FC Cincinnati's MLS application is in, but how does it stack up against the other 11 cities?
Here's a look at the competition
Laurel Pfahler | WCPO contributor
7:04 AM, Feb 1, 2017
2:19 PM, Feb 1, 2017
CINCINNATI -- FC Cincinnati's application for Major League Soccer expansion consideration is in, but the second-year club is staying mum on the details of its submission.
President and general manager Jeff Berding said in a recent interview the club is "committed to bringing soccer to the highest level to this community" and was "very diligently working through the requirements as set by MLS."
But when asked specifically about a soccer-specific stadium proposal, he remained vague in his answer.
"We are working to fulfill all the requirements of the MLS application," he reiterated.
MLS commissioner Don Garber held a conference call with media in mid-December to announce the league's guidelines, timeline and fees for expansion; the league plans to add four or five more clubs over the next several years. It moves from 20 to 22 teams in 2017 with the addition of Atlanta United and Minnesota United FC, and Los Angeles FC is slated to join in 2018. Miami is supposed to be No. 24, and MLS wants 28 eventually.
A total of 12 cities -- Phoenix was added to the mix last week, and Indianapolis hopped in at the last minute -- will be vying for the remaining four spots, which will be determined in large part from the application process that was due Jan. 31. The first two teams will be announced by the third quarter of next year with plans for them to join by 2020 at a fee of $150 million.
Garber said in his conference call that there are three main criteria: A committed ownership group and supportive market (size, fan support, geography, corporate support and TV market) are the two most important factors for expansion clubs, followed by a comprehensive stadium plan that needs to be club-controlled.
Here is a look at the breakdown of all 12 groups who submitted applications Tuesday:
About the club: The Charlotte Independence has played in the USL since 2014 but ranked among the worst in attendance last year -- 1,375 fans per game -- despite finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Ownership group: Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith launched his own campaign to bring an MLS franchise to Charlotte. He brings capital, experience and contacts in the sports and entertainment industries to the table. His father, Burton Smith, who founded Speedway Motorsports and Sonic Automotive (one of the nation's largest auto dealerships), has a net worth estimated at $1.5 million. He owned part of a minor league baseball team, the Kannapolis Intimidators, and has publicly expressed interest in purchasing the Carolina Panthers franchise when it becomes available. Jim McPhilliamy, owner and managing partner of the Charlotte Independence, is not currently tied to the Smith family but could stay on board in some capacity should the MLS bid go through.
Market: Geographically, Charlotte adds a team between D.C. United and Atlanta United, which are roughly 700 miles apart. It is a Top 25 television market (No. 22) and houses Fortune 500 companies with sponsorship potential. It has a young demographic and a fan base that shows up for large international games. However, the Charlotte Independence has had some of the lowest attendance in the USL the last two seasons in a temporary stadium at Ramblewood Soccer Complex, which leads to a question of whether the fan support will be there. Other local sports teams have done reasonably well, though. The NFL Panthers averaged 73,792 fans (eighth of 32 teams), the NBA Hornets averaged 17,485 fans last year (18th of 30 teams) and the Charlotte Knights, the local minor league baseball team, averaged 8,974 fans per home game last summer. WalletHub.com ranks Charlotte No. 46 among its list of best soccer cities in the U.S., based on 51 key metrics -- ranging from the minimum season-ticket price for a game to stadium accessibility to the number of championship wins.
Stadium plan: Last week, Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to approve spending $43.75 million in taxpayer money to help fund a $175 million stadium in Elizabeth, but plans hit a roadblock when Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts canceled a meeting Friday to discuss a matching investment by the city. The proposal was for a 20,000-seat stadium on the edge of uptown that now houses rarely-used American Legion Memorial Stadium and which would likely lead to redevelopment of about 60 acres along the edge of the Elizabeth neighborhood. Smith hopes that in giving city officials more time, the proposal will still go through eventually.
