Construction at Memorial Stadium, the future home of the Charlotte Independence, began last week near uptown. The project starts as the owner of the Carolina Panthers is pushing to land a Major League Soccer team, raising questions about how two pro soccer teams can exist in the same market.
Zoom out: Last fall, Mecklenburg County approved the $32 million renovation of the county-owned American Legion Memorial Stadium in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The project will include widening the field, adding new restrooms, preserving some historical elements and making the facility ADA-compliant.
The city is pitching in $3 million for artificial turf on the field, which will be suitable for soccer games, football games, lacrosse games and concerts.
Currently, the Independence plays at the Sportsplex in Matthews. The team is expected to begin playing at Memorial Stadium soon after renovations wrap up in spring 2021.
Independence president and managing partner Jim McPhilliamy has been working on the renovations project for about five years. He’s already been foiled once by an MLS bid.
The last try for an MLS team: In early 2017, after the county and McPhilliamy reached a tentative deal on a $25 million renovation of the stadium, the plans unraveled when Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith asked the city and county to put up $43.75 million each to tear down Memorial Stadium and build a new $150 million MLS stadium in its place. As part of the deal, the county would also lend Smith $75 million to be paid back over 25 years.
Throughout that process, McPhilliamy said he felt “run over,” the Charlotte Observer reported at the time. Smith’s team used McPhilliamy’s architectural plans for the site without his consent, McPhilliamy told the paper. McPhilliamy was not involved with that MLS discussion.
The deal ultimately fell apart after the city refused to put up funds. If that MLS plan would have come to life, McPhilliamy’s team would have been without a home field and he might have been forced to discontinue it, he has said. The deal also put him back several years on his quest to land a long-term home turf.
This year, Panthers owner David Tepper is aggressively pursuing an MLS team.
MLS commissioner Don Garber came to Charlotte in mid-August, Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond confirmed to the Agenda. Garber and league officials met with Tepper and visited Bank of America Stadium, which would be where an MLS team would play.
MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche told the Agenda that the league remains “in advanced discussions” with Sacramento regarding expansion team No. 29. Last month, MLS awarded team No. 28 to St. Louis, and that team will begin playing in 2022, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has reported.
Charlotte could land team No. 30, possibly as early as by the end of the year. “We do not have any updates regarding Charlotte,” Courtemanche said.
The Panthers declined further comment.
McPhilliamy is not involved in Tepper’s MLS bid. But he said he is friendly with Tom Glick, the Panthers’ team president who helped bring MLS to New York in 2015. Glick and McPhilliamy first met years ago when the two worked in the NBA.
“There’s no animosity between our two groups. There was a little bit of that before,” McPhilliamy said, referring to Smith’s MLS bid.
If Tepper lands an MLS team, it’s possible that the Independence could exist, well, independently.
The minor-league team could complement the MLS team by providing a lower-cost ticket alternative, McPhilliamy said. The Independence is part of the United Soccer League (USL), which is a level below MLS. Typically USL tickets around $10-$15 per game.
“If you build a $2 billion stadium, ticket prices aren’t going to be cheap. We can offer an alternative to that,” McPhilliamy said, referring to the possibility for a new stadium that Tepper could pursue an Uptown stadium.
“I do think there are two different audiences you can serve. There’s going to be a corporate expensive ticket and there’s going to be an option for other people who want to go see a really good sporting event and have a great time.”
The Independence could also become an affiliate of Tepper’s MLS team, kind of like how in baseball there are AAA minor-league affiliates of major league teams.
There are a number of benefits to that kind of arrangement, according to Joe Cobbs, associate professor of sports business and event management at Northern Kentucky University.
The two teams could coordinate marketing strategies, and the minor-league team could show fans up close how a player is developed and groomed for a major league franchise, Cobbs said.
“I do think that it’s possible for them to coexist, especially in a growing city like Charlotte,” Cobbs said.
No matter what happens with the MLS team, McPhilliamy said he still intends to honor the 10-year lease his team has signed with the county at Memorial Stadium.
The move into a more central location should provide a boost to ticket sales, which have fallen below the league average of about 5,400 per game, the Charlotte Business Journal reported recently.
Last year, the Independence averaged about 1,500 fans per game, McPhilliamy said. This year, that figure has risen slightly — to 1,800. McPhilliamy expects to draw at least three times that (5,400) per game at Memorial.
“(Charlotte is) a community with a rich soccer history and we believe that the club’s move to Memorial Stadium – a more central location – will provide a significant boost both on and off-the-field,” USL President Jake Edward said in an email.