Major League Soccer executives confirmed that they have been in talks with Bruton and Marcus Smith as potential owners of an expansion team in Charlotte.
Charlotte and Raleigh are among the latest 10 cities that have expressed interest in landing an MLS team. In a call with reporters Thursday evening, Commissioner Don Garber said the Smiths have “a lot of energy, and lots of professional sports experience.”
Bruton Smith is a billionaire race track owner and a recent NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee. His son, Marcus, is CEO of Speedway Motorsports, based in Concord. The two have also said they would be interested in buying the Carolina Panthers when the franchise becomes available.
In an emailed statement to the Observer, Marcus Smith said he is “very interested” in bringing an MLS team to Charlotte.
“MLS has great momentum and a tremendous future, and so does our city. Charlotte would be a great addition to the league, and an MLS club would be a great addition to Charlotte. We are working with local leaders on an application, and hope to have more to say in February,” Smith said.
Interested expansion owners must submit their applications by Jan. 31. The two first expansion teams – which would be the 25th and 26th in the league – would have to OK an expansion fee of $150 million each, and will be announced during the second or third quarter of 2017. They would begin play by 2020, MLS said.
The owner of the Charlotte Independence soccer team has said that Memorial Stadium could be expanded if the city ever landed a Major League Soccer franchise. The North Carolina F.C., which operated as the Carolina RailHawks in Cary for 10 years, recently launched its own campaign to land an MLS team.
“We all know what the interest in soccer is in Carolina generally. It has enormous soccer participation and support,” Garber said.
But it is too early, he added, to say whether North Carolina can accommodate two teams.
“A lot of the things happening in the state are very intriguing to us,” Garber said.
The MLS currently has 20 teams, and it recently announced three expansion teams slotted to join over the next two years: Los Angeles F.C., Minnesota United and Atlanta United. MLS also says it is “making progress” with plans for an expansion team in Miami as well.
The league said that the following criteria are considered for expansion teams: A local ownership group with the adequate finances to back the team; a “comprehensive stadium plan” for a facility that will hold 20,000 – 30,000; a geographically appropriate market that is attractive to sponsors and media; and a history of strong fan support for soccer.
In Charlotte, business leaders have voiced their aspirations to land an MLS team, and the city has already shown signs of a growing interest in the sport.
Bank of America Stadium, for example, hosted a friendly matchup between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in August. The game attracted 50,177 fans, according to Scott Paul, the stadium’s executive director of stadium operations. That’s about two-thirds of the stadium’s capacity of 75,419.
“We’ve seen some big crowds for international games in Charlotte,” Garber said.
Asked whether the MLS is concerned about House Bill 2, North Carolina’s law limiting legal protections of LGBT people that has caused other major sporting events like the NBA All-Star Game to move from North Carolina, Garber said it is “not something that we’ve been addressing at this time.”
“As we get into more detail with both groups, it will be a factor with other factors we have to consider,” Garber said.
In addition to Charlotte and Raleigh, the following cities are interested in getting an MLS expansion team: Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Sacramento, St. Louis, San Antonio, San Diego and Tampa/St. Petersburg.