CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It was a gloomy Tuesday morning in Charlotte as rain came down on the Queen City, but nothing put a damper on the party held at the Mint Museum.
After a year of rumors, reports and scuttlebutt, it is now official. Major League Soccer is coming to Charlotte and the team will begin play about 14 months from now for the 2021 season.
MLS commissioner Don Garber joined Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles and the owner of the expansion team, David Tepper, to announce Charlotte as the 30th MLS team.
“Today is a historic day for the Queen City,” Garber said. “It is my pleasure to welcome Charlotte to the MLS.”
Added Tepper: “It’s going to be one big party all season long for soccer in Charlotte. Every game, a party.”
The yet-to-be-named club will play home matches in Charlotte’s Uptown at Bank of America Stadium, which is also home to the Tepper-owned Carolina Panthers of the NFL. Built in 1996, it’s one of the oldest NFL stadiums, but the city of Charlotte pledged $110 million toward the MLS bid and some of that money will go toward stadium upgrades. Among planned improvements are a center tunnel, outfitting for soccer camera angles and new locker rooms.
Neither Garber or Tepper would say if adding a roof was in the plans for the stadium. Headquarters for the club will be located in east Charlotte at the former site of the Eastland Mall.
“Our expectations are really high for this team. We would have not made the decision to play in Bank of America (Stadium) if we didn’t think that David Tepper and Tom Glick and the rest of the group could fill that stadium,” Garber said. “This stadium will be MLS ready. … We have taken a bit of a risk to play in a large football stadium. Part of that was the location for the stadium and this idea that, if we were able to get that kind of fan support in Atlanta, could we get that support in Charlotte and could Tom Glick and David put a plan together that would convince us they would do that? And they did. The plan is right.”
The event announcing the team was packed with reporters, MLS staff, Charlotte city council members and even a handful of screaming fans – some of whom have already formed a supporter’s group, “The Mint City Collective.”
The event began with an introduction from United States women’s national team legend Heather O’Reilly. Recently retired after helping the North Carolina Courage win the NWSL title, the UNC Chapel Hill graduate did her best James Taylor impersonation singing “Carolina In My Mind” before introducing Garber.
The longtime MLS commissioner didn’t sing along with O’Reilly, but it was clear he’d been thinking about, and scouting, Charlotte for some time.
“All those international games are not a secret. Many of them we’ve promoted and we’ve done that for over a decade. We wanted to be sure there was a vibrant soccer market that has fans interested in attending matches,” Garber said. “We have a critical understanding of who’s attended those matches, so we have a pretty good indicator of what it should look like going forward.
“This is a soccer market. It has one of the most competitive and vibrant youth soccer markets anywhere in North America, and it’s been home to some of the best men’s and women’s programs in all of college sports.”
Charlotte will host the Mexican national team for a friendly in March and will also host another International Champions Cup match this summer. This past June, an announced crowd of 59,283 fans attended a double-header of Gold Cup matches, featuring Mexico vs. Martinique and Canada vs. Cuba. An announced 34,902 fans turned out for an ICC friendly between Arsenal and ACF Fiorentina in July. Then in October, 30,071 fans watched the U.S. women’s national team top South Korea during the team’s World Cup victory tour.
In July 2018, Tepper finalized his purchase of the Carolina Panthers from Jerry Richardson. Before that, the 62-year-old billionaire hedge fund manager had owned a 5% stake of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers.
Tepper broke an NFL record by ponying up $2.275 billion for the Panthers. His MLS team didn’t cost nearly that much, but he still set a record for the largest MLS expansion fee, paying $325 million, according to the Washington Post. Garber wouldn’t confirm the exact figure Tepper paid, but said Tuesday it was between $300 and $325 million. The recently-awarded expansion teams to groups in St. Louis and Sacramento each paid around $200 million.
“I was very much afraid that there was only going to be 30 teams, and I thought Charlotte was a good place for MLS,” Tepper said of the league. “It’s a free market. … I was hoping the price would be lower, but it wasn’t. It is what it is. It’s a great thing for this city.”
Tepper expressed desire in owning a soccer club and bringing MLS to Charlotte for more than a year. He’s also long had a love for the sport, coaching his kids’ teams for nine years.
