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St. Louis’​ Path to an MLS Franchise is Tough, But Very Possible

St Louis has been a long-time sweetheart city for Major League Soccer. The MLS is the most rapidly expanding sports league in North America having just added 2 new franchises in Atlanta and Minneapolis for the 2017 season, 1 new franchise in Los Angeles in the 2018, a new franchise for the 2019 season in Cincinnati and baring any substantial roadblocks the MLS will invite in its 25thand 26thfranchises during the 2020 season adding Nashville and Miami into the fold.

At one point, before a pretty massive setback in the form of a failed public vote, St Louis was slotted to be one of those expansion cities. However, those plans were put on hold when the city opted to not use public funds to construct the necessary stadium requirements for an MLS team.

The MLS has already has expressed its interest in expanding even further with 28 teams being all but confirmed, and reports indicating as many as 30 being the long-term goal. The MLS has also directly indicated that St. Louis is a preferred landing spot for a franchise having stated after the initial failing vote for a stadium that “We continue to believe that with the right ownership group, stadium plan and support from the corporate community, St. Louis could be a successful Major League Soccer market.”

 

The interest from MLS is there. That being said, there are several other cities who are looking to join the MLS. Major League Soccer is a hot ticket for many cities and can be diagnosed as so by looking at the number of cities interested, with as many as 7 cities including St Louis vying to join the fray. Many cities and their ownership groups see it as an opportunity to bring a major league sports team to the city, an opportunity already rare occurrence from the other 4 major sports leagues, on a lower price tag. Cincinnati FC, which will become the newest MLS franchise this upcoming season will be paying 250 million for their new stadium to be built, and an expansion fee of 150 million. Compared to the newest major 4 league team the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL paid 500 million in expansion fee’s as well as costing 375 million in construction.

 

St Louis is an appealing location for the MLS, a strong soccer history and support from the local level, with well supported major league franchise and a very popular USL team in STLFC shows the communities support of the team to be clearly plausible. An ownership group that is primarily women, that would be a first for the MLS, that is very serious about its goal. All things seem to line up. However, it is important to consider this upstarted bid for a franchise comes in fairly late to the party despite its long history. Detroit and San Diego have been hot on the trials of a franchise for quite some time, and after a thwarted relocation attempt of the Columbus Crew to Austin, Texas, former Crew owner Anthony Precourt has made his intentions clear of bringing a franchise to Austin.

But the #MLS4theLOU ownership team is aggressively optimistic, ownership group member and current minority owner of the STLFC Jim Kavanaugh says the ownership group is hoping to “check significant boxes within 90 days”. An extremely accelerated target compared to other franchises who have been planning and organizing their successful bids in as much time as 4 years in the David Beckham backed Miami expansion’s case. One can assume based on the MLS’s typical requirements for expansion consideration that some of those boxes would include, pooling the funds for an expansion fee, lobbying the Board of Aldermen in St Louis city for a financial package, which would primarily consist of requested Tax Credits, and a more firm idea of what the stadium plans would like at their preferred construction location near Union Station, but nothing can be for sure until the ownership group makes a statement on the matter, a statement that could come as early as this week.

This optimism may be coming at the right time for the Taylor Family led MLS4theLou ownership group, a perfect storm of delays for other expansion bids came through. San Diego, in the recent midterm elections, voted to use space that the San Diego ownership group wanted to build their new soccer stadium on to build a university athletics facility, essentially ending the hopes of the MLS in San Diego according to the ownership group. Detroit recently vetoed plans to renovate Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions, to make it soccer assessable, making that bid less likely. Sacramento still does not have an owner or group of owners with deep enough pockets to be feasible, and MLS Commissioner Don Gurber says it’s unlikely more south-east teams join the MLS with the recent expansions of Nashville, Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando being an established team since 2015, meaning the bids from Charlotte and Raleigh are unlikely.

 

This leaves potentially St. Louis, which until recently was one of these teams in limbo, and Phoenix, Arizona. Phoenix is an interesting location as they have a very popular USL franchise, an interested owner in Chinese billionaire Alex Zheng, and a potential location. The only real deterrent is if the MLS is looking to compete with the other 4 major leagues in a mid-major market. The MLS seems to have no issue to compete with other major leagues in major markets like New York, Chicago, LA or Toronto but Phoenix is not major like that.

 

So, let’s examined what we know for sure.

  • The MLS has made it known they want to expand to 28 teams by 2022.
  • The MLS has not made it known when they will announce or accept bids for franchise #27 or #28, essentially making it “Whenever a strong bid comes through”
  • St Louis appears to be a location the MLS wants to be at
  • The ownership group behind the MLS4theLou is dedicated and wants to move quickly
  • Compared to other bids St. Louis’ is looking more and more appealing

The MLS4theLou bid is one that looks like it could be a very strong one if everything reported is true. They also seem to see the emerging opportunity and know that to be successful, fast action is going to have to come. But how fast? What will things look like for fans of this potential future franchise? Let’s look at some of the other franchises who expanded recently to get an idea.

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These three franchises currently exist in the MLS. All three share unique qualities of their expansions. Atlanta was fast-tracked by an impending stadium deal and an already established sports franchise owner. Minnesota was allowed a franchise on the bases of stadium plans, and access to a suitable interim location to play, and the Los Angeles franchise was motived by the MLS directly as a need to fill a void left behind by a folded team. The newest thee have their own set of specifics.

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Neither of these teams quite fit the bill of the situation St Louis currently finds itself. Cincinnati was a wildly successful minor league team who deserved a ‘call-up’ and Inter Miami FC is essentially completing the second half of its promise to the first global superstar to come stateside.

 

But Nashville provides an interesting case study for St Louis’ future,

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Nashville’s expansion shows a path for the St Louis ownership to take, it also shows that given a motivated group and having all the right things happen, a team can come very quickly. A similar sized city to St Louis went from statement of intent to expansion announcement in 15 months, and went from statement of intent to official bid in 5 months, proving the 90-day window is a doable feat.

 

What all of these case studies can truly teach is that above all else, there is one factor that motivates and legitimizes a bid. Have a stadium already built, or plans to build with the contingency of an interim in place quickly makes any of the bids for a franchise legitimate. Many in the MLS community expected Nashville to have a realistic bid when they first displayed interest, but with a real and approved stadium plan the quickly outpaced all of the less secure of stadium plans.

Nothing is guaranteed for an expansion bid in St Louis. Nothing has been promised by the MLS, and all the ownership group can do is try to execute its plan to the best of its ability. A plan we hope to know more about soon. That being said, St Louis could be a mutually beneficial landing spot for MLS franchise #27 or #28. There is a void left opened by the abandonment of the Rams, a long history and a strong backing of soccer in the city, and a proven fanbase full of people who will embrace a team with St Louis on their jersey. The road is tough, and things need to fall into place for MLS4theLou the succeed. But it is very possible, even likely that a team could find its way to playing under the arch in 2022.

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