When Major League Soccer announced in early 2017 that it was expanding from 24 to 28 franchises, the prospects didn’t look good for a Las Vegas team.
The city was rebuffed in a 2015 bid for a team, officials missed a deadline for 2017 expansion applications, and pro sports had yet to take root in the city.
The soccer landscape changed April 18 when MLS announced it would ultimately expand from 27 teams to 30.
At least one more expansion team is available, pro sports are booming in Las Vegas and the city has a plan to upgrade the United Soccer League Championship division Lights FC franchise and Cashman Field to MLS-ready.
However, like 2015 and 2017, there’s multiple cities competing for a franchise in North America’s top soccer league. Lights FC owner Brett Lashbrook, who has agreed to sell the team if the bid is successful, said last week that Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman will release more details at Wednesday’s city council meeting. She plans to make a pitch to MLS owners next month.
Here’s a breakdown of the cities and groups vying with Las Vegas:
■ Current soccer status: Sacramento Republic FC of the USL Championship division (tier two, one step below MLS)
■ Pursuit: The city has been chasing an MLS franchise since it doubled the USL’s single-game attendance record with a crowd of 20,231 in its first match in 2014. The group has gone through a number of ownership adjustments and was assured of an MLS team in 2015. But the MLS wasn’t satisfied with an evolving ownership group.
■ Owner: MLS’s stance changed earlier this year when venture capitalist and NHL Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle signed on as majority owner.
■ Stadium: The site for a privately funded 25,000-seat, $226 million facility on an old rail yard site awaits the first shovel.
■ Outlook: Now that Burkle is involved, the city is all but assured of the 28th franchise. An announcement could come as early as July.
■ Current status: Saint Louis FC of the USL Championship division
■ Pursuit: St. Louis was thought to be an ideal site for an MLS team since the league’s inception in 1996. Yet it didn’t have a serious bid until the NFL’s Rams moved to Los Angeles two years ago, just before the latest call for MLS expansion candidates.
■ Owner: The ownership group changed a few times until the Taylor family, which owns Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and Saint Louis FC owner Jim Kavanaugh combined on a bid that included no public funding for the stadium. It will be one of the first ownership groups majority-controlled by women.
■ Stadium: The 22,500-seat facility would be built in downtown St. Louis. Earlier proposals for public funding received heated opposition.
■ Outlook: MLS commissioner Don Garber said this round of expansion would focus first on Sacramento and St. Louis, which is expected to receive the 29th franchise.
■ Current status: Charlotte Independence of the USL Championship division
■ Pursuit: North Carolina’s most populous city was on a list of 12 potential expansion cities in February 2017 but wasn’t named one of four finalists. Billionaire hedge fund manager David Tepper then took over as owner of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers in May 2018 and said in January he’s had “ongoing discussions” with MLS.
■ Owner: Tepper, the richest owner in the NFL with a net worth of $11.6 billion, has made his MLS intentions clear. The president he hired to run the Panthers, Tom Glick, helped launched MLS team New York City FC in 2015.
■ Stadium: There is no firm stadium plan yet, but Tepper and the Panthers may have already tipped their hand. In an email survey sent to select Panthers fans in April, the team asked for “feedback regarding a potential expansion Major League Soccer team in Charlotte that could also call Bank of America Stadium (which houses the Panthers) home.”
■ Outlook: The lack of an official stadium plan makes it hard to judge Charlotte’s chances, but Garber mentioned it as one of four future expansion possibilities in April along with Las Vegas, Phoenix and Detroit.
■ Current status: Detroit City FC of the National Premier Soccer League (unofficial fourth tier)
■ Pursuit: Detroit was previously one of four finalists for a MLS team in 2017. Two of the other three finalists, Nashville and Cincinnati, received teams. The third, Sacramento, now appears close to getting one. Is it Detroit’s turn next?
■ Owner: Detroit’s bid largely has been led by two NBA owners: Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers) and Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons).
■ Stadium: Detroit’s expansion bid fell apart in 2017 because it decided against building a soccer-specific stadium. Instead, Gilbert and Gores hoped to hold games in Ford Field, home of the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Their studies this fall to add a retractable roof to Ford Field to appease MLS were shown to be unfeasible.
