Whether to help subsidize Charlotte’s billionaire Smith family’s effort to attract Major League Soccer is the hottest story in the Queen City this week.
In the Triangle, organizers of an effort to bag an MLS franchise are holding their cards much closer to the vest.
Key Charlotte business and civic leaders – including Michael Smith of Center City Partners and Tom Murray of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority — want the public to hand over $85 million in funding to the Smiths, who control Sonic Automotive and Speedway Motorsports, both Charlotte-based public companies. That would help pay for a $175 million stadium to be ready for the 2020 season. Lots of public opposition has emerged, prompting several local politicians to complain that the process is too rushed. Odds for a quick approval are doubtful.
In contrast, Raleigh-Durham’s effort to attract an MLS team is occurring with no details disclosed on the ownership group or public involvement in a stadium, says Curt Johnson, president of North Carolina FC, which is spearheading the regional effort. (FC means football club in soccer jargon.) He wouldn’t say how much the group is seeking from the public.
Both groups are focused on Jan. 31, when 10 cities are expected to file applications with MLS, which is adding two new franchises. No one thinks the N.C. cities can both win. But Jan. 31 is only the start of the process — the league will probably take months to make a final selection decision. So get ready for weeks of back and forth on this topic.
In an interview, Johnson declined to disclose any details on the Triangle group’s ownership team. As previously announced, Cary medical-software exec Steve Malik is the group’s leader. Johnson also wouldn’t give any details on the group’s request for public funding for a stadium.
The Triangle’s MLS effort is chaired by Jimmy Goodmon, part of the Raleigh-based family that owns Capitol Broadcasting, the Durham Bulls and other ventures, Johnson notes. Goodmon is also incoming chairman of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce, which is actively involved in the MLS pursuit with other local business groups. Johnson wouldn’t say if the Goodmons will be investors.
“Our process involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work. We’re working exceptionally hard to get a winning bid together.”
The Triangle’s key decision is whether to promote a new or expanded stadium at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, where the city controls a 10,000-seat stadium and 90 acres of adjacent land, or to develop a new stadium near downtown Durham or Raleigh. In any event, MLS is demanding an urban-oriented development for a stadium, Johnson says.
Charlotte’s big advantage is the wealth of the Smiths, estimated by Forbes to exceed $1 billion. Business North Carolina has published various stories over the years on contentious relations between the hard-charging Smiths and Charlotte-area public officials; whether hard feelings linger remains to be seen.
Raleigh’s greatest attribute may be its reputation as the state’s main soccer hotbed and connections developed with key MLS officials over the years. Johnson has worked for pro soccer teams in Kansas City and Raleigh for more than 15 years, giving him a greater depth of experience than anyone directly involved in Charlotte’s effort. The success of UNC Chapel Hill’s dominating women’s soccer team, frequent hosting of NCAA finals in collegiate soccer and the nationally touted Capital Area Soccer League have also contributed to the Triangle’s reputation.
So does big money or soccer connections matter most? History isn’t conclusive, because some wealthy investors have acquired MLS teams without soccer backgrounds, while other groups have benefited from their history in the sport, Johnson says.