Any doubt that Charlotte is ripe for Major League Soccer expansion? Sunday’s scene at Bank of America Stadium should have erased it.
A crowd of 59,283 — fueled by a raucous, daylong fan fest outside the stadium — was entertained by two Gold Cup games. Canada sealed its spot in the tournament’s quarterfinals with a 7-0 thumping over Cuba in the opener. Mexico, with its legions of fans roaring from the stands, followed that with a 3-2 win over Martinique, but El Tri had already clinched a quarterfinal spot with two earlier wins.
Sunday’s crowd isn’t a guarantee that a potential MLS franchise — which is being pursued by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper — would be a success in Charlotte. But it did show that interest in supporting the game at a high level has been consistently strong over the past nine years.
Sunday was the third time Charlotte has hosted Gold Cup games — with the popular Mexican team being featured each time. Attendance in the Panthers’ 75,412-seat stadium for the games that decide CONCACAF’s championship has never been lower than 55,000.
More top-level soccer is on the way to Charlotte in July, when England’s Arsenal and Italy’s Fiorentina play in the International Champions Cup. The ICC has come to Charlotte now five times, and attendance has also remained consistently high. A game between England’s Liverpool and Italy’s Inter Milan in 2014 attracted a near-sellout crowd of 69,364. In 2018, Liverpool and Germany’s Borussia Dortmund drew 55,447.
Tepper, who bought the Panthers in 2018, has said he wants an MLS team in Charlotte and, although he hasn’t yet submitted a bid, has had discussions with the league about expansion. The league is expected to announce Sacramento and St. Louis as the league’s 28th and 29th teams this summer. MLS commissioner Don Garber has said the league would like to add a 30th franchise, but that there is no timetable for that.
Garber mentioned Charlotte — which has a nearly 40-year history with pro soccer, albeit not at the highest levels of the game — as a possibility for the 30th franchise during a news conference in April.
“We’ve been doing a lot of talking, obviously, so we’ll see,” Tepper told the Observer in April. “It’s an interesting question, from what their timeline is. It’s not just our timeline. We’re trying to push things forward.”
There’s an important distinction to make, however, between the summer games (however successful they’ve been) and having an MLS team playing in Bank of America Stadium. The international games coming through Charlotte offer a completely different atmosphere than what MLS would bring. The Gold Cup and ICC are regional attractions as much as anything, with fans of a national team or European club coming from other parts of the country to get the rare chance to see their teams up close.
An MLS team, of course, would largely rely on a local fan base, one that would need to turn out as many as 20 times each season.
There is a potential blueprint for Charlotte to follow four hours down Interstate 85, where Atlanta United has been a resounding success since its 2017 inception. Atlanta, like Charlotte, is a city full of transients. Many of them are millennials who moved to Atlanta without an allegiance to the city’s existing pro teams but who quickly latched on to a new soccer team to call their own. Charlotte fans, in fact, have already formed a supporter’s group to help with Tepper’s expansion effort.
Atlanta United, which is owned by Falcons owner Arthur Blank, won the MLS Cup in 2018, setting league attendance marks at Mercedes Benz Stadium along the way.
That’s not to say that what works in Atlanta would necessarily work in Charlotte, which has a much smaller market from which to draw fans. But Atlanta didn’t have much of a pro soccer history either, and it definitely didn’t have the summertime successes from the Gold Cup and ICC that Charlotte has enjoyed.
Having an uber-wealthy NFL owner in place to foot an expansion fee that is certain to exceed $200 million gives Charlotte a strong starting point.
Attracting huge crowds each summer for international games is one thing. Supporting an MLS team on a consistent basis would be another, very different, challenge. Charlotte has shown it’s ready to take that chance.