Charlotte and Raleigh have had a rivalry of sorts for generations. The latest battle? To win a Major League Soccer team.
Both cities can check a lot of boxes for MLS. Both give the league another foothold in the Southeast. Both are drawing the oh-so-coveted professional millennial demographic. Both have large and growing Latino populations.
But, of course, there’s no possible way that both cities will be awarded MLS teams.
I love Charlotte. But I’m also an objective journalist and put aside all hometown allegiances to break down the two cities’ bids. These aren’t all the criteria that the league will use, but they’re the ones that ordinary North Carolinians care about.
The only plan being discussed for a Major League Soccer stadium in Charlotte is in the Elizabeth neighborhood, where Memorial Stadium currently stands. The county-owned Memorial has long been in need of repairs and traffic in that area is a mess. New stadium construction could help fix that.
No exterior renderings of what it would look like have been released, just a look at the interior that doesn’t tell us much. That skyline does look awesome, though.
Raleigh’s plan also includes a new downtown stadium, in an underutilized area right by all the state government buildings.
Unlike Charlotte — which has the Spectrum Center, Bank of America stadium and BB&T Ballpark all in the center city area — Raleigh does not have any downtown sports venues. The Carolina Hurricanes and N.C. State men’s basketball play over by the fairgrounds in PNC Arena, next door to Carter Finley Stadium (a solid 20-minute drive away).
The city has already identified a downtown sports venue as a top item on their wish list, and this fills that gap perfectly in a way that a new stadium in Charlotte does not.
Plus, the renderings frankly look much more awesome.
This has been a huge stickler in Charlotte. The MLS team is asking for both the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County to kick in $43.75 million in cash toward a new stadium. The county would also have to lend them $75 million to be paid back over more than two decades. And, of course, contribute the use of the land.
The Raleigh group hasn’t asked for any public money at this point, and might not ever. They’re expecting construction to cost $150 million and are securing private funding.
The proposed stadium site is land currently owned by the state of North Carolina, and it’s likely the ownership team would ask for it to be donated or leased for super cheap. This is similar to what Charlotte did with BB&T Ballpark and is a fairly common and cash-free way for local government to subsidize pro sports. The state legislature is looking at the Raleigh land now (and Mecklenburg County lawmakers are whining about it).
Charlotte’s MLS bid is headed by Marcus Smith, the president of Speedway Motorsports and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway. His father is Bruton Smith, who remains CEO of the company and is a billionaire. Deep pockets help in pro sports expansion. The family has also been identified as a possible buyer of the Carolina Panthers when current owner Jerry Richardson passes.
Raleigh’s team is led by Steve Malik, who founded of Cary healthcare tech startup Medfusion but has since handed off day-t0-day control. He sold the company in 2010 for $91 million and then bought it back three years later for practically nothing. With some of the windfall, Malik bought the minor league soccer team Carolina Railhawks in 2015 and immediately started preparing for an MLS bid, rebranding the team North Carolina FC.
Bonus: Malik was born in Wales and says he launched his high school soccer team in North Carolina in the 1970s when it wasn’t even a thing in the Southeast.
Malik is a soccer dude and would be much more focused on the MLS team than Smith would be able to be.
Existing soccer infrastructure
Charlotte has the Independence, a minor league team with a small but rabid fanbase. The team has moved around the city to different venues, and this year is in the Matthews Sportsplex.
However, Charlotte has hosted major soccer games of international significance at Bank of America stadium and has proven the city can bring out tens of thousands of fans in the right scenario.
The Raleigh area is already home to a giant and soccer-specific facility: WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. It’s been the home of minor league soccer since 2002 and has also hosted U.S. Men’s and Women’s national team games. It’s not suitable for a Major League Soccer team, though.
Raleigh’s minor league soccer team, North Carolina FC, currently draws about 4,500 people per game. Attendance at Charlotte Independence games has historically been less than a third of that, though they did manage to sell out their opening game at the 2,600-seat Matthews Sportsplex.
And don’t forget, the UNC women’s soccer team has been a powerhouse for generations.
Charlotte already has a lot of big name sports, which could end up working against a potential MLS team. Will families that already have Panthers PSLs or Hornets season tickets pony up for soccer games as well?
The Raleigh area is better known for college sports at this point. There’s room for a pro franchise to rally around. Charlotte’s allegiances are already linked with the Panthers.
And even though North Carolina’s NFL and NBA teams are both in Charlotte, Raleigh still has more pro sports titles — the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
Charlotte has just in the past few weeks tried to rally the public around its MLS bid under the name MLS4CLT.
A rally held in First Ward Park last week drew several hundred people and got mixed reviews on whether the turnout was disappointing or not. The city’s elected officials turned a cold shoulder to Major League Soccer brass.
Raleigh’s hashtag/slogan — #919toMLS — is about as unimaginative.
But on the other hand, the video from the Raleigh guys is badass and got me hyped and I don’t even live there. I’ll give their graphics a tiny leg up as well.
Writers who attended rallies in both Charlotte and Raleigh say the Triangle’s event was much better.
Raleigh is estimating a total impact of $2.8 billion over 17 years, and 2,000 jobs.
The Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority put the estimated impact of an MLS team at about $41.5 million per year. This would be some $700 million over the 17 years Raleigh used.
But all these studies are bogus anyway, so who cares?
So we have a clear winner.
I think Charlotte will continue to draw huge crowds for international soccer games at Bank of America Stadium. Let’s host another one ASAP.
But by most objective measures, Raleigh appears to make more sense between the two North Carolina cities vying for a Major League Soccer team. At least right now.