A year after he acquired the Carolina Panthers, David Tepper is trying to catapult Charlotte to the front of Major League Soccer’s expansion line, promising a level of success matched by few MLS cities.
To do that, Tepper and Panthers president Tom Glick — a former pro soccer executive hired by Tepper in December — must prove two key points to the league, Panthers officials told the Observer in recent interviews:
That Bank of America Stadium can provide a suitable home to an MLS expansion team, and that the Charlotte region has an intense appetite for professional soccer.
“The most important thing we’re working on is clearly providing evidence that Bank of America Stadium is a tremendous soccer venue. This is a community that absolutely supports soccer, and soccer can be more successful (here) than probably any other part of the country,” Panthers Chief Operating Officer Mark Hart told the Observer.
“This is now beyond talk. This is action.”
In meetings with league officials, Tepper and his executives have asserted that an MLS team in Charlotte would draw from 40,000 to 60,000 a night — an attendance figure far above most MLS franchises. That’s a rebuke to critics, who’ve questioned whether a 23-year-old football stadium could provide such a draw.
Tepper’s efforts come a few months after MLS said this spring that it will expand to 30 teams in the coming years. St. Louis and Sacramento presented bids to become the league’s 28th and 29th markets, and are considered favorites to win expansion spots. The two expansion teams are expected to be announced in conjunction with the MLS All-Star Game in Orlando, Fla., on July 31.
Meanwhile, the league has not announced any timetable for the selection of the 30th team, nor when that franchise would begin playing. Expansion fees have risen over the years, and the trend could continue for the 30th team.
But Tepper has made it clear he wants a team now — even if that means pushing his way to the front of the line and vying for the 28th or 29th spot.
It is unclear whether MLS would consider Charlotte for those earlier positions. League officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
MLS commissioner Don Garber did say in an April Q&A that if St. Louis or Sacramento “do not satisfy all of the outstanding issues, then they would drop out and conceivably another team could come in.”
Garber added that he did not anticipate that happening.
MLS officials have visited Charlotte, including in February to review operations at Bank of America Stadium, Glick told the Observer. The Panthers also have held interviews and focus groups to gauge fan interest in MLS.
Glick confirmed at a Tuesday news conference that he and Tepper will meet with MLS officials in New York in the “coming week” to further discuss expansion. The parties also will meet at the league’s All-Star Game, Glick said.
“We’re optimistic about the process and we’re confident in our candidacy,” said Glick, who helped launch the MLS team New York City FC in February 2015.
There’s no timeline set for another MLS visit to Charlotte, Glick said, “nor do we know that’s an important milepost regarding a decision to award an expansion franchise to Charlotte.”
“We’re going to keep getting in front of them to show them the evidence and the proof points we’re discovering with our homework,” he said.
“Which is that a Major League Soccer club in Charlotte is going to be a big winner.”
Major League Soccer requires a stadium plan, along with other criteria such as corporate sponsorship commitments and community support, for all expansion candidates. The soccer-specific stadiums many MLS teams are either playing in or are building have the capacity for 20,000-30,000 fans.
Panthers executives believe Charlotte’s team could pack twice that amount into Bank of America Stadium for 20 MLS home games each season. According to the results of a recent survey sent to Panthers season-ticket holders, Charlotte’s MLS team could draw season-ticket sales in the low 30,000s, Glick said.
Individual or group tickets could boost that number by as much as 50%, Glick said. “That’s an impressive figure to us, and it’s got to be an impressive figure to Major League Soccer.”
To date, during the 2019 MLS season, which began in March, only two of 24 teams — Atlanta and Seattle — have averaged more than 30,000 fans per game, according to Soccer Stadium Digest.
MLS likes how Bank of America Stadium is set up, Glick said. League officials also have been in talks with Panthers executives to understand what stadium “enhancements” could be made to better accommodate an MLS team, he added.
At the NFL owners meetings in the spring, Tepper said that upgrading the stadium is more cost efficient than building a new facility. “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,” he said.
In a recent fan survey, the team suggested that the stadium could feature “a more intimate soccer configuration to create an exciting game-day atmosphere for MLS home matches.”
What exactly those stadium improvements look like, however, remains to be seen. The Panthers are still in the early stages of developing a “master plan” for the project, including how it would be paid for, according to Hart.
“I think our analysis of Bank of America Stadium and its condition, its amenities, its future, will dovetail with the MLS effort,” he said.
Stadium development work could also include upgrades to the property surrounding Bank of America Stadium.
Panthers executives want to make the stadium property a facility that’s used year-round; not just on NFL Sundays. That means more concerts, festivals and college football games, in addition to entertainment such as bars and restaurants nearby, too. All attractions, Glick said that “make you want to come a little bit earlier and stay a little bit later.”