Shortly after Garber made the official announcement, Tepper donned a Charlotte MLS scarf and went into his own rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” signing, “Since I came to Charlotte, I found a new place to live, It’s going to be the greatest city for MLS to be in.”
“David has been an incredible leader since he came to the city,” Lyles said. “He came here with a big vision and he’s followed through on it.
“He always keeps his word. He said we would have soccer, and here we are today.”
Shortly after seizing control of the Panthers, Tepper hired Glick to be the team’s president. Glick worked with Manchester City, helped launch NYCFC in 2015 and played a crucial role in Charlotte landing an MLS team. Garber said he’s known Glick for 25 years.
“This is an organization that really understands the business of sports. Tom Glick helps a lot,” Garber said. “This is a guy that’s been around our sport for a decade.”
Charlotte has yet to sign players. It doesn’t have a name or a kit, either. But the way Tepper talked Tuesday made it seem like there would be no problem for the team to transition into MLS. He wants to win and he wants to win quickly.
“We’re going to try and get this MLS Cup to Charlotte really soon,” Tepper said as supporters roared.
Picking a fight with Atlanta
During his speech Tuesday, Garber spoke to fans and mentioned a rivalry with Atlanta United FC. As soon as the name of the Georgia city rolled off his tongue, a chorus of boos echoed from the collection of supporters. Knowing how important rivalries are to the league, Garber smiled.
It’s clear Charlotte fans won’t have much love for the club four hours down I-85.
“Rivalries are such a big part of driving soccer passion everywhere around the world,” Garber said. “We’ve capitalized on that over the last number of years. I think you’re going to see a real, passionate rivalry between these two teams. The southeast is a soccer hotbed.”
Tepper didn’t just elude to a rivalry; he tried to start a fight.
“That other city, down the road to the west,” Tepper said of Atlanta. “Charlotte is hot. We’re the hot city. Screw that other city.”
Atlanta United shares a few things in common with the Charlotte MLS team. Both are owned by men who also own NFL teams, both will play games in NFL stadiums, both are in the southeastern region of the U.S. and both play in cities with a high population of transplants.
The Five Stripes were successful right away, shattering attendance records and winning three trophies in their first three seasons.
“They didn’t just fall into it. They launched a good brand. They really focused on putting a good team on the field and hiring a great staff. They were very, very thoughtful about the fan experience and created the right environment for their supporters,” Garber said of Atlanta. “That’s a good blueprint for Charlotte. Everybody likes to measure themselves against the most successful.”
— charlottemls (@CharlotteMLS) December 17, 2019
Stopping at 30?
In 2004, MLS had just 10 teams. It slowly, but steadily expanded over time and completed the 2019 season with 24 squads. But by 2022, the league will have 30 clubs.
Nashville SC and Inter Miami CF will join the league in 2020. Charlotte and Austin will field teams in 2021, and then Sacramento and St. Louis will take the pitch in 2022.
MLS expansion has been going at a breakneck pace. And while the value of the league has gone up – displayed by the price Tepper paid – Garber indicated the league may be done growing, at least for a little while.
“We have expanded rapidly over the last number of years. We have six teams coming in between now and 2022. That’s a lot of on-boarding and capacity that we need to manage. Not the least, seven new soccer stadiums that are coming online,” Garber said. “Life’s a long time. I don’t know what this league will look like in terms of its size when I’m no longer commissioner in 10 or five or 20 years from now, but for now we are focused on ensuring that we properly onboard the new expansion teams, get them successful, ensure that we’re managing all of that leading up to the World Cup in 2026.”
Several other cities had submitted bids, were tinkering with plans or discussing the possibility of MLS before Charlotte and Tepper impressively jumped the line. Among them were Detroit, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Charlotte’s northwest neighbor, Raleigh.
What set Charlotte apart?
“We needed a committed and visionary owner who believed in the sport, who believed in the city and was deeply committed to investing in infrastructure in and around the community. We needed a public partnership, that would ensure that the club and its stadium – now and in the future – would be an important part of the sporting landscape,” Garber said. “And third, we wanted to see the club embraced by the corporate community. It all started with David.”