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Las Vegas seeks 30th MLS franchise, but key questions remain

And then there was one.

Monday’s announcement that Sacramento was awarded Major League Soccer’s 29th franchise leaves one spot open before the league hits its stated goal of 30 teams. Two groups in Las Vegas want that spot. But so do cities like Charlotte, North Carolina; Indianapolis; San Diego; Phoenix; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The city of Las Vegas is 141 days into a 180-day negotiating window with The Renaissance Companies Inc. — which is backed by billionaire Seth Klarman — for a proposal to build a new stadium near downtown that could house an MLS team. Golden Knights owner Bill Foley also wants a franchise.

An MLS representative said Tuesday there is no timeline to announce team No. 30.

Here are three questions that remain about Las Vegas’ MLS chances.

1. How will the two local plans come together?

There’s still much to be decided on both proposals.

The city and Renaissance Companies talked for 17 months before launching the negotiating window, so their conversations should have few surprises. But questions remain, chief among them how much public money would be used to build the new stadium.

“We believe Las Vegas is a dynamic sports market on the rise with an established soccer fan base,” Renaissance chairman Floyd Kephart said in a statement. “Under terms and within the time frame of our exclusive negotiation agreement with the city of Las Vegas, we are presently working closely with a number of stakeholders to develop an application that meets, and in our view exceeds, the criteria publicly set forth by MLS.”

The Knights’ plan also features scant details. Team president Kerry Bubolz said in August the organization wasn’t going to discuss its bid much publicly, so it could “lay the groundwork the right way.” A Foley-owned franchise could play at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Raiders, or elsewhere.

“We continue to have discussions with league representatives on the possibility of bringing an MLS expansion franchise to Las Vegas and remain interested in the opportunity,” the Knights said in a statement.

2. Is Charlotte the city to beat?

As both Las Vegas groups continue working on their plans, they should keep an eye to the east.

That’s where Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is trying to acquire his own MLS team. Tepper, the richest owner in the NFL (with a net worth of $11.6 billion), wants to house a franchise in the Panthers’ digs: Bank of America Stadium.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in Las Vegas in July that the league prefers soccer-specific stadiums “all things being equal.” But Tepper’s deep pockets and ability to get additional funds could tip the scales in his direction.

The Charlotte Observer reported in September that Tepper may seek public money for stadium renovations, a practice facility and a team office.

“My sense is that Charlotte is in the lead for the 30th franchise,” said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis and a Forbes.com contributor. “They live in a market that is a huge soccer market from a fan and corporate standpoint.”

3. Will MLS really stop at 30?

If Charlotte does get the 30th franchise, Las Vegas shouldn’t panic. It’s possible it could get another chance.

Excluding Sacramento, the league has added 19 franchises since 2005. It’s hard to see why it would stop now. Garber told reporters Monday that the expansion fee for team No. 30 will be more than $200 million. The total amount of guaranteed player compensation in the league last season was around $283 million, according to MLS Players Association data from July.

Rishe said he thought MLS eventually will expand to 32 teams and that Las Vegas will earn one of those two spots. He said he didn’t know enough about the city’s bid, but Foley will give the league a lot to think about.

“My experience is that extremely wealthy and successful individuals that have already shown success in one sport, if they put together a plan, they usually get their way,” Rishe said.

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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