completely unfathomable to all but his future partners-to-be in MLS.
Tepper believes that Charlotte has the potential of Atlanta, whose attendance has been higher than anyone imagined it would be since joining the league in 2017. He is also backing the building of a new, retractable roof stadium in Charlotte within the next 5-10 years. That venue would presumably host both the Panthers and an MLS team and would be partially financed by city/county taxpayers.
If the actions of Tepper’s investment group are any indication, Charlotte is already in. He and his team are reportedly busy preparing for life as an MLS team, including recruting efforts to identify candidates to lead their prospective sporting department and their academy.
“The city really wants an MLS team and that’s really where it all starts,” Garber said. “…we have a great sense that this team will be embraced. We like the location that the stadium is in today. We have had experience with David Tepper with some of our owners, we believe in his plan, he’s got a CEO that’s got a lot of experience in our sport, there’s a lot of things, when you connect these dots, that give that expansion bid a lot of value to us.”
Charlotte is certainly one of the larger cities in the U.S. without an MLS side. The city has an estimated population of 872,498 as of 2018. The Charlotte metropolitan area has almost 2.4 million people, which makes it the 22nd largest in the U.S. The city proper has a population density of 2,720 people per square mile (1,050/square kilometre). From a sports perspective, the most popular sports traditionally are basketball, American football and NASCAR. But with its growth, Charlotte, like Atlanta, has become more well-rounded culturally and in its sporting preferences. There’s nothing to suggest it wouldn’t be a good market for MLS.
There is no word yet on what the name of the MLS team would be. One of the names that has been mentioned is Charlotte Town FC.