Where is the grassroots support for Major League Soccer?

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Charlotte is supposedly the perfect city for a Major League Soccer expansion team.

We’re a hotbed of the coveted millennial demographic, and have a thriving and growing Latino population to boot. There’s a large corporate community, and an MLS team here would plug a big hole in the league’s map.

But if all that is true, where has all the public support been for Charlotte’s bid to land a team?

It’s been one of the most confounding questions in the months-long debate over whether the city and Mecklenburg County should throw a combined $162 million in taxpayer dollars behind a new Major League Soccer stadium.

After all, this is a city that’s willing to go to bat for big, expensive things.

The push to bring the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte in 2012 had broad public support. There was even a Twitter campaign in 2011 to help lure Chiquita’s headquarters to Charlotte at the cost of $22 million in state and local incentives (the headquarters had closed by 2015).

So why no grassroots love for soccer?

It’s complicated. But supporters of Major League Soccer in Charlotte say it’s not because people don’t care enough about the sport. Instead, political optics might play a leading role.

The ownership group spearheading the MLS bid says they were asked to keep quiet about the stadium deal and wait rather than take their appeal to the public.

The January 31 deadline to submit an application for a Major League Soccer franchise came at a politically sensitive time for city leaders, who were still figuring out how to respond to the unrest after the September shooting of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of police.

The lack of a public champion left Charlotte soccer fans little to rally around except for taxpayer support for a stadium — which is fraught even in the best of times.

And unlike other cities, Charlotte’s MLS bid doesn’t have the benefit of growing out of an existing soccer team and its rabid supporters.

photo via Charlotte Independence Instagram

Marcus Smith and his team at Speedway Motorsports are now trying to show that Charlotte really is a soccer city and that there is a groundswell of support for a Major League Soccer team.

Behind an initiative called MLS4CLT, the group is holding its first public event Tuesday afternoon at First Ward Park. After that, the public push will ramp up over the coming weeks.

Major League Soccer has said they will announce two new franchises by the end of this year, with two additional teams at some point in the future.

The main worry for people dreaming of an MLS team here — is it already too late for Charlotte?

Soccer fans are here — they’ve just had nothing to rally around.

There is plenty of evidence that Charlotte is a soccer town ready for the big leagues.

Bank of America Stadium has hosted a series of internationally significant games that have drawn healthy crowds — from the 70,000 people who came to see AC Milan play Liverpool to the 55,000 people who watched the Mexican national team play Trinidad & Tobago, according to Sports Illustrated.

Courtyard Hooligans at Brevard Court has a reputation for drawing huge crowds to watch the World Cup or English Premier League matches, and Tyber Creek Pub and Big Ben British Pub in South End can lay a claim as soccer bars as well.

courtyard-hooligans

via Facebook

But when it comes to MLS in Charlotte, both of these groups have largely been silent.

Why? Part of the issue is that there hasn’t been, until last week, a real push to rally them. There have been no potential jersey designs or team names revealed, or soccer tournaments held, or really anything people could get excited about.

It’s hard to build a fun, shareable social media campaign around pledging millions of tax dollars to a construction project.

“I think there’s a large soccer community in Charlotte, but they just need something to rally behind besides city funding for a stadium,” said Johnny Wakefield, founder and managing editor of the Charlotte-based Soccer ‘n’ Sweet Tea blog. “It’s like they’re ready to explode and erupt, but there’s nothing to explode and erupt about.”

golf-cup-soccer-match-charlotte

Other cities haven’t proceeded the same way.

Nashville recruited 22 business, nonprofit and political leaders to champion their MLS bid way back in August 2016. San Diego held a contest to suggest names for their potential team (even though Footy McFooty Face won).

Mike Burch, the chief strategist of the MLS4CLT campaign and an executive at Speedway Motorsports, told the Agenda this week that he doesn’t regret starting the public campaign at this late hour. He said they were following the lead of city and county officials.

Major League Soccer put out the call for bids on its four new franchises in December, setting a January 31 deadline for applications.

“We were told from Day 1 that the city and the county were enthusiastic supporters of us,” Burch said. “It had been well supported until right before the deadline.”

About that. As the deadline approached, the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners voted 5-4 to put up $43.5 million in cash and lend the Smiths $75 million toward a new stadium. After a back and forth, the Charlotte City Council decided not to vote on their $43.5 million.

charlotte-nc-city-council

The City Council was feeling the pressure from people critical of politicians eager to move quickly on funding a soccer stadium while taking their time on coming up with a meaningful response to the protests over economic inequality in Charlotte that bubbled up after Scott was shot to death.

They were also looking toward the March release of a report from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force, launched in response to a study putting the city dead last in terms of economic mobility in the country. The unveiling was the first public acknowledgment among the city’s business and political leaders that there were significant problems in Charlotte.

The council wanted more time in making a decision. In the meantime, they didn’t want the MLS ownership group moving forward on their own.

“They said, ‘We’d appreciate if you don’t push this publicly,'” Burch said.

Ironically, several elected officials have recently said publicly and privately that they’re still waiting to see a show of enthusiasm for MLS from the Charlotte community before throwing support behind the stadium deal.

And they remain cagey about their public relationship with MLS. County commissioners were originally planning to meet privately with league officials during their visit to Charlotte on Tuesday, but backed out after a dust-up over whether the meeting should be public instead. The City Council pre-emptively announced Monday they wouldn’t meet with league officials.

“It’s just part of the process,” Burch said. “You try to be respectful.”

