Major League Soccer officials had a “very positive and productive” visit to Charlotte Tuesday that a local ownership group hopes will help land the city an MLS expansion team that would begin playing in 2020 in a new, $175 million facility in Elizabeth.
League officials’ visit comes as the controversial public funding portion of the proposed 20,000-seat stadium remains up in the air. MLS President Mark Abbott said MLS did not have any discussions about financing, but rather met with business and community leaders and visited the proposed site.
“I couldn’t help but be struck by how proud they are of this community – and justifiably so – and the sense of unity that I saw ... not only in their desire to bring Major League Soccer here but in their desire to continue to build a great community,” Abbott told reporters Tuesday.
Abbott outlined the four criteria MLS evaluates for potential expansion markets: the ownership group, the stadium plan, community support and how the market can help MLS grow.
On the third item, Marcus Smith, who heads the ownership group bidding on the team, has been working to drum up interest from potential fans.
One of the ways Smith has sought to do that is through the MLS4CLT campaign. And the MLS visit was capped off Tuesday with a rally in First Ward Park that featured live music, food trucks, craft beer, games and shirts from MLS4CLT, the bidding group. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police officer estimated there were 200-250 people around 5:45; Charlotte Center City Partners estimates 500 showed up throughout the course of the afternoon.
On the fourth item, Smith said he’s had “overwhelming support and interest” from potential corporate sponsors willing to partner with an MLS team in Charlotte.
“Lots of companies in town have shared their interest with me. They think it’s a great addition to Charlotte’s sports and entertainment landscape,” he said.
Smith said he will start a season-ticket drive as soon as City Council decides whether it will help pay for the stadium.
The city’s economic development committee will discuss Thursday a proposal to help pay up to $30 million for the proposed stadium – although a vote is not expected to be taken then.
Though Smith said he is seeking $43.5 million from the city, he did not rule out accepting less, at $30 million. “I don't know where they will come out,” he said. “We will cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Charlotte is one of 12 cities bidding for an MLS expansion team. Experts say a lack of support from local governments could weigh on a new market’s prospects for MLS. Others include Nashville, Tenn.; Indianapolis; Detroit; Phoenix; St. Louis; Raleigh, San Antonio; Cincinnati; Tampa Bay, Fla.; San Diego and Sacramento, Calif.
In January, city staff said Charlotte could contribute $43.5 million from its hotel/motel taxes towards the stadium. The city has since said that it can only afford to give $30 million.
Council members and Mayor Jennifer Roberts, who face elections this fall, have been hesitant to consider the stadium project. They have said the project was too rushed and not properly vetted. They also said they are focused on other things, like improving economic mobility.
Though city officials might have preferred to postpone any debate on soccer until 2018 when the election is over, Mecklenburg commissioners pushed them to act now. Earlier this summer commissioners said they might pull out of their deal to fund the stadium unless the city also contributed. The county gave the city an August deadline.
The county’s stadium money would come from its general fund, which could pays for things like schools and parks. The city’s share would come from its hotel/motel occupancy tax, which can only be used for tourism projects, according to state law.