About the club: FC Cincinnati is preparing for its second season after a memorable debut in 2016 when it smashed USL single-season and single-game attendance records en route to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference.
Ownership group: An impressive cast is led by American Financial Group co-CEO Carl Lindner III, whose family was estimated to be worth $1.7 billion in 2014, making it the 130th richest family in America at the time, according to Forbes. Eight other investors also joined Lindner in his FC Cincinnati venture, including George Joseph of Joseph Automotive Group, Jack Wyant of Blue Chip Venture Co. and Scott Farmer of Mason's Cintas Corp.
Market: FC Cincinnati took the soccer world by storm last year with its startling attendance figures coming right out of the gate. The club averaged 17,296 fans, ranking better than five MLS franchises and 16th among all levels in the U.S. and Canada, and that doesn't even include the 30,187 fans that attended the club's first-round playoff game or the crowd of 35,061 that attended a friendly against English Premier League side Crystal Palace. More than 9,000 season tickets have been sold for Year 2, and Cincinnati seems to be out-proving its market. The city ranks last among the 12 expansion cities for television market, checking in at 36th overall, but TV deals were already in place for the first season and could be expanded this year to include road games. Cincinnati also is home to 10 Fortune 500 companies, which is more per capita than New York City and provides for plenty of sponsorship opportunities, and Forbes ranked it No. 15 on its 2016 list of top cities for young professionals.
Stadium plan: FC Cincinnati recently poured $2 million into widening the pitch at Nippert Stadium, where it shares a home with the University of Cincinnati football team, but the club has been looking at other options for a soccer-specific venue as stipulated by Garber. No publicly known plan is in place, and club ownership likely would need to foot the majority, if not all, of the bill, since taxpayers already have been weighed down by deals for the Reds and Bengals. Nippert at least will meet MLS standards in the short term, but Garber indicated he wants teams No. 25 and 26 to have soccer-specific stadiums ready by 2020, so the lack of a concrete plan could put Cincinnati further down the list to start.
About the club: Detroit has a semi-pro National Premier Soccer League team, Detroit City FC, which drew a record crowd of 7,410 to Keystone Stadium last May, and the Michigan Bucks, a Premier Development League team, but the MLS bid is separate from both.
Ownership group: Detroit's bid is backed by NBA owners Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons) and Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers). Gores, the founder of Platinum Equity, had an estimated net worth of $3.9 billion, according to the 2015 Forbes list of World's Billionaires. He became owner of the Pistons in June 2011. Gilbert, founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans Inc., is estimated in 2017 to be worth $5.1 billion, according to Forbes. He also has been owner of the American Hockey League's Cleveland Monsters, Arena Football League's Cleveland Gladiators and the NBA Developmental League's Canton Charge.
Market: Detroit is the third largest media market without an MLS team, 13th overall, and already home to four major professional sports teams with the NFL Lions, NBA Pistons, MLB Tigers and NHL Red Wings. The fact that its fourth-tier-league soccer team draws standing-room-only crowds on weekends is an encouraging sign there could be room for one more pro team. Garber said in a press conference in Detroit last April that corporate sponsorship will be the key, to make sure there is enough financial support for a fifth team in the city. Detroit has three Fortune 500 companies, but another eight in the surrounding region. The city's soccer history includes failed ventures in which either the franchise or the league folded. In 2003, Dan Duggan, owner and chairman of the Michigan Bucks, was part of a group that launched a campaign to bring MLS to metro Detroit, but no investor stepped up to build a soccer-specific stadium. Soccer is the most popular sport in the state, according to a press release put out by Gores and Gilbert upon announcing their proposal, with 92,000 registered players in Michigan.
