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Sacramento leading the race for MLS expansion

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Republic FC remain the frontrunner as other bids either stumble or continue their inability to meet all requirements.

MLS: LA Galaxy at Philadelphia Union Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The excitement truly began for 12 cities on January 31st, 2017, when their respective bids for Major League Soccer expansion were officially submitted. Over the next five months various different bids seemed to take the lead in the race, for but throughout the process only one team has been consistent in meeting MLS’ criteria: Sacramento Republic FC.

MLS has confirmed its plans to eventually grow to 28 teams from the current 22. Los Angeles FC will begin play in 2018. David Beckham’s Miami club, even with its myriad issues, appears to be a lock thanks to the contract Beckham signed when he joined MLS to play for the LA Galaxy. MLS plans to announce teams 25 and 26 by the end of the year.

All 12 cities are still in the race. However, many of their prospects have dimmed for a variety of reasons, as Brian Straus of Sports Illustrated reported. The above referenced article was used as a starting point for this story.

On Life Support

St. Louis – This was the first bid to get torpedoed. Considered one of, if not the favorite to win an expansion bid, the referendum to collect a business tax to use towards the construction of a stadium was defeated in an April election. This was the second time in the last three years that a stadium plan for a professional sports team has collapsed in St. Louis.

San Diego – On June 19th the San Diego City Council voted 5-4 to not have a special election for the SoccerCity proposal. Instead, the vote will not be heard until November, 2018. It is widely thought that even though MLS is enamored by soccer in San Diego that they will not wait around for the stadium politics to get sorted out.

Charlotte – Another early favorite has hit a major roadblock as in April the city declined to approve the channeling of tax revenue collected for tourism and hospitality to help fund the stadium project.

Long Shots

Raleigh/Durham – The demographics are attractive because of market size and the soccer in the community, such as the NASL’s North Carolina FC and the NWSL’s North Carolina Courage, but there have not been any developments in the way of a public stadium.

Indianapolis – The bill before the Indiana General Assembly to help fund a soccer stadium has gone nowhere. During this year’s Indiana legislative session there was a two year budget created, and a bill for a soccer stadium was not even discussed.

Underdogs

San Antonio – Another market that has caught the interest of MLS, San Antonio boasts a club, San Antonio FC of the USL, that is owned by the NBA’s Spurs, which makes them an attractive partner. The trouble is that Toyota Field must be expanded and there is still no financing plan that has been put forward publicly.

Nashville – There is money behind this bid with billionaire John Ingram leading the way. However, Nashville started late and is still targeting sites for a stadium. Even with the money behind the bid Nashville is still looking for a private-public partnership.

Detroit – This bid is not short of funding either, with billionaire NBA owners Tom Gores and Dan Gilbert offering to purchase a plot of land downtown that is currently home to an unfinished prison. They will even pay for the cost to build another jail at a new location. However, a decision on the proposal has yet to be made by local government officials and there is no alternative plan for the potential $1 billion project.

Favorites (Albeit with Issues)

Phoenix – Didn’t see this one coming. Phoenix is asking for no public money. They built a pop-up stadium in two months before the season started and is selling out every match. Didier Drogba has been brought on board as a player/owner. Phoenix is the largest metropolitan area and second-largest media market among all of the bids. Team governor Berke Bakay seems to be pressing all the right buttons. It’s unclear how much financial muscle is behind the bid, but the club has engaged Goldman Sachs for stadium financing, and added experienced consultants to the effort.

Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg – Brash owner Bill Edwards won a big victory with a 87-percentage point victory to renovate and improve the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ Al Lang Stadium in hopes of bringing MLS soccer to St. Petersburg. He has also pledged $80 million of his own money with no public funding for the project. A potential obstacle is that Edwards is not a billionaire and there are questions if he has overextended himself and may have difficulty paying the $150 million MLS expansion fee and millions more in upgrades.

Cincinnati – They have the billionaire ownership group. Attendance at Nippert Stadium has been absolutely tremendous. The president of FC Cincinnati, Jeff Berding, is a former executive with the Reds and the Bengals and has experience negotiating stadium deals. However, as of today there is a stadium design, three potential stadium sites, but no final approved plans.

The Frontrunner

Sacramento – The only bid that meets the all of the criteria of MLS remains Sacramento. Of the 12 expansion bids, only Sacramento has a “shovel ready” stadium plan in place. There was a slight blip in the bid at the outset as it appeared that there was a rift between lead investor of the Kevin Nagle and Republic founder and majority owner Warren Smith, but now the bid is 100 percent unified. The attendance at home games for Sacramento Republic FC has continued to be fantastic. MLS commissioner Don Garber has been quoted as saying, “We believe and hope that Sacramento will be part of the next round of expansion.”

Although it has been rather quiet on the MLS expansion process around Sacramento, that is not because the bid has weakened. Instead, it continues to be the frontrunner, and should be regarded as such.

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