Hardcore local soccer fans have their loyalties split.

The MLS bid from another Queen City, Cincinnati, is widely considered a front-runner. Unlike Charlotte’s, Cinci’s bid builds off the success of a lower-level club team that occasionally draws 30,000 fans. So does Sacramento, and they’ve already had fans showing up at the airport to welcome MLS officials.

A 90-second video released by the MLS4CLT group has plenty of video of Panthers fans and NASCAR races — but barely any mention of soccer.

Charlotte does have pro soccer already — the Charlotte Independence, a USL team that plays at the Matthews Sportsplex. They’re on a 6-game winning streak at the moment.

But unlike Cincinnati’s team, they’re not considered ready for the jump to MLS — at least not yet. Instead, Independence team owner Jim McPhilliamy has said an MLS team in Charlotte would likely put him out of business.

Before MLS was on the table, the Independence had been working with Mecklenburg County on renovations to Memorial Stadium to bring their team Uptown. In a few years, perhaps the Independence would have been ready to move up. Instead, all those plans have been scrapped and McPhilliamy has been cut out.

Plans for Memorial Stadium renovations with the Independence

All that’s left Independence fans — some of the most devoted soccer fans in the city — split.

“The way we originally thought about it is, Charlotte’s got to build a better soccer culture before we can truly claim to be a city that deserves an MLS team,” McPhilliamy said. “I think with this whole bid, we sort of skipped a step. We didn’t get a chance to build the soccer culture yet. Instead, we’re thinking we can buy a stadium and all of a sudden we’ll have soccer fans everywhere.”

Burch said he doesn’t believe Charlotte’s MLS bid is hampered by the fact it’s not building on a lower-level team’s success. He pointed to Atlanta, which got an MLS team in the last round of bidding without being affiliated with a USL team.

“I don’t see it as a detriment,” he said. “I haven’t gone any word from the league that it’s a negative.”

After years of trying to build a fanbase for the Charlotte Independence, McPhilliamy believes it’s a sign the city’s not quite ready.

“I think all of our fans really want MLS in Charlotte, but they just don’t believe we’ve earned it yet,” McPhilliamy said.

Is MLS really a major league?

Of course, there remains a distinct possibility that there won’t ultimately be enough support for an MLS team in Charlotte.

One big question is whether Charlotteans who enjoy watching World Cup and English Premier League will be enthusiastic about Major League Soccer.

County commissioner Jim Puckett put it bluntly last week: “Major League Soccer is only barely major league,” he said, according to The Charlotte Post. “If we were talking about Major League Baseball, then you might have a bit of a different reason to be supportive, but Major League Soccer is a B league among major leagues. It’s not like European soccer. That’s the true major league soccer.”

Jim Puckett, at right. Photo by Elect Jim Puckett via Facebook

He does have a point. The best basketball players in the world play in the NBA. The best football players in the world play in the NFL. But the best soccer players in the world do not play in MLS.

There are other criticisms of the MLS model. In most European soccer leagues, teams have a great deal of autonomy and can earn their way into higher divisions by winning — and can be relegated to lower divisions by losing. MLS is a closed system, like other American pro sports leagues.

“Real soccer fans don’t find MLS compelling because, compared to real clubs battling it out in open leagues, MLS just isn’t exciting,” said Charlotte soccer fan Ben Wilkinson.

“I mean, think of how much more energized the Independence fan base and the city would be if the Independence could battle their way into MLS over several seasons, upsetting ‘bigger’ and ‘better’ teams along the way. That is how you build lifelong, rabid support for your club.”

Wakefield, the managing editor of Soccer ‘n’ Sweet Tea, said he believes MLS is a high enough level of play to garner widespread support.

Both the MLS group and the Independence disagree with this assessment, as well.

“The product is a great product,” McPhilliamy said. “In 20 years, I think MLS will have some of the best players in the world … I think it will be an elite league in the next generation.”

Will MLS4CLT rally support in time to sway elected officials?

There are other factors, too. Mecklenburg County is weighing funding for soccer against finishing up parks and greenways projects, for example.

[Agenda story: Does Mecklenburg County really need to choose either soccer or greenways?]

The first test of all these arguments and counterarguments comes Tuesday afternoon at First Ward Park.

Marcus Smith will speak about why he believes Charlotte is ready for Major League Soccer, and league president Mark Abbott will be there to see if it rings true.

There will be live music and pick-up soccer games and giveaways. Blue Blaze Brewing will be selling its craft beer, and at least four food trucks will be there as well.

The public appeal will move forward from there. Smith’s team has already poured thousands of dollars into hiring public relations firms and building a website.

Burch said to expect the MLS4CLT team to announce partnerships in the coming weeks. One will likely involve creating more high-quality soccer fields across the city.

MLS4CLT boosters will also be forging relationships with those soccer fans in Hooligan’s once Premier League starts back up in mid-August by showing up and watching alongside them. They’ll also be reaching out specifically to the Latino community in Charlotte.

Ballantyne-Soccer-Field

All this will run concurrently to the political machine of Charlotte weighing soccer once again. Soccer fans are hoping their show of support will change the result.

A committee of the Charlotte City Council meets Thursday to discuss whether the city should throw some of the money it collects from a tourism tax on hotel rooms toward a new stadium. The full City Council would have to vote to approve it at some later date.

A positive result in committee could push the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners to renew their support for their part of a stadium deal. They vote August 2.

“We look forward to working through the process,” Burch said.

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Andrew Dunn
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Editor-in-Chief