Stadium plan: Gores and Gilbert announced in April a $1 billion investment at an unfinished jail site in downtown Detroit for a 25,000-seat stadium. The proposal, complete with finished designs, also included other developments, like restaurants, a hotel and offices. However, Wayne County is planning to issue a request for bids to finish the jail starting Feb. 10, after which no alternative proposals (stadium or otherwise) will be accepted, and there is no pending sale to Gores and Gilbert, according to the Detroit Free Press.
About the club: The Indy Eleven made its debut in the North American Soccer League in 2014 and plays its games on the campus of the Indianapolis University-Purdue University Indianapolis. They averaged 8,396 fans last year.
Ownership group: The club has commitments from a group of owners who live and work in Central Indiana and bring successful business backgrounds, strategic values and financial resources. Keystone Realty Group founder and CEO Ersal Ozdemir leads the charge for a move to MLS as the majority owner of the Eleven. He is joined by National Bank of Indianapolis and IBJ Corp Chairman of the Board Mickey Maurer, President and CEO of Heritage Jeff Laborsky, CEO of Elwood Staffing Mark Elwood and Mohr Auto Group founder and owner Andy Mohr, and additional investors are expected to jump on board in the near future.
Market: Although Indy fared poorly on the field in its first two seasons, support was strong. The Eleven led the league for attendance in 2014 (averaging 10,465 fans a game) and 2015 before falling to second, behind MLS-bound Minnesota United, last season. Indianapolis ranks as the 27th largest media market in the U.S., ranking seventh among the MLS expansion applicants. There are six Fortune 500 companies, and sponsorships from companies such as Honda (the team’s first Corporate Partner and primary jersey sponsor), McDonald’s, Finish Line, Anthem, Allegion and Community Health Network, already have been lined up, along with dozens of others. Indianapolis, with a population just over 820,000, is the second biggest in the Midwest and 14th largest in the U.S. The median age is 34. A crowd of 42,000 fans attended an international matchup between Chelsea and Inter Milan in 2013.
Stadium plan: Indianapolis first drew interest from MLS in 2013 but fell out of the conversation when stadium legislation stalled in 2015. The Indiana house and senate couldn’t come to an agreement on whether to apply usage taxes toward a new facility or use state funds to upgrade the Eleven’s current home at Carroll Stadium, but ownership is now confident that taxes generated by a new stadium would get the political traction required at the state and city levels. A downtown location with convenient access for motorists and pedestrians – and within walking distance of shopping, dining and other activities -- has been identified for a 20,000-seat stadium built with soccer as the focal point, according to IndyEleven.com. The stadium will be a public-private partnership with ownership said to be kicking in a significant amount of private money.
About the club: Unlike most other markets getting looks, Nashville has never fielded a pro soccer team at any level, according to The Tennessean, but the USL expansion club Nashville SC is slated to begin play next year.
Ownership group: John Ingram is the sole owner and investor but has deep pockets as a member of one of the region's most prominent business families. He is the chairman of Ingram Industries, a privately held company with interests in book publishing, barge and river transport and information technology that netted $2.3 billion in revenue last year. The family is worth around $4.1 billion, according to Forbes. Ingram also is part of a 28-member organizing committee of business leaders, executives and officials dedicated to bringing an MLS club to the city, including Titans president and CEO Steve Underwood and Predators president and CEO Sean Henry. Nashville SC is run by former MLS executive Court Jeske, and though Ingram doesn't have a stake in the USL club, he is working closely with the ownership group.
Market: The capital of Tennessee makes for the 29th-largest media market and 36th most-populous metropolitan area, and although considered more of a music town, Ingram believes it will soon be known as a sports town. The Titans and Predators have done well drawing crowds, but are still relatively new, and the market would fill a significant hole in the MLS map between Atlanta and Columbus. The U.S. national team has done well there, too. Its four games between 2006 and 2015 averaged 31,998 fans, which was enough to attract one of the Americans' CONCACAF Gold Cup matches this summer. Ingram told SI.com that Nashville ranks second among the original 10 identified MLS expansion candidates in millennial and foreign-born population growth. There were six Fortune 500 companies in the area as of 2015 and it has the fastest-growing Gross Metropolitan Product outside Silicon Valley and Austin, Texas. WalletHub.com ranks Nashville No. 61 on its list of best soccer cities.