■ Outlook: Until MLS changes its mind about Detroit’s stadium situation or the city comes up with a different plan, Motor City appears miles away from first-tier soccer.
■ Current status: Las Vegas Lights FC of the USL Championship division
■ Pursuit: The next attempt to bring the MLS to Las Vegas may involve Golden Knights owner Bill Foley and the new Raiders stadium. According to two independent sources, Foley has been in discussions to do just that over the past several months. Additionally, the city will explore an agreement with The Renaissance Companies Inc. on Wednesday to construct a stadium and mixed-use development on 62 acres of land, including Cashman Field.
■ Owner: Details of Foley’s plan are sketchy, but Seth Klarman, a 62-year-old billionaire hedge fund manager, is behind Renaissance’s potential deal. He has experience in sports as a partner in Fenway Sports Group, which owns MLB’s Boston Red Sox and the English Premier League’s Liverpool FC.
■ Stadium: If it’s not the new Raiders stadium, an alternative agreement up for discussion involves a potential 22,000-25,000-seat stadium that also can host “other types of sports and entertainment events.”
■ Outlook: If Foley leads the charge, the odds are vastly improved. But it’s all in the details.
■ Current status: Phoenix Rising FC of the USL Championship division.
■ Pursuit: Phoenix Rising FC bid for an MLS expansion team in 2017 and tried again before the league announced Sacramento and St. Louis would get the first chances. The team’s time may be coming.
■ Owner: Chinese billionaire Alex Zheng and former Kona Grill CEO Berke Bakay are part of the ownership group.
■ Stadium: Phoenix Rising FC already has plans for a $250 million, privately financed MLS stadium in Tempe, Arizona. The 21,000-seat venue has some details to finalize before a groundbreaking is undertaken.
■ Outlook: Phoenix is the largest market on this list and has plans for a stadium. It has to be considered a leader for the 30th MLS team. It is Las Vegas’ biggest competitor.
■ Current status: Indy Eleven of the USL Championship division
■ Pursuit: The Indy Eleven first announced it would attempt to join MLS in 2017 but they were passed over. Since then, the team has been working toward building a new stadium to strengthen its bid.
■ Owner: Indy Eleven expanded from one owner to eight in January as part of its push for a new stadium and MLS franchise. All eight have Indiana ties.
■ Stadium: Indy Eleven received a public subsidy at the end of April to help build a 20,000-seat, $150 million stadium in Indianapolis. The subsidy is not contingent on MLS expanding to the city.
■ Outlook: Garber didn’t list Indianapolis as a market the league was considering in April. That isn’t a good sign.
■ Current status: North Carolina FC of the USL Championship division
■ Pursuit: The two North Carolina cities submitted a combined bid for an expansion team in 2017 but were not a finalist. They are now competing with Charlotte, which is a slightly bigger media market.
■ Owner: Steve Malik, who also owns the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League. He is the founder and executive chairman of Medfusion, a health software company.
■ Stadium: Malik is pitching a mixed-use project built around a 22,000-seat stadium in southeast Raleigh. He is waiting to see if he will receive public money (he is asking for $330 million) for the project.
■ Outlook: Like Indianapolis, Garber didn’t mention Raleigh-Durham in April. Charlotte seems to be the more likely candidate in North Carolina.
■ Current status: San Diego Zest FC of USL League Two (fourth tier) and ASC San Diego of NPSL (unofficial fourth tier)
■ Pursuit: San Diego had a committed investment group (including former U.S. men’s national team star Landon Donovan) try to bring a MLS team to the city, but its stadium plan was defeated at the ballot box in November.
■ Owner: It remains unclear whether Donovan’s team will press on after its proposal was voted down.
■ Stadium: A 35,000-seat venue is being built to house San Diego State football, so sharing the stadium with an MLS team is possible, but a lot would need to be ironed out to make that a reality.
■ Outlook: Without a stadium plan, MLS isn’t coming to San Diego. If the city figures something out, it could put itself back in the picture.
Bill Bradley is sports editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-387-2909 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @billbradleyLV on Twitter. Ben Gotz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.