“We will be looking to add things on our property and to work with partners to add adjacent things that will round out the experience for sports fans,” Glick said.
As for community support, Tepper and Glick are actively pursuing ways to prove to MLS that there is a demand for professional soccer in Charlotte.
That includes the Gold Cup, which drew almost 60,000 fans last month, as well as the stadium’s new pact with Relevent Sports Group. On Tuesday, Relevent announced its first long-term deal with any city to bring International Champions Cup games to Charlotte for the next five years.
“It’s momentum,” Glick said Tuesday when asked what the Relevent announcement meant for Charlotte’s MLS hopes. “It’s the right bet. Maybe you could even say it’s a safe bet ... We know that fans are going to turn up.”
Past ICC matches, including a 2018 contest between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, have drawn more than 55,000 fans.
Said Hart: “Putting 59,000 people in this stadium and having the soccer vibe really gave us, I think, great ideas about how to make Bank of America ... a great soccer venue, and it is.”
In putting together its soccer business model, the Panthers executives have looked four hours south, where one of the newer MLS franchises has also become the most successful.
Atlanta has “raised the bar on everything” in regards to the performance of its MLS team, Glick said.
Last year, Atlanta United set several attendance records in its first full year of play at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which is also home of the Atlanta Falcons. A July match last year between the Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders drew 72,243 fans, an MLS attendance record, according to the league.
As he moves forward with Charlotte’s bid, Tepper has been down to Atlanta a few times to see Atlanta United matches and consult with team owner Arthur Blank and team president Darren Eales, Glick said.
If it wins a team, Charlotte could also leverage its rivalry with Atlanta to drum up fan interest further. That’s something that could be attractive to MLS, given its potential to drive up ticket sales, according to Joe Cobbs, associate professor of sports business and event management at Northern Kentucky University.
Cobbs has studied MLS’s expansion for years, including the local effort to land FC Cincinnati in spring 2018. The team, the league’s 24th, started playing in March at the University of Cincinnati’s football stadium while its own venue is being built.
“The MLS loves rivalries,” Cobbs said of Charlotte and Atlanta. That’s one big advantage Charlotte has over other bidding cities without intense rivalries, such as Raleigh, he added.
Raleigh developer John Kane and North Carolina Football Club owner Steve Malik told Spectrum News in March that they have secured 40 acres south of downtown for a potentially massive redevelopment, which could house a Major League Soccer stadium, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported.
To pay for the project, North Carolina FC and Kane are asking for more than $300 million from Wake County. That loan would be paid out annually in $11 million chunks for 30 years beginning in 2022, according to the News & Observer. But the proposal must compete with community organizations such as museums for the money.
In a recent presentation about the plan, Malik and Kane did not even mention an MLS stadium until a reporter asked about it.
An MLS team in Charlotte could be a regional pull not unlike how the Panthers boast the mantra “two states, one team.”
Therefore, the MLS team here wouldn’t be “Charlotte;” it’d be “Carolina,” Glick said.
He sees a local team, with Charlotte as its hub drawing fans from a 90-mile radius, out to the Greenville-Spartanburg area, north to Greensboro and Winston-Salem, due south to Columbia and all parts between.
Panthers executives point to the fact that Charlotte is a city of transplants as an opportunity to grow an MLS fan base. The new team, they have said, could be a way to unite fans who already have other loyalties to their own hometown NFL or NBA teams, for instance.
“The key thing here is that there are lots of folks who are not following the Panthers, not following any of the other sports teams we have in the region, not buying tickets to those, who definitely want to be a part of a Major League Soccer game,” Glick said.
Miami and Nashville will start playing MLS schedules next year; Austin, in 2021. It’s unclear when the league’s newest teams, in positions 28-30, will join them, although Garber said in April those teams could begin “somewhere around 2021 or 2022.”
MLS executives will make decisions about the timing of adding new teams based on “stoking interest and monetizing expansion,” according to David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall Business School and principal of The Sports Business Group.
The league has said that the 28th and 29th teams will have to pay expansion fees of $200 million. The fee for the 30th team is yet to be determined.
If Charlotte lands an MLS team, Tepper, a hedge fund manager with an estimated net worth of nearly $12 billion, would become the richest single owner in the league, as he is in the NFL. He’d still likely want to avoid a higher expansion fee if he can: The fees have been growing with each expansion round (Cincinnati, Nashville and Austin all paid $150 million.)
“Attractiveness of a market typically boils down to the ownership having deep pockets, the city having a compelling stadium plan, and the community demonstrating strong and often historic interested in sport,” Carter said.
Those are three boxes Tepper and his team believe they have already checked.
(Raleigh) News & Observer reporter Zachery Eanes contributed.