Stadium plan: There isn't much of one at the moment, at least publicly, but Ingram was a little late into the expansion race. Nashville SC still hasn't even finalized its stadium for 2018. Ingram and his committee have a "stadium vision" calling for a 25,000- to 30,000-seat venue in the city's "urban core." There have been reports that the city's Fairgrounds site, which includes concert and event space, a flea market and a speedway, is under consideration. A potential partnership with Vanderbilt that may or may not include its football team also has been discussed. Ingram told SI.com there are "several sites being evaluated" and that additional details would be available in the next month or two.
About the club: Arizona United SC rebranded as Phoenix Rising FC this offseason under new ownership and begins its fourth USL season this year. The club averaged 1,470 fans last year and finished 13th in the Western Conference.
Ownership group: An ownership group led by Berke Bakay, president and CEO of Kona Grill, advertising executive Tim Riester, JLL Managing Director Mark Detmer and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy bought Arizona United SC last year. The group of investors is made up of experienced CEOs, private-equity financiers, successful entrepreneurs, real estate experts, surgeons and global leaders in the entertainment industry.
Market: Phoenix is the second largest media market without an MLS franchise, at No. 12 overall, and is the 12th largest metropolitan statistical area in the United States with a population of over 4.5 million residing around Phoenix, Scottsdale and Mesa. However, pro soccer at lower levels hasn't quite seen the success of some of the other markets. Arizona United averaged 3,304 fans in 2015 and had half that last year before new ownership stepped in to re-energize the fan base. Despite more than 59,000 fans attending a U.S. national team friendly against Mexico at University of Phoenix Stadium in 2014, the city rates No. 85 on WalletHub.com's list of best soccer cities in America. Phoenix has five Fortune 500 companies. The gross domestic product of the Phoenix Metropolitan Area was $215 billion in 2014, 15th largest among metro areas in the United States. Forty percent of the population is Hispanic and the median age is 32.
Stadium plan: Phoenix Rising is opening a new 15.8-acre soccer-specific training and 5,000-seat stadium facility, built in collaboration with the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and the Solanna Group -- the firm developing the property under a commercial master lease -- on land bordering the cities of Tempe and Scottsdale. The privately funded project is expected to be ready when the season begins in March, but ownership will need to expand its plans to bring the facility to MLS standards. No new plans for another project have been made known.
About the club: Rebranded from the Carolina Railhawks, North Carolina FC plays in the North American Soccer League. They averaged 5,058 fans last year but haven't made the playoffs since 2012.
Ownership group: Entrepreneur Steve Malik doesn't have the billions that back other ownership groups, but he is plenty committed and plans to take on more investors. He made his millions launching, selling and then buying back Medfusion, a healthcare communications and IT solutions company, and in early 2016, he decided to venture into the pro game and purchased the NASL's Carolina Railhawks from Traffic Sports. Last month, he rebranded the team and announced his MLS intentions, and in early January, Malik finalized the purchase of the Western New York Flash, now the N.C. Courage women's soccer team.
Market: Raleigh's only major sports team, the Carolina Hurricanes, hasn't found much traction since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, and the region is better known for its college basketball; however, soccer is deeply embedded along Tobacco Road. UNC laid the foundation for the three-time Women's World Cup national team while winning 21 NCAA titles, and on the men's side, UNC (two) and Duke (one) have won NCAA crowns, and the 40-year-old Capital Area Soccer League is home to more than 10,000 youth players. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill Combined Statistical Area (CSA) boasts around 2.1 million people, which would rank around 29th in the country, and as a media market, it stands 24th. But among CSAs with more than 1 million people, only those anchored by Houston and Orlando grew faster in 2010-15. There's not much of a Fortune 500 presence, but a December SmartAsset study ranking 527 American markets by growth in employment rate, GDP and migration concluded that Cary, which is just west of Raleigh, is the country's No. 2 "boomtown." Raleigh ranks 10th. Forbes recently called Raleigh the third best city in America for young professionals.
