Austin FC, which was announced back in January 2019 and made significant progress before the onset of the pandemic, will remain on schedule for a 2021 launch. The other three clubs, all announced in the second half of 2019, will each have their expansion seasons pushed back by one year.
MIAMI (August 4, 2020) — Three new franchises in Major League Soccer are going to delay their entries into the single-entity league. MLS is pushing back the expansion debuts of clubs in Charlotte, Sacramento and St. Louis by one season each in a move that was seen by some as unexpected. The decision was made by MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in conjunction with the league’s expansion committee.
The updated schedule showing the inaugural season for each team:
- Austin FC: 2021
- Charlotte: 2022
- St. Louis: 2023
- Sacramento: 2023
This news follows estimates from MLS commissioner Don Garber earlier this year that the league will lose $1 billion in revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. You may ask yourself whether news that Major League Soccer would be beginning a season with one or more fewer teams than originally anticipated suggests deeper structural problems for the league.
The answer is probably not.
“The new timeline is the result of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the commencement of business operations and stadium development of these clubs,” it reads, “and will give the clubs an appropriate timeline for a successful launch.”
Garber echoed that statement: “It is important for each club to take the necessary time to launch their inaugural MLS seasons the way their fans and communities deserve,” the commissioner said in a statement. “With the extra year to make up for what has been a challenging 2020, these teams will be well-positioned for their debuts and for long-term success.”
Here’s three reasons why delaying the new teams’ entries might be beneficial for the teams and the league:
Applying The Breaks On The Race to Expand
Charlotte will now join MLS in 2022 instead of 2021, and St. Louis and Sacramento will come in during 2023 instead of 2022. Meanwhile, next season’s new team, Austin, are still on track to start as planned. In total, it means MLS will have added 10 teams in a span of seven seasons, still qualifying for the league’s most rapid period of expansion.
Additionally, the time frame between the granting of an expansion franchise and that team’s entry into the league has been fast for all three of these teams. All of them were going to have their inaugural seasons less than three years from being granted entry. In the case of Charlotte, the window was less than two years. That’s exceptionally fast compared to previous MLS expansion clubs. The timeline that St. Louis and Sacramento are now on is more in line with previous expansion teams.
“We’ve been working closely with the league and collectively agreed that the adjusted timeline was the best decision to position our club for a historic launch and long-term success,” said Carolyn Kindle Betz, MLS4TheLou CEO. “We can’t wait to get on the pitch in 2023 and are still moving full steam ahead to build a world-class club and stadium district that will invigorate Downtown West and be a meaningful part of our current downtown renaissance.”
Austin FC is the only one of the four newest teams which will have a soccer-specific stadium ready for its inaugural season. In St. Louis and Sacramento, new facilities were set to be ready by 2023, the clubs’ second years in the league. Charlotte’s MLS club will play in Bank of America Stadium, home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
It’s true that Sacramento and St. Louis could potentially have found a temporary home to play in, but from a revenue standpoint, it’s usually not as favourable. Adding the near-term economic uncertainty of the coronavirus into the mix makes waiting to play until a permanent home is ready a sensible precaution.
“Our goal remains the same – to build the best stadium and MLS club befitting the wonderful Sacramento region,” said Sacramento Republic FC investor Matt Alvarez in a club statement. “With an additional year, we can better adjust for the impact of the pandemic on our community and identify how we can best serve the neighbors and friends that have supported our club on its rise to Major League Soccer. We will bring Sacramento into the top-tier of American soccer ready to compete at a championship level, and create an opportunity to support the next era of regional growth with a world-class venue and a commitment to continued community investment.” Ben Gumpert, president and COO of Republic FC, said the 20,000-plus seat Railyards stadium remains on a 19-to-21-month construction schedule.
An Extended CBA
The new teams will not be at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”). The revised MLS CBA that was ratified in June resulted in an extension of the CBA that had previously been agreed to in February by one year. Thus, the CBA now expires in January of 2026 instead of January 2025. With that extension, the new teams have the certainty that they can plan out their rosters with three seasons of labour stability. This will defintely help the new teams get themselves established. Despite the immediate success of teams like Los Angeles FC and Atlanta United, most MLS teams haven’t experienced such a meteoric rise; rather, the gradual building process is the norm. Having three years with the current CBA in place creates a stable backdrop for the roster building process.
Finally, the decision also must be read against the backdrop of the economic uncertainty that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, which can only improve as time marches on.