Tuesday, April 24, 2012

MLS Expansion: Charlotte

Charlotte, North Carolina
For quite some time, Major League Soccer and commissioner Don Garber have alluded to a triumphant return to the Southeast part of the country in the years to come. Since the Miami Fusion and Tampa Mutiny were dissolved in 2003, the closest thing to a presence in the southeast has been the Disney Pro Soccer Classic held in Orlando each spring featuring MLS teams.

During Garber's recent trip to Orlando for the supporter's summit, we asked him with rivalries being such a key part of MLS' current push with expansion franchises, would we expect two southeastern teams to be admitted into the league in the same year? His response was interesting, "it would be a factor, one of the 20 factors we would have to think about, but it's not a deterring factor" to have just one team in the southeast.

Let's assume that all else holds and NYC gets a second franchise in the next year or two, what's the road map for MLS returning to the southeast. We believe it will be a pair of teams, one in Orlando (which we have covered extensively) and perhaps the second not in Atlanta, Miami, or Tampa, but a little further north in Charlotte. We take a look at whether or not "The Queen City" really has a chance of earning an expansion slot into Major League Soccer.

MLS president Mark Abbott was in North Carolina two weeks ago to meet with supporters and local officials about the potential of a team coming to the community in the future. This is the same "dog and pony show" that MLS has done in South Florida, Orlando, and now North Carolina. The message has been clear with all three meetings: 1) Find Owners, 2) Get a 20k Soccer Specific Stadium, 3) Average 10k fans (for the Railhawks). In the case of Orlando, the owners are in place, the stadium is a renovation or build new, and the attendance is getting closer to 10k per match. With Charlotte, it's looking like more of a challenge.

The Railhawks, the "Triangle's" biggest professional team currently playing in the NASL, are owned by Traffic Sports USA who organize soccer matches for US Soccer, FIFA, and more but apparently decided to get into the team ownership business as well. Although their resume is good, they are not "MLS" caliber ownership; their pockets are far too shallow and they lack the name recognition of many of the more recent expansion owners. So from an ownership stand point it looks like Charlotte has a strike against them. However, MLS has said on countless occasions, that the ability to find an owner with deep pockets is much easier if the team and stadium are already established and membership into MLS seems inevitable. Case in point, NY2, no ownership is in place but MLS is pushing ahead with a stadium plan because they knew the rest of the pieces will fall into place. By no means are the New York and North Carolina markets even remotely similar, but owners stepped in for both the Hurricanes (NHL) and Bobcats (NBA) moves to Charlotte, no reason to think it wouldn't happen again.

The stadium issue is a bit of a conundrum. The Railhawks currently play at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, which is a suburban (at best) location about 10 minutes from downtown Raleigh, 30 minutes from Durham, 90 minutes from Greensboro, and almost 3 hours from Charlotte. It is a great field, having hosted the USWNT, USMNT, international friendlies and several college teams based on its close proximity to Duke, UNC, and NC State. For all the things it is, WakeMed is NOT an MLS stadium or even a location for a stadium. MLS has said time and time again that they want soccer specific stadiums in downtown locations. One could argue that a soccer-specific renovation to Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte would fit the bill, but it is far too big. Not all hope is lost, plenty of large lots still exist for stadiums in the downtown Charlotte area, and there's a more important factor. North Carolina is home to 15 Fortune 500 companies, 9 of which are in the greater Charlotte area. To put that in comparison, Atlanta has 7, Tampa has 3, Miami has two, and Orlando has 1. These companies buy the luxury seats and pump valuable money into the franchises and league. The presence of all these major companies, and the additional ones slightly further away in the "research triangle" do give Charlotte an advantage on paper.

Fan support is the last issue and this is something that costs nothing to build. Although one would argue that Railhawks or other teams need to spend money on advertising to draw in fans, the true way to increase attendance is through supporter groups. Though the groups are typically small in number as far as season ticket sales, the environment created by the supporters makes for an entertaining experience with the rest of the paying public. Case in point, Seattle & Philly, both recent expansion teams where the fan experience drives sell-out after sell-out. The Triangle Soccer Fanatics are the major supporter group for the Railhawks, but based on the distance from Cary to Charlotte it's hard to think of the fans translating from one place to the other. It's a catch 22 for North Carolina fans, increase attendance in Cary and you might get a MLS team, but that team would likely play in Charlotte 3 hours away.

So on the surface it seems that North Carolina and Charlotte have the deepest hole to work out of if they push to join MLS. However, you have to think that MLS would appreciate a viable market outside of Miami and Tampa so they wouldn't have to address the issues of those franchises previous failures. Charlotte also offers the opportunity to be the only professional sports team in town for the summer months as baseball is limited to just AAA and that’s outside of the city limits.

Is there hope for Charlotte? Yes. Where does Charlotte fall on the list for MLS southeast expansion? Still behind Orlando, Atlanta, and Miami, but stranger things have happened.


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