Stadium plan: Malik has been working to secure a location for a suitable stadium, and he told SI.com he has narrowed eight potential sites to three, all of which would be presented to MLS as options in NCFC's expansion application. He plans to fund construction of the stadium, along with any future partners, but he will seek public support for infrastructure, such as road improvements or parking. Malik said at NCFC's unveiling that he was targeting a venue with at least 20,000 seats, and Gensler, an architectural firm based in Washington, D.C., has been hired to design the stadium. Gensler designed Los Angeles FC's Banc of California Stadium, which is under construction, and the renovations at Toronto FC's BMO Field.
About the club: The Sacramento Republic debuted in the USL in 2014 and set USL single-game (20,231) and single-season (182,107) records en route to winning the league championship. Attendance hasn't risen above 12,000 since, but the Republic finished first in the Western Conference last year.
Ownership group: Spearheaded by club co-founder and president Warren Smith and lead investor Kevin Nagle, who founded healthcare and pharmaceutical benefit management company EnvisionRX Options. Nagle also owns a share of the Sacramento Kings NBA franchise, and the Jed York family, which owns the San Francisco 49ers, also has a significant minority stake.
Market: Sacramento is the 20th largest media market in the United States (third among the MLS expansion applicants), and it's the only Top 20 member with only one major league sports franchise, supporting the club's claim it is the most underserved pro sports market in the country. The Republic is a club with 9,500 season tickets sold and already seems to have checked many of the boxes on Garber's list. That said, sponsorships could be a question in a market with no Fortune 500 companies. WalletHub.com ranked Sacramento No. 31 among the best soccer cities in America.
Stadium plan: In early December, the Republic unveiled its plans for a new 19,000- to 22,000-seat MLS stadium on a plot of land in the 224-acre Railyards district just north of downtown, where a massive redevelopment project already has been approved by the city council. It will include a medical campus, offices, retail, more than 1,000 hotel rooms and parks -- which will be handled by the city while the Republic will finance construction of the arena. The club and city signed a term sheet in 2015, and work on the finer details is well underway, although a stadium naming-rights sponsor has yet to be secured.
About the club: The USL franchise St. Louis FC debuted in 2015 and last year drew 4,923 fans a game at the 5,000-seat Soccer Park. The club finished 8-10-2 and was 14th in the Western Conference table.
Ownership group: A large ownership group is led by Boston-based investor Paul Edgerley, who grew up in Kansas City and owns a piece of the Celtics and AS Roma. He serves as Bain Capital's managing director, and invested in a Jamba Juice franchise run by Dave Peacock, the former president of Anheuser-Busch, current chairman of the St. Louis Sports Commission and one of nine minority partners. World Wide Technology CEO Jim Kavanaugh is the vice chairman of the ownership group and also holds a stake in the St. Louis Blues. WWT had revenue of $7.4 billion in 2015.
Market: St. Louis has a deep soccer history fostered by the litany of pros and internationals that hail from the region, the 30,000 registered youth players in the area and the 10 NCAA titles won by the SLU Billikens; however, it has lacked a top-tier pro soccer club since the NASL Stars moved to California in 1977. St. Louis is the 21st largest media market, the 20th most populous metro area and home to nine Fortune 500 companies. TV ratings weren't great for the 2010 or 2014 World Cups, but the city ranked No. 1 among U.S. markets for viewership of the 2015 Women's World Cup. The St. Louis Cardinals and Blues have done well, but the St. Louis Rams' departure seems to have left a void St. Louis FC could fill. WalletHub.com ranks St. Louis as the 24th best soccer city in the U.S. The U.S. national team attracted 43,433 fans to Busch for a World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent and the Grenadines in November 2015.
