There are two bids for a Major League Soccer team from North Carolina. Charlotte's has received a lot of attention. But there's also a bid up the highway in Raleigh. And there are significant differences, beginning with competing social media hash tags: #MLS4CLT and #919toMLS .
Professional soccer has been growing fast in the Raleigh/Durham area, since Steve Malik bought the minor league Carolina Railhawks about 16 months ago. Since then, he renamed the team North Carolina FC - for football club, and is building an amateur and professional soccer system under the club's banner. He purchased the top women's pro team in the U.S. last month, and moved it here as the North Carolina Courage.
Now he has his sights set on Major League Soccer.
“We have a history of pro soccer in the Triangle - 20 years - and so there's been a lot of support for the sport,” Malik said. “It's the sport that most of the youth play in this area. And we want to represent the state.”
Triangle soccer traditions include NCAA championships at UNC and Duke and a long list of players who went pro and played in the World Cup. An MLS team would be the crown on the youth-to-professional organization Malik is building. And he notes it would give fans another pro sports team to cheer for - along with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes.
“We don't have quite as many other professional options as Charlotte has, and it's just a natural fit,” he said.
Charlotte's bid is led by Marcus Smith of NASCAR track owner Speedway Motorsports. He focuses on the city's history as a professional sports hub, where you'll already find the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and minor league hockey and baseball.
“Putting in an MLS franchise in Charlotte would be such a huge statement for Charlotte and I think would be a fantastic place for MLS to really put their flag in the Carolinas in a way that wouldn't be matched anywhere else,” Smith said in a video released when the bid was submitted Jan. 31.
A MONEY GAME
The barriers are high. MLS wants owners who can afford the 150 million dollar franchise fee, as well as an established soccer fan base and a shiny new stadium. And there are other factors, said ESPN soccer writer Doug McIntyre.
“One is going to be the market size, the television market size. I think that's really important,” McIntyre said. I think the league wants to expand its footprint as much as it can geographically. I think there are certain areas of the country they want to be.
The league would like another team in the Southeast, though McIntyre said that probably won't weigh as heavily as other factors, like the ability to pay the expansion fee.
The Smith family fits that bill. Speedway Motorsports owner Bruton Smith is a billionaire with years of experience in racing.
Malik made his money in health care and is a relative newcomer to the sports business. He said as the Raleigh/Durham bid develops, he's looking for additional investors.
McIntyre said MLS will be scrutinizing prospective team's finances.
“It's a high bar for entry, so a deep-pocketed owner that cannot only pay that expansion fee but also operate his club, or her club, at a loss probably in the beginning, is really important,” McIntyre said.
STADIUM PLANS CRITICAL
The biggest challenge may be coming up with a stadium plan. MLS prefers modern stadiums with at least 20,000 seats, in or near downtowns.
That's why Charlotte's bid calls for a new $175 million soccer stadium near uptown, to be built with private and public money. Mecklenburg County has approved a deal that calls for building a new stadium on the site of the current Memorial Stadium near uptown. The county would put in $44 million of the cost.
North Carolina FC hasn't announced a stadium plan. Its teams currently play at 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. But Malik says they've submitted "multiple options" and are looking at several sites in the Triangle.
Malik's bid has mostly stayed out of the headlines. Unlike Charlotte and some other bidders, Malik hasn't campaigned for public money - though that could be an option.
“I think it's an advantage to be able to move forward without some of the ... challenges that come with public support.
Malik said he'll announce a stadium plan within a couple of weeks.
Altogether, a dozen cities are bidding for the two new teams – all now fine-tuning their sales pitches for the MLS. Tampa Bay, where the Rowdies once played; San Diego; Sacramento; and St. Louis all have strong bids. But ESPN's McIntyre isn't ready to rule out Charlotte and Raleigh.
“If they can show that they have all the boxes checked, they have a stadium plan, they have the ownership group in place, they have the support, the grassroots support, I don't see any reason why they can't put together a strong bid,” he said.
MLS officials will be visiting all the bidding cities in the coming months, and making their picks after that. New teams start play as soon as 2020.
MLS Expansion Tracker website, http://www.mlssoccer.com/topic/expansion/2017/expansion-cities-bids
Jan. 31, 2017, NorthCarolinaFC.com, "North Carolina Football Club Submits Bid for Major League Soccer Franchise."