Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper has been aggressive about landing a Major League Soccer team. League executives say they’re interested in Charlotte, but we may have to wait a bit longer to find out whether Tepper will get his team.
The first time Tepper met with MLS officials, he showed off pictures of himself coaching his three kids’ youth soccer teams years ago.
The gesture left an impression on MLS Commissioner Don Garber: Tepper is passionate, Garber told reporters following the MLS Board of Governors meeting in Orlando Wednesday. Tepper is also aggressive, Garber said.
Tepper has been the Panthers’ owner for only a year, but his enthusiasm about landing an MLS team instantly made the city a serious contender in the league’s eyes. Other cities, including Sacramento and St. Louis, have been trying to woo the league for years.
One of Tepper’s selling points — Bank of America Stadium, which Panthers executives are confident could attract crowds much larger than the typical MLS game — seems to give Garber pause.
“We are primarily in the business of having teams that play in soccer-specific stadiums. (Tepper’s) plan does not include one,” Garber told reporters Wednesday afternoon. Twenty of the league’s 24 teams play in stadiums custom-built for soccer, Garber said.
Those facilities typically hold 20,000 to 30,000 fans, and the average attendance for an MLS team is a little more than 21,000.
Garber wouldn’t say whether Tepper’s lack of an MLS-specific stadium puts Charlotte at a competitive disadvantage. “But it is certainly an aspect of his bid that puts it on a different path,” Garber said.
Interestingly, the two MLS teams that have the highest attendance — Atlanta and Seattle — play in NFL stadiums. Atlanta, which entered the league in 2017, averaged 53,000 fans at Mercedes-Benz Stadium last year.
Built in 1996, Charlotte’s stadium is one of the oldest in the NFL, and it was built specifically for football. Panthers president Tom Glick said recently that the stadium could attract soccer crowds of up to 60,000 on a regular basis.
Tepper would like to build a new retractable-roof stadium in or around uptown that could host not only NFL and MLS games but also other large-scale events such as Final Fours and big-name concerts, Sports Business Journal reported this week.
That would likely cost more than a billion dollars and require taxpayer funds. When Tepper was a minority owner with the Steelers, that NFL team used incentives from the city, county and state to help build its stadium and surrounding area.
So does Tepper need civic leaders’ sign off to help build a new stadium before MLS officials are on board with awarding Charlotte a team?
For now, Tepper and other Panthers executives say Bank of America Stadium still is a viable option for an MLS team, and that it could be renovated if Charlotte lands a team.
In April, MLS officials announced the league would expand to 30 teams. Sacramento and St. Louis have long been considered the favorites to win spots No. 28 and No. 29. Garber has reinforced that, saying that the league would be dealing “exclusively” with ownership groups from those two cities in next round of expansion.
Garber seemed to back down from that language on Wednesday, though.
“We are in advance talks with both (Sacramento and St. Louis),” the MLS commissioner said. “They are not exclusive talks.”
The league also indicated in the spring that it’d be ready to announce plans to expand into its next two markets by late July. Wednesday’s events came and went without any formal announcement, though.
So what’s MLS waiting for?
Garber explained that the expansion process is complicated and that the investment by each ownership group is massive — up to $500 million including expansion fees and stadium costs.
He declined, however, to provide a timeline for the league’s expansion plans. Garber indicated that he’ll be in Charlotte again within a month or so to learn more about Tepper’s stadium plans.
“Charlotte’s a great sports town,” Garber said. “We’re going to continue to talk to David and Tom Glick. We’ll (have) ongoing discussions with them to see whether Charlotte could be a good place for MLS.”
Tepper’s recent push
A billionaire hedge fund manager who bought the Panthers last summer for a league-record $2.275 billion, Tepper wants to make Charlotte an entertainment mecca.
He and Glick made their formal expansion bid to MLS executives in New York earlier in July. Afterward, MLS officials listed Charlotte second among a string of cities they’re considering. Tepper told the media at Panthers training camp in Spartanburg Wednesday morning that it’s “big” that the league mentioned Charlotte second in its press release.
Tepper has made other moves to make sure Charlotte meets the criteria the MLS is looking for in an expansion city, including fan support, a buttoned-up stadium plan, a strong ownership group and corporate commitments.
Last month, International Champions Cup announced a five-year deal to host exhibitions at Bank of America Stadium, marking the cup’s first long-term deal and underscoring local support for pro soccer.
Also last month, Ally Bank signed on to be the founding partner “for a potential MLS team in Charlotte and the Carolinas.”
“David Tepper’s been very aggressive and forward,” said Jorge Mas, majority owner of the MLS’s newest expansion team, Inter Miami.
“If they didn’t have an owner who is aggressively pursuing something like this, it wouldn’t happen. There’s a lot of demand for an MLS franchise.”