Stadium plan: An $80 million proposal for public financing for a new MLS stadium is dead, but a new $60 million plan has gained traction. The Board of Aldermen Ways and Means Committee just last week passed a proposal for a 20,000-seat (with room for expansion) stadium on a 24-acre site just west of the city's historic Union Station, which is undergoing its own redevelopment and eventually will include restaurants, retail, an aquarium and a Ferris wheel. The stadium would be made available for other events and would lie just one mile from Busch Stadium and even less from the Blues' Scottrade Center. Originally, the proposal was voted down, but the Ways and Means committee agreed to waive half of the city's entertainment tax on ticket sales at the stadium, which would bring $7.5 million to $12 million for the city general fund for the next 30 years. The latest proposal for public financing came with two amendments and the project still could hinge on some state funding.
About the club: San Antonio FC began play last season in the USL and finished 10th in the Western Conference. It ranked fourth in the league with an average attendance of 6,170.
Ownership group: Spurs Sports & Entertainment, which also owns the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, is a consortium of investors led by chairman and CEO Julianna Holt and her husband, Peter Holt. The Holt family owns Holt Cat, which is the country's largest Caterpillar dealership. It exceeded $1.6 billion in revenue in 2014. The Holts took over the Spurs in 1993 and now hold a controlling interest in SS&E, which also includes Aramark, AT&T, Clear Channel Communications, Valero Energy and others among its investors. SS&E operates the county-owned AT&T Center and in addition to the Spurs and SAFC, it owns the AHL's Rampage (the affiliate of the Colorado Avalanche), the WNBA's Stars and the NBA D-League's Austin Spurs.
Market: San Antonio doesn't have a ton of pro soccer history to fall back on but has done well in recent years with attempts at the NASL and USL level. It is the 25th most-populous metro area in the U.S. but ranks only 31st as a media market. There were five Fortune 500 companies headquartered there as of 2015, but that number is nearly doubled by Dallas and dwarfed by Houston. San Antonio also seems closely connected to Austin, which is 80 miles north, and combined, they have a population of some 4.4 million while still growing. According to Forbes, as of 2013, San Antonio was enjoying the largest increase (9.2 percent over three years) of new residents in their 20s in the country. Meanwhile, San Antonio is the seventh-largest Hispanic media market in the country, a number MLS will find appealing. Austin ranks 22nd. WalletHub.com ranks San Antonio No. 47 on its list of best soccer cities in the U.S.
Stadium plan: SAFC's Toyota Field is considered among the best lower-tier soccer stadiums in the country. The publicly owned facility opened in 2013 and seats around 8,000. It's located some 12 miles northeast of downtown San Antonio and just off the highway that leads up to Austin. Though it doesn't fit MLS' typical preference for "urban core" venues, the easy access to Toyota Field from downtown on the I-35 and I-410 highways combine to create a decent stadium site that now needs only some upgrades and renovations. The city of San Antonio and Bexar County put $18 million toward the purchase of Toyota Field in November 2015, while SS&E chipped in $3 million and signed a 20-year lease. The stadium's original tenant, owner Gordon Hartman and the NASL's Scorpions, proposed in 2014 a $38-$45 million expansion that included the addition of 10,000 seats, 18 more suites, a roof and more, but it is unknown whether SS&E's stadium plans mirror Hartman's.
About the club: San Diego saw a pair of National Premiere Soccer League (NPSL) teams start play last year, the Albion Pros SC and North County Battalion, and did well in the stands for fourth-tier status, but are not connected to the expansion bid.
Ownership group: Michael Stone of FS Investors leads a group that includes former Qualcomm President Steve Altman and Peter Seidler, part of the Padres ownership group.
