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Major League Soccer expands again, opening door for Charlotte and David Tepper

Major League Soccer officials announced this week that the league will expand to 30 teams in the coming years, opening the door for a potential bid from Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper.

St. Louis and Sacramento presented bids to become the league’s 28th and 29th expansion teams this month, and the MLS this week invited them to submit formal bids for franchises. With MLS’ decision to broaden its clubs to 30, both cities could see their bids accepted — with room for one more.

Tepper told the Observer at the NFL’s annual meetings in March that the Panthers and MLS have engaged in consistent discussions about expansion to Charlotte.

“We’ve been doing a lot of talking, obviously, so we’ll see,” Tepper said. “It’s an interesting question, from what their timeline is. It’s not just our timeline.

“We’re trying to push things forward.”

The Panthers and a spokesman for Tepper declined to comment Friday on whether they would submit a bid.

MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche was unavailable to comment on any potential bid form Charlotte.

The Panthers have launched several exploratory projects over the last two months regarding a possible MLS expansion. The team held a meeting in Charlotte last month to gauge public interest in a team, and sent a survey to season ticket holders about a potential team name.

The survey also suggested that Bank of America Stadium could feature “a more intimate soccer configuration to create an exciting game-day atmosphere for MLS home matches.” A stadium plan, along with other criteria such as corporate sponsorship commitments, is a requirement the MLS has for all bidding groups.

Tepper has also discussed the renovated stadium as the home field of a Charlotte MLS team.

“This is the best chance at the cheapest price,” he said at the NFL meetings. “Even if we say to the city we need some money to re-do the stadium, it’s so cheap, versus $300 million that you need to build a new stadium. It’s the best bargain... if we could get something done.

“Because the amount of economic impact to the Charlotte region from having those games in here are so big, so we’re making a push. And that would be really good for the region if we could get it.”

The Panthers are constructing a practice bubble over their current fields, but are also in the process of pushing for a permanent, mixed-use indoor/outdoor facility in South Carolina. Such a facility could house a soccer team, too.

In another pro soccer tie, Panthers president Tom Glick, whom Tepper hired two months after his deal to buy the Panthers was finalized last July, helped launch the MLS team New York City FC in February 2015, and served as its president for a year.

Landing an MLS team in Charlotte would be “mutually beneficial” for the MLS, Tepper and the Charlotte community, said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports business consultant who advises NFL team owners on business matters.

Tepper, a hedge fund manager with an $11.6 billion net worth, is the richest NFL owner. But Tepper has much more to offer a pro sports league than his money, including his vision for how sports are marketed and consumed, Ganis said.

“There are a lot of positives for Major League Soccer if they can recruit Dave Tepper as an owner and Charlotte as city for a team,” Ganis said.

‘Very positive discussions’

In a Board of Governors meeting Thursday in Los Angeles, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league has experienced “unprecedented growth” over the last decade, according to a transcript of the meeting provided by MLS.

“We continue to believe that there are many, many cities across the country that can support an MLS team with a great stadium with a great fan base and with great local ownership that will invest in building the sport in their community,” Garber said. “We of late have been in very positive discussions in Las Vegas and in Charlotte.”

Garber also said league officials have been in talks with Detroit, and that they view Phoenix as a “good market.”

With FC Cincinnati joining this season, MLS has 24 teams. Miami and Nashville will start next year and Austin will begin playing in 2021.

MLS will select the 28th and 29th expansion teams by the All-Star Game on July 31. The MLS board said it will decide on the timetable and expansion fee for the 30th team at a later point.

The expansion fee for the 28th and 29th teams will be $200 million, the league said, which is $50 million more than what the fee was in 2017 when Charlotte Motor Speedway CEO Marcus Smith tried to land a team.

Smith’s deal to land an MLS team fell apart in October 2017 when city officials could not reach an agreement on a public-private financing deal for a proposed $175 million soccer facility in time for the league’s December submission deadline. Smith said at the time that he’d still be interested in landing an MLS team, but that it’d be difficult to do so without public money.

Smith told the Observer Thursday that he still thinks Charlotte is “a great place for MLS to expand,” although he said he did not know whether he would work on a bid.

“I think that when the right opportunity presents itself, I think the fans and the city and MLS would be a great match,” he said.

This isn’t the first time in the last year that Garber has brought up Charlotte as an expansion city. At the MLS All-Star Game last summer in Atlanta, Garber said that the MLS is “intrigued by Charlotte.”

“We’re well aware of David Tepper’s interest and obviously that’s a great development for the city, for their football team, for their fans,” Garber said. “The fact that he’s interested in MLS is a positive.”

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Jourdan has covered the Carolina Panthers as a beat writer since 2016, and froze during Pennsylvania winters as an award-winning Penn State football beat writer before that. A 2014 graduate of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, she’s on a never-ending quest for trick plays and the stories that give football fans goosebumps.
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As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.
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