Major League Soccer plans to add teams in two new cities this year and Raleigh isn’t one of them.
MLS announced Wednesday that Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento are finalists for the two expansion clubs the league will unveil on Dec. 6. Raleigh and Charlotte are among the 12 teams vying for four expansion spots, with the second pair of cities being announced at a later date.
North Carolina FC, a Cary-based team that plays in the United Soccer League, is the local franchise hoping to make the jump to the MLS. The team earlier this year proposed to build a stadium on state-owned land in downtown Raleigh and is waiting on elected officials to weigh in.
The team released a statement Wednesday morning, saying that it remains in contention for the two expansion spots that will be announced at a later date.
“North Carolina FC remains committed to pursuing a MLS franchise and is continuing to work diligently to secure a stadium in downtown Raleigh,” the NCFC statement says. “Momentum for the project continues to build and we look forward to continued dialogue with the community and with MLS as we demonstrate why the Triangle should be home to a franchise.”
Raleigh, St. Louis, Charlotte, San Diego, San Antonio, Phoenix, Tampa and Indianapolis also submitted bids. Charlotte, St. Louis and San Diego have had various hangups and were not expected to be finalists.
Steve Malik, NCFC’s owner, said Wednesday he wasn’t surprised by the four cities chosen and that he didn’t expect Raleigh to be a finalist this year considering the fact that he’s collaborating with state government.
“We’ve been engaged with the state and have worked through a whole lot of due diligence questions they have,” Malik said. Meanwhile, “we’ve had an ongoing dialogue with MLS, so there was nothing surprising at all about it.”
NCFC wants to build a $150 million stadium and entertainment complex at Salisbury and Peace streets. The 13-acre site is part of the sprawling state government complex that includes 450,000 square feet of office space.
Malik said state officials have seemed more concerned with moving government employees and buildings than the specifics of his stadium.
“There’s a lot of concerns about tearing down buildings and moving people. Frankly, the stadium aspect has been very positive,” Malik said.
“People see the benefit of it and what it could do for the north end of Raleigh from an economic development standpoint,” he continued. “There’s also about an additional $5 million in income taxes from the additional jobs that the state would see as a positive.”
Raleigh can learn from the four finalists, Malik added, saying that they stand out because they’ve consistently filled stadiums for soccer games at various levels. In Nashville, for instance, he said U.S. men’s national soccer team games at Nissan Stadium, which seats 69,143, were sold out.
U.S. women’s national soccer team games at NCFC’s home stadium, WakeMed Soccer Park, in Cary have sold out, Malik noted.
But “we’re selling out at 10,000 and they’re selling out an NFL stadium,” he said.
Among the criteria the MLS considers, here’s why Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville and Sacramento may have made the cut:
▪ Proven ownership: Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert is behind the Detroit bid and Sacramento has the backing of two minority owners of the Sacramento Kings and the CEO of the San Francisco 49ers.
▪ Community support: While Detroit and Nashville don’t have teams and would be true expansion franchises, Cincinnati averaged more than 21,000 fans per game this year in the USL while Sacramento sold out every home game (11,529) and was second in the league in attendance.
▪ TV market size: Detroit is the 13th-largest TV market in the nation and third-largest without an MLS team. Sacramento (20th) is the fourth-largest without an MLS team.
▪ Stadium plan: Nashville’s and Cincinnati’s city councils approved plans to build stadiums. Sacramento’s stadium plan is privately financed. Detroit plans to use Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions.