Marcus Smith: Soccer would be a ‘natural extension’ of family business

Marcus Smith’s family name has long been synonymous in Charlotte for its promotion of NASCAR. Since becoming CEO in 2015 of Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine U.S. race tracks, Smith has also set his sights on other pro sports organizations, including the NFL, X Games, and most recently, Major League Soccer.

Smith’s personal soccer experience is limited to the games he would play as a kid, and the World Cup games he still enjoys as an adult. But Smith said he has “kept an eye on soccer” for years, and his family’s experience and connections could help Charlotte land its first MLS team.

“From our perspective, this is something that’s really a natural extension of our business,” Smith told the Observer on Friday. “When you look at what we do on a regular day, we’re involved in the sports entertainment business around the country, and Charlotte is our hometown.”

“Having a hometown team to cheer for, for all of us, will change dramatically how all of us look at soccer.”

Since the MLS disclosed that the Smiths were behind the push to bring a franchise team to Charlotte, some have postured whether soccer interest here would be strong enough to convince league executives.

Raleigh, another one of the 10 cities vying for a team, is close to universities that boast some of the strongest soccer programs in the country. Earlier this month, North Carolina F.C. owner Steve Malik announced the purchase of a National Women’s Soccer League team that will be renamed the North Carolina Courage and begin playing in Cary in April.

The son of billionaire NASCAR Hall of Fame Inductee Bruton Smith, Marcus Smith said he’s been overwhelmed with the positive feedback from fans about the prospect of having an MLS team in Charlotte. And – perhaps more importantly – the feedback from the corporate community has been “very positive” as well.

“I feel really good about their potential support to help this bid,” Smith said.

On Friday, Mecklenburg County on Friday released details of a proposed $175 million soccer stadium for which the county and city of Charlotte are each asked to contribute up to $43.75 million. The Smiths would pay the other $87.5 million for the stadium, which would be built on the site of the county’s Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth. Official proposals to land a team are due Jan. 31.

According to the league, the selection criteria include a “comprehensive stadium plan” for a facility that will hold 20,000 to 30,000 people, a market that fits the league geographically and a history of fan support for soccer.

The next two teams the league selects will have to pay a $150 million fee to join the league. That fee would be paid by local ownership – the Smiths. MLS will announce the two bid-winning markets later this year, and they will begin playing in 2020.

Smith noted how in Charlotte, interest has been growing for soccer.

Bank of America Stadium hosted a friendly matchup between Bayern Munich and Inter Milan in August. The game attracted 50,177 fans, filling about two-thirds of the stadium, according to Scott Paul, the stadium’s executive director of stadium operations. The popular Spanish team F.C. Barcelona opened an official soccer school in Charlotte last fall as well. And the UNC-Charlotte men’s soccer team is consistently nationally ranked.

For the Smiths, moving outside NASCAR is something new that hasn’t yet borne fruit.

Last spring, Marcus Smith said that some day buying the Carolina Panthers would be an “incredible opportunity.” And Charlotte Motor Speedway, part of Speedway Motorsports, had been bidding last year to host the ESPN X Games in 2017 and 2018, though Charlotte ultimately lost the bid.

Smith would not disclose concrete details on the new stadium – the family has not selected an architect yet, for example. Smith said he envisions the stadium as something that’s “in keeping with modern sports facilities,” like BB&T Ballpark, which features local dining options, craft beer stands and wide concourse areas from which to see the field.

“It’s not about how many rows of seats you have; it’s about the fun, and it’s about the entertainment factor.”

Commissioners are planning to hold a public forum on the stadium proposal at their regularly-scheduled meeting at 3 p.m. next Tuesday. They’re expected to vote on funding the stadium at the board’s annual retreat Jan. 26. Observer staff writer Ely Portillo contributed.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta