It’s no secret that Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, so the question is whether it can support another professional sports franchise. Major League Baseball and the media constantly throw around the possibility of a team relocating or being expanded into the Queen City, but while it may sound good on paper and get locals excited about the possibilities, it isn’t big enough – yet.
When the virtually new Charlotte Knights home, BB&T Ballpark, becomes a crumbling mess in a quarter century or more and MLB is wanting to expand to something like 40 teams, maybe. Right now Charlotte is considered oversaturated with two major league franchises, the NFL Panthers and NBA Hornets, plus minor league teams in lacrosse, hockey (with their parent club just up the road in Raleigh) and soccer. It’s the latter that may want to jump from the minors to the majors.
Major League Soccer, MLS, is enjoying a renaissance of sorts and it is looking for big league cities to land in. Potential owners are willing to cough up in excess of $100 million each for the privilege, and that does not include a place to play. Some, like the Cavaliers Dan Gilbert and Pistons Tom Gores, are teaming up to bring the sport to Detroit with plans for a new stadium.
In Charlotte, the soccer team named the Independence play at the tiny Ramblewood Soccer Complex, seating capacity of 4,300 which could be used to get execs at MLS to take notice because something is already in place. There is the land to expand it to MLS standards or simply build a new home for a team on the site.
Or somewhere else in the Charlotte metro area.
MLS stadium size runs from a low of 18,000 (Avaya Stadium – San Jose Earthquakes) up to 40,000 or more. Charlotte could be toward the lower end and still be successful although there might be a temptation to see if Bank of America Stadium, home of the Carolina Panthers, could be a ready to go venue. Unfortunately, the cost of operating in such a large stadium could be cost prohibitive leading prospective owners to seek sites such as Ramblewood.
The news today of the Gilbert/Gores partnership is a signal that the league wants to land in major cities as the MLS wants to go from its current 20 teams to 28. Commissioner Don Garber has already committed to that kind of expansion. Reports have Atlanta and Minnesota set to launch franchises in 2017 with Los Angeles and Miami getting teams a year later. Gilbert and Gores are “high on the list” for Detroit so that leaves three open slots.
While MLS is considered a major sport, it does not need to be the Panthers or Hornets to be part of the sports landscape in Charlotte. The minor league Knights have a ballpark that seats 10,000 and they do very well getting close to that number most nights. MLS at a Charlotte site with a capacity of 20,000 and schedule that runs from the spring to fall would not be much of a threat to the Knights because baseball and soccer fans have very little in common. Even schedule conflicts could be worked out between MLS and the International League, if both are so inclined.
By the time Charlotte is considered and given the green light for expansion it could be no sooner than 2020. The Queen City has over a million residents and by that time the number could be significantly higher. It doesn’t hurt that recent soccer games at BofA Stadium have drawn very well and that is a feather in the city’s cap.
If there is any question, it would be about soccer being viable in the south. There are two clubs in Texas and one in Florida, but putting one in the Carolinas could be a gamble. Then again, MLS isn’t trying to be the original North American Soccer League which started out with a bang and ended in a whimper less than two decades in existence.
Major League Soccer has a different business model with television contracts in place and are not trying to draw massive crowds like the New York Cosmos did in the late 70s and 1980 with the NASL. The Cosmos drew 60,000 or more 18 times including 77,691 at the height of their success at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Salaries were out of control because teams believed they had found the pot of gold at the end of the soccer rainbow and succumbed because of it as crowds evaporated as quickly as the superstars like Pelé.
MLS saw that drawing an average of 18-20,000 league wide helps their viability long term and with the league now on firm financial footing, expansion is more a reality than a a dream.
Major League Baseball is not coming to Charlotte, probably in our lifetime. Hockey isn’t either because the Hurricanes are doing very nicely in Raleigh. Soccer, on the other hand, could be the right fit at the right time.
Are you listening MLS?
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