If Charlotte’s bid for Major League Soccer is dead – and it’s on life support at best after Wednesday night’s county vote – who’s to blame?
Some might say Mecklenburg County commissioners’ chair Ella Scarborough, who cast the deciding vote against spending millions in county money on the project. She had voted for the funding in January and spoke in favor of soccer just before the vote, then surprised everyone by raising her hand with the opponents.
While Scarborough’s vote was crucial, this deal bore the seeds of its own demise. Business executive Marcus Smith overplayed his hand and he, County Manager Dena Diorio and a majority of the county commissioners were either blind or indifferent to the proposal’s flaws and to the intensity of the public’s opposition.
Smith, the CEO of Speedway Motorsports and son of racing magnate Bruton Smith, was no doubt emboldened by the hugs and kisses with which cities around the country have greeted pro sports, including Charlotte’s large cash investment in the NBA’s Hornets. Having seen that track record, he came in asking for the moon – more than $150 million – and Diorio and some commissioners quickly joined him on the rocket.
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None of them appreciated the public’s distaste for such a large ask, nor Major League Soccer’s inferior status to the NFL and NBA, nor the incredibly poor timing. Having just vowed to fund core needs such as affordable housing and public safety in the wake of the Keith Scott unrest, and in an election year, the City Council rightly felt pressure to cast a skeptical eye.
Add to that more than a dozen languishing parks projects that the county had promised to fund nearly a decade ago, and the slog the Smiths faced should have been obvious from the beginning.
It wasn’t. At least not to everyone.
Commissioners voted Wednesday night to give Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center to the city, a contribution worth some $30 million, the county says. Were the City Council to throw in $30 million cash, as it is considering, that would be a $60 million public investment in the Smiths’ MLS effort. Still quite generous, we’d say. It only appears to be small because of the initial aggressive request. (The Charlotte Knights, with comparable total attendance, received $16 million in public money plus land.)
Smith would have been better off taking the Jerry Richardson approach. The Carolina Panthers majority owner asked for land and infrastructure improvements when he was bidding to bring the NFL to Charlotte in 1993. Public officials obliged and that has been a win-win for taxpayers and the team.
In the end, despite Diorio’s and Smith’s best efforts, democracy worked. The people spoke and enough policymakers listened. Now Smith will have to decide whether land and the city’s contribution is enough. We hope he decides it is. Major League Soccer in Charlotte would be a good thing, at the right price.