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Bruton Smith

Bruton Smith

Almost 60 years ago, an ambitious fellow from Stanly County saw stock-car racing as a good business bet. Seemed crazy at the time, and it took awhile, including Charlotte Motor Speedway’s bankruptcy in the early ’60s, for Oakboro native Bruton Smith to make racing pay off. But his tenacity and business acumen propelled NASCAR into a major force in North Carolina’s economy. It also made him boatloads of money, along with the car dealerships that helped finance his sporting interest.

So it’s ironic that Charlotte’s efforts to land a major-league soccer team are now spearheaded by Mr. Smith, 89, and his son Marcus, CEO of Speedway Motorsports. Marcus’ brother Scott is CEO of Sonic Automotive, the nation’s third-largest auto dealership chain. Both are publicly traded, though the family has voting control despite holding a relatively small fraction of the shares.

Their interest is a sure sign that soccer has finally, after decades of promise, become a legitimate U.S. business opportunity. Some savvy investors, most prominently Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, spotted soccer’s potential many years ago. Pro soccer teams have become hugely popular among millennials in Kansas City, Portland, Seattle and many other U.S. cities.

But it’s a been a tough slog. Many Americans are willing to invest thousands of dollars in their kids’ soccer careers, but balked at spending $10 or $25 to watch the pros play. Charlotte’s pro soccer team, the Independence, calls it a great night if they can attract 2,000 fans. They play in a solid, second-tier league.

Lionel Messi

Lionel Messi

I’ve had a long love affair with soccer, spending way too many weekend hours for years reffing youth and adults. I’m biased in agreeing with most of the rest of the world: There is no better sport. Soccer requires a mix of stamina, creativity, guile and coordination, marking a huge contrast with the brutality of American football. The world’s finest player of the last decade, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, is 5 foot, 7 inches tall.

As parents who’ve spent many weekend hours shuttling their kids across the state to games will affirm, North Carolina is a terrific soccer state. Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro each have top-notch clubs, while smaller cities increasingly sport talented coaches who help make their teams competitive. College programs including UNC Chapel Hill, Wake Forest University and UNC Charlotte thrive.

I’ve not heard of the Smith family being part of the state or local soccer community. But there’s no time like the present.

Major League Soccer, the top U.S. league, won’t put teams in both Charlotte and Cary because the cities are too close. MLS now has 24 teams and will add two more in the next year. At least 10 other cities are seeking a franchise. A $150 million expansion fee assures that big-time investors will be involved. A decade ago, franchises sold for less than $20 million.

The Triangle’s effort is led by Steve Malik, owner of Cary-based medical-software maker Medfusion and the North Carolina FC minor-league team. He’s plenty wealthy, though not at the Smith family’s level.

Ten years ago, Charlotte business leaders thought NASCAR had a great future and promoted a downtown Hall of Fame that has been a financial failure. The sport appeals little to millennials, and it is losing favor as a branding item to promote the Queen City.

Pro sports trends change, like everything else. Ten years from now, will North Carolina’s soccer franchise be more valuable than its NASCAR track and NFL team? Don’t be surprised.

Images courtesy of Delaney Searles and Cathy Martin | Business North Carolina
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