Market: San Diego is the 28th largest media market (ninth among the 12 bidding markets), but has consistently ranked among the top markets for World Cup soccer ratings (it had the nation's second-highest TV ratings for the men's World Cup final in 2014) and has a passionate fan base. The Club Tijuana Xolos of Liga MX also have a strong following north of the border. The city has a void to fill with the Chargers recently announcing their decision to relocate to Los Angeles, which Garber said last month would improve its chances for MLS expansion. WalletHub.com ranks San Diego as the 124th best soccer city but had little history to base that on with no professional soccer above fourth-tier status in the area. With more than 1.37 million people, San Diego is the eighth largest city in the United States and the second largest in California. The median age of the population is 35.6 with more than a quarter under 20 and only 11 percent over 65, and 33.4 percent of the people are Hispanic.
Stadium plan: Investors last week unveiled plans for a $200 million soccer stadium as part of a $1 billion redevelopment of the Chargers' former Qualcomm Stadium site, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. The redevelopment on the 166-acre site would include a new stadium, projected to open in 2020, that would contain between 20,000 and 30,000 seats and would be used by an MLS team and the San Diego State college football team. The plan also would include a 55-acre park, housing and commercial buildings, and would include setting aside 15 acres for an NFL stadium to be built in the next five years, if a team wants to relocate there. The investors will begin a campaign to get official approval of the project -- either from city council or a public vote next year.
About the club: The Tampa Bay Rowdies opened play in the North American Soccer League in 2010 but join the USL this season. They won the NASL championship in 2012 but have missed the playoffs every year since. The Rowdies averaged 5,878 fans a game in 2016.
Ownership group: Prominent local real estate developer Bill Edwards had never seen a soccer game when he purchased the club in 2013, according to SI.com, but apparently saw it as an opportunity to fix something broken that people seemed to love. Thus his intentions for a reborn Rowdies club. He's interested in bringing on more investors and made news recently with the hiring of former MLS and U.S. Soccer Federation executives Brett Lashbrook and Forrest Eber, who are highly regarded for their work overseeing Orlando City's transition from USL to MLS.
Market: MLS has failed here before. The Tampa Bay Mutiny was one of the charter clubs when MLS opened play in 1996 but never broke 14,000 fans and was contracted in 2001. However, it is notable that Tampa/St. Pete is the largest media market without an MLS franchise, checking in at No. 11 overall, and it is the 18th most-populous metro area. Edwards also has emphasized the market has changed since the Mutiny's days -- residents aged 20-34 (the millennials MLS covets) now make up around 19 percent of the region's population, according to a 2015 study, and that number is only expected to rise. The region was home to only four Fortune 500 companies as of 2015. Support for the Tampa Bay Bucs, Tampa Bay Rays and Tampa Bay Lightning has wavered over the years, but Tampa and St. Pete have hosted four Super Bowls, three Final Fours (one men's, two women's), two Frozen Fours and last month's College Football Playoff final, among other big events. WalletHub.com lists Tampa No. 183 on its list of best soccer cities, but St. Petersburg is 39th.
Stadium plan: The Rowdies already have refurbished seats, the video board, locker rooms and more at Al Lang Stadium, a converted baseball stadium that sits on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront, but Edwards is committed to putting $80 million or more into expanding the stadium from around 7,200 seats to 18,000. He told SI.com that he intends to ask for no public money and that the city will be on the hook only for some infrastructure upgrades such as sewage. Working with ICON Venue and Populous, both of which have been involved in the construction and/or renovation of numerous MLS stadiums, the Rowdies plan to reconfigure Al Lang so one corner remains open toward the Bay and the other toward the city skyline. Edwards has purchased a nearby parking garage to boost the number of spots and said he is financing a special local election this spring, which is required when there's any significant construction or lease agreement on the city's waterfront property. Al Lang is next to the Mahaffey Theater and the Salvador Dali museum and is a few blocks from St. Petersburg's downtown dining and nightlife district on and around Central Ave.