MLS Speed Dating: Minneapolis, Sacramento, or Las Vegas?

Major League Soccer (MLS) commissioner, Don Garber, let everyone know that the league wanted to expand to 24 teams by the end of the decade, 2020. After new franchises were awarded to Orlando (Orlando City SC), New York City (NYCFC), and Atlanta, and assuming that David Beckham gets his ducks in a row in Miami, there is only one more slot remaining if the league holds to Garber’s goal of 24 clubs. Two weeks ago, ownership groups from Sacramento, Las Vegas, and two from Minneapolis met with MLS officials at the league’s headquarters in New York City to make their cases as to why their city deserved the final expansion bid. Following the presentations from the three suitor-cities, Garber stated,

We had productive expansion meetings today with representatives from Las Vegas, Minneapolis and Sacramento. We were impressed with the presentations made by each group. Following our MLS Board of Governors meeting on December 6, we will provide an update on the expansion process and timeline.

The league will have no shortage of variables to consider before they make their final decision on which city the final club will call home. We cannot possibly cover all of the things that the league needs to consider in one shot, but we can certainly take a look at some of the key consideration points.

Ownership Group

The group powering the bid for Sacramento is led by Kevin Nagle, Warren Smith, and Larry Kelly, who together comprise the chief ownership group of the first-year USL Pro club Sacramento FC. They are also joined by other local investors that include the owners of the NBA franchise in the area, the Sacramento Kings. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, a former NBA player, joined the Sacramento FC ownership group in New York to make their pitch to MLS officials.

The Las Vegas contingent is led by a car dealer by the name of Justin Findlay, Managing Partner of Findlay Sports and Entertainment. Findlay is joined by Blake Cordish of The Cordish Companies, an entertainment and real estate firm.

Minneapolis has two groups of investors vying to bring an MLS club to the twin cities metro area. One is lead by Zygi Wilf, owner of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings franchise. The other group is lead by current Minnesota United FC, an NASL club, owner Bill McGuire, who is joined by the Pohlad family, who own the Minnesota Twins MLB team, as well as Glen Taylor, owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves NBA franchise.

Socioeconomic Differences

data from census.gov

data from census.gov

Understanding the potential market for attendance, marketing, and community engagement for the future club is key for the league as it considers these three cities. In terms of population, Las Vegas has the upper hand, with just over 600k occupants, according to 2013 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. However, one might be able to argue that Minneapolis has the highest potential audience if you were to include neighboring St. Paul in the consideration set, as the smaller metro area is connected by both bus and light-rail train within the twin cities public transportation system – after all, they’re called the Twin Cities for a reason. The Twin Cities combined, would equate to a market of approximately 695k.

Another factor to consider is what the average person’s disposable income would be in a potential MLS market. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Las Vegas ranks number one in median household (HH) income as well, at $52,601. The other two markets are not far behind sin city in this area, with the average HH bringing in $50,661 and $48,881 in Sacramento and Minneapolis respectively.

Stadium

One of the biggest, yet not often thought about, factors to consider for potential MLS markets is stadium accessibility for fans. In other words, how centrally located the stadium is – how far fans have to travel to watch their club. Part of past clubs’ failures, like the Miami Fusion, has been in part due to having the stadium located too far away from the core of the fan base – a key reason why the league has been harping on having an easily accessible downtown stadium as a must for any expansion bid proposal.

Las Vegas had initially set out with aspirations to build a 24,000 seat soccer-specific stadium with some help via public funding, but that proposal was shot down by the city council. A new proposal, with help from city officials, will include a package deal that will bundle the stadium with the development of up to 4 parks and a parking garage.

Sacramento FC have enjoyed very strong attendance numbers, and broke the USL PRO single season total attendance record, previously held by Orlando City SC, back in July of this year with a sell-out crowd of 8,000, bringing their total season up to over 118k. The ownership group have set their sights on a downtown location for a new +20k seat stadium near the city’s Railyards, and have signed a letter of intent on the land.

Minneapolis, with two ownership groups, has two potential options for a stadium for its MLS club. The Vikings contingent are proposing that the club play in the new dome stadium being built for the NFL team, which would include a curtain that would close off about 40k seats, making the size of the stadium more conducive to an MLS crowd. The McGuire-lead group is proposing that a new soccer-specific stadium be constructed for the new MLS club in a downtown location, potentially by the Twins and Timberwolves stadiums.

Soccer Interest in the Market

There obviously exists an interest in the sport for all three of these cities, or else they would not have made the final three potential expansion markets considered by MLS. It is extremely difficult to rank cities against each other to gauge the level of interest in the sport – but it’s fun to speculate. A real estate research site, Estately, attempted to provide such a ranking for each state, by grading each state on seven different criterion, including social media factors, youth clubs, professional clubs (including MLS, NASL, USL Pro, & NWSL), and internet searches.

obtained via estately.com

obtained via estately.com

It should be noted that the cities in question cannot necessarily be tied to the rank of the overall state in this analysis, however, it is interesting to at least look at the results and take them with a grain of salt. In this case, Sacramento would be tied to the 7th most soccer-interested state in California, which is almost assuredly driven by the Los Angeles market, with the LA Galaxy and formerly Chivas USA already in MLS (Chivas contracted after the 2014 season).

There are many factors for MLS leaders to consider when choosing the next market for their growing league, and these are but a few of them. Only after the December 6th Board of Governors meeting will we know more about the process and timeline on when these three MLS-hopeful cities will get an answer that they’ve been waiting for.

 

What do you think about all of the different factors that are on the table for MLS to consider when deciding its final expansion city? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.