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MLS commissioner Don Garber: Support for St. Louis expansion team ‘remarkable’

Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber met with business leaders in St. Louis to gauge the city's support for an MLS franchise. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

ST. LOUIS — The commissioner of Major League Soccer, in St. Louis on Monday to meet with regional business leaders, said a local ownership group is just steps away from securing an expansion team.

Commissioner Don Garber lunched with more than two dozen chief executives and business owners from some of the largest companies in St. Louis, and called the show of support for a local franchise “fantastic and remarkable.”

“I think it’s fair to say that it was among the largest or, certainly, the most prominent group of ‘C-level’ leaders in any visit that I’ve had,” Garber told the Post-Dispatch, speaking of the chief executives.

Still, he said, proposed owners Jim Kavanaugh, chief executive of World Wide Technology, and Enterprise Holdings’ Taylor family must nail down corporate sponsorships, and quickly, to prove to the league’s other 27 owners that the St. Louis market can support a team.

“It would really help their bid if they had stadium naming rights and a jersey sponsor in place,” Garber said. “So there is a specific level of financial corporate support.”

Garber’s visit on Monday was part sales meeting, insiders say, to help Kavanaugh and the Taylors sell sponsorships, and part status check. The commissioner will report to league owners on progress in St. Louis. The stopover — Garber flew in for breakfast with four of the Taylors on Monday morning before lunch at the Four Seasons — signals a deepening interest in St. Louis as the league looks to pick its next expansion city. The league owners meet in April in Los Angeles for their spring meeting, and could make a decision that soon.

Both sides see some urgency: Garber’s visit suggests concerns that the St. Louis owners haven’t announced the big-dollar deals.

And Carolyn Kindle Betz, one of Jack Taylor’s granddaughters and a face of the local effort, said outright on Monday that, if this effort failed, her family would not try again.

“We’re going to do it now,” Kindle Betz said. “We will probably not be here in a year.”

The league is looking to expand to 28 teams from 24 this year. Three of the slots are taken: New teams are set to kick off in Miami and Nashville, Tenn., in 2020 and in Austin, Texas, in 2021.

At least eight cities — Charlotte, N.C.; Detroit; Las Vegas; Phoenix; Raleigh, N.C.; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; and St. Louis — have expressed interest in the last spot.

Sacramento has recently emerged as St. Louis’ biggest threat. In January, Beverly Hills billionaire Ron Burkle bought into the city’s bid. League officials called Sacramento “a strong expansion candidate.”

And, as with the addition of the Taylors to St. Louis’ bid, Burkle’s associates said that the billionaire grocery-store magnate wouldn’t have gotten involved if the Sacramento effort was speculation.

Garber called the competition good for the league.

“Life is good when you have options,” he said. “I believe that there are many cities in our country today that can support an MLS team. We’ve got to get this last one over the finish line and then sit down and figure out what happens to those cities that were not part of the 28 that we set out to finalize a couple of years ago.”

This is the third time Garber has visited St. Louis in connection with an expansion bid. The first came as the region fought to keep the National Football League’s Rams in St. Louis. The effort failed, but the idea to build a stadium that could be used by a soccer team started the conversation with MLS. Almost two years ago, a second attempt, headed by Kavanaugh and current Schnuck Markets President Dave Peacock, skidded to a stop when St. Louis city voters turned down a request for $60 million in public stadium financing.

Garber said on Monday that he does not feel burned by any of the past attempts. Instead, he said he believed they set the groundwork for this one.

“We were missing a handful of things that have really changed in the last year or so,” Garber said on Monday, Kindle Betz sitting to his left. “The first is the involvement of the Taylor family. The second was a real confirmation on the stadium project.”

The league is confident that fans here will support a team. And the corporate showing at Monday’s lunch impressed him, Garber said. It included executives from the natural gas company Spire, electrical supplier Graybar, shoe company Caleres, financial powerhouses Edward Jones, Wells Fargo Advisors and Stifel Financial Corp., plus some of the region’s largest employers, such as BJC Healthcare and SSM Health.

But the last leg of the stool — corporate dollars — is key, Garber said.

“That’s why I’m here today,” he said. “We very much need to see the corporate community get behind this team and show their financial support.”

Kindle Betz said the league has not asked her team to present at the April meetings.

But she said they’re ready.

(c)2019 the St. Louis Post-Dispatch first published this story Monday, March 11.
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