CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For years, the question was how many. As Major League Soccer continued to evolve and energize, the debate centered around when enough would be enough. Over the past decade and a half, the league has enjoyed an unprecedented period of expansion that, just a few years prior, looked almost impossible.
That expansion brought more eyeballs as fans began to identify with their local clubs. That expansion brought international relevance as the league continued to take strides towards competing with its peers. And, perhaps most importantly, that expansion brought money. Lots of it.
On Tuesday, that expansion period concluded, for a while at least. The league's 30th team will settle in Charlotte, becoming the 20th club since 2005 to join MLS and the 14th new team to join the league since 2010. Two of those teams, Inter Miami and Nashville, will begin play in 2020. Charlotte will then join Austin in 2021 before St. Louis and Sacramento will kickstart in 2022. And then, MLS commissioner Don Garber says, that will be it.
Garber had previously left the door open for the league to reach 32 teams, and it was easy to see why. In 2013, New York City FC agreed to pay a league-high $100 million expansion fee to join MLS, and that record has been smashed each and every time a new team has been introduced. St. Louis and Sacramento commanded a $200 million expansion fee, but that pales in comparison to the reported $300 to 325 million paid by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper to bring Major League Soccer to Charlotte.
Part of the reason that fee was so high was simply market value. Billionaire Joe Mansueto recently paid $204 million for a 51% ownership stake in the Chicago Fire, setting some sort of benchmark. The league has grown rapidly over the last few years, and franchise values are indicating that.
The other reason? Scarcity. There were plenty of competitors for this slot, with Phoenix, Las Vegas, Indianapolis and Raleigh all listed among the hopefuls and, at some point, someone needed to win out. Those cities had a head start, as they lobbied MLS for years while Tepper's group really entered the picture just over a year ago. Still, the Carolina Panthers owner, worth an estimated $14 billion, says he knew that this may be his last chance to get into the league, and he was willing to pay for it.
"You have to understand how fast this process was in Charlotte," Tepper said. "From day one, it was important to get this process going. I was very much afraid that there would only be 30 teams here and I thought that Charlotte was an ideal place for MLS. When you talk about the last two entries, they were in this stage three years. This hasn't been a three-year process. This was 20 months ago or 18 months ago coming in here and saying what we're going to do and then trying to do it."
Tepper added: "I'll tell ya, I was hoping that the price would be lower but it wasn't! It is what it is and it's a great thing for the city and, in the long term, hopefully, it's a good business decision too. We'll see about that."
Garber wouldn't confirm the exact dollar figure, but he did reveal that the reported $300-325 million figure was accurate.
"I think it just speaks to value. Our teams are becoming more valuable," he said. "Part of that is the sport is growing and the revenues are increasing. Part of it is this idea that it has a limited supply in professional sports teams, generally. There's a limited supply of MLS teams, and David really wanted the club. All of that goes into negotiating."
So the question is, why stop now? If billionaires are willing to keep spending hundreds of millions of dollars for the right to enter the league, why not keep it going? The much-discussed idea of some sort of promotion and relegation may have been a pipe dream, but, financially, wouldn't it make sense to keep cashing these checks for as long as you can?
Not according to Garber. At this point, the commissioner says he feels comfortable with the 30-team mark and he's glad to turn the focus towards preparing those 30 for the boost that will come after World Cup 2026. The idea is to now have a period of stability following what has essentially been a 15-year period of constant change.
"We have expanded very rapidly over the last number of years. We have five teams, now six, coming in between now and 2022," Garber said. "That's a lot of onboarding and a lot of capacity we need to manage, not the least of seven new soccer stadiums that are coming online.
"'For life' is a long time. I don't know what this team will look like in terms of size when I'm no longer commissioner in 10 or five or 20 years from now, but right now we're focused on making sure that we properly onboard these expansion teams, get them successful in managing all of that leading up to the World Cup in 2026."
Charlotte will be the 30th and final club in the run-up to that World Cup, a period that is expected to bring exponential growth to soccer in North America. It's a city that fits exactly what MLS was looking for. Charlotte's population has nearly doubled in size to 2.6 million people since 2000 and the introduction of the North Carolina city gives MLS a presence in 19 of the top 23 media markets in the country.
There are still some hurdles, though. Garber says renovations need to be made to Bank of America Stadium, the home of the Panthers, where the new MLS team will play. Funding for that is still being discussed, with the city planning to invest over $100 million into the project.
The stadium has hosted big games before, including Mexico, Arsenal and the U.S. women's national team in 2019, but Garber does say changes need to be made to make the stadium MLS ready. "All of those international games were not a secret. Many of them we promoted," Garber said, adding that the league "quietly" tested the market, but now Charlotte is out of the testing phase.
The comparisons to Atlanta have come quickly. Owned by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, Atlanta United rapidly went from expansion team to powerhouse while playing in a football stadium of their own. Tepper is worth nearly three times as much as Blank and, like the Atlanta owner, also appears ready to do whatever it takes to make his team a winner.
Atlanta will be one natural rival, as will Nashville. Orlando and Miami are also close enough while Garber said even D.C. United could develop into something. The MLS commissioner has long said that organic regional rivalries are what makes this sport special and the continued growth in the southeast has backed that up.
Shortly after taking the stage, Tepper really ignited the mood. He talked of coaching youth soccer and his failure to lead his side to a trophy. He spoke of MLS Cup dreams and his disdain for Atlanta. "Screw that other city," he said. He discussed excitement, community and all of those other buzzwords. But, perhaps most importantly, he discussed a celebration.
"We're going to have one big party," he said, "all season long for soccer in Charlotte. Every game. Every game is a party."
Similar parties will happen in Miami, Nashville, Austin, St. Louis and Sacramento over the next few years as MLS's rapid expansion has reached its climax. Those left out, though, will be left waiting for an invitation that may never come no matter how much they'd be willing to pay for it.