Sports

Will Panthers’ new owner change MLS expansion equation in NC?

North Carolina FC president Steve Malik unveils a rendering of a proposed $150 million stadium and entertainment complex during a rally of soccer fans at City Market to promote Raleigh as a MLS expansion city on Wednesday.
North Carolina FC president Steve Malik unveils a rendering of a proposed $150 million stadium and entertainment complex during a rally of soccer fans at City Market to promote Raleigh as a MLS expansion city on Wednesday. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Raleigh and Charlotte were both praised by the the MLS commissioner Tuesday, and the race to be the state’s best candidate for MLS expansion may be competitive again.

Speaking at the MLS All-Star Game in Atlanta, commissioner Don Garber had nice things to say about Raleigh as a potential expansion market – and, since the Carolina Panthers changed hands, Charlotte as well.

Charlotte had fallen well behind Raleigh in the race to be one of the two teams MLS plans to add over the next few years to bring the league to 28 teams, but Garber said David Tepper’s purchase of the Panthers and his open interest in bringing an MLS team to a renovated Bank of America Stadium (or its replacement) certainly caught his attention.

“We’re intrigued by Charlotte,” Garber said. “We’re well aware of David Tepper’s interest and obviously that’s a great development for the city, for their football team, for their fans. The fact that he’s interested in MLS is a positive. We’ve also had lots of interest from Raleigh. Steve Malik who owns the NWSL and the USL team in that market is here this weekend, he’s a big close friend of the league, and is focused on perhaps MLS in that city. So it goes into the hopper to try to figure out how the path to 28 gets realized.”

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New Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper is about to usher in a new era for the franchise. Chuck Burton AP

Garber also had this to say about hedge-fund billionaire Tepper, who bought the Panthers from Jerry Richardson for $2.3 billion: “I have enormous respect for David. Everybody in the world of business does. He’s been doing a great job trying to hit the ground running on the facility front and getting engaged with the Panthers. I’m sure if that interest continues we’d be very interested in talking to him.”

Raleigh, led by Malik and North Carolina FC, and a stalled Charlotte bid unaffiliated with Tepper were among 12 cities that applied for MLS expansion franchises last summer, with the first two being awarded to Nashville and Cincinnati. Along with the long-delayed David Beckham franchise in Miami, which finally appears to be a reality, that will bring MLS to 26 teams. The pace to get to 27 and 28 appears to have slowed.

“We’re going to add two more teams. We’re not in a rush,” Garber said. “We’ve got lots of cities and every time I mention one, somebody calls up and says, ‘You’ve got to mention me.’ We’ve got a lot of cities that you’re well aware of that are bidding for those teams. And we haven’t established a specific timetable. We do want to lay out what the path to 2026 is in MLS. We want to be fully expanded by that point. We’ll finalize that timetable shortly.”

Malik said Wednesday that the relaxed pace of the next round of expansion is good for North Carolina FC, which is still continuing to bring together the various constituencies needed to proceed with the downtown Raleigh stadium that is, more or less, essential to the expansion bid. Visible progress has been scant, although Malik said he expected the process to accelerate this month and into the fall.

Renewed competition from Charlotte could potentially be more a help than a threat in that regard.

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North Carolina FC president Steve Malik speaks to soccer fans during a rally at City Market to promote Raleigh as a MLS expansion city on Wednesday. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

“Charlotte having a new owner for the NFL that keeps talking about MLS, that’s a good reason for us to get going as a community and pull together what we need to get done,” Malik said. “The level of competition from Charlotte makes it more urgent for us to get moving.”

Malik flew straight to Atlanta from Miami, where the NC Courage won the inaugural Women’s International Champions Cup. He ate dinner Tuesday night with a group of executives from UEFA, the European governing body for the sport, who were impressed that anyone could beat three-time defending European champion Olympique Lyonnais, which the Courage did 1-0 on Sunday in the title game. Being able to trumpet that success to the MLS community hasn’t hurt Malik’s expansion profile, either.

“Just this week, being around the MLS folks and everyone knowing how well the women are doing, that’s helpful,” Malik said. “Being able to run a solid franchise, that’s helping us. It’s more than solid. You stick your chest out and say you’ve got the best women’s club in the world, and then they go out and have a great performance.”

And while Courage players and coaches were careful to put their victory in perspective, with Lyon on a preseason overseas tour instead of in midseason form like the Courage, Malik had no such reservations.

“I’ll more than stake a claim,” Malik said. “I’ve been sticking my chest out all week. They’re more humble than I am. I made that claim. They’re the ones backing me up.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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