Tuesday, September 26, 2023

NCtrend: Kicking off

by Harrison Raby
More than 115,000 people attended two nights of soccer matches featuring some of the world’s best teams at Charlotte’s Bank of America Stadium in July, a showing that gave Jim McPhilliamy confidence in his quixotic drive to lure a Major League Soccer franchise. What once seemed like a long shot now looks like a real possibility, says McPhilliamy, who leads an investor group that owns the Charlotte Independence soccer team. “Based on meetings that I’m having, I think it’s more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if,’” McPhilliamy said while attending the MLS All-Star game in Denver in July. “The league views Charlotte as a very viable contender to get a team, especially if we have a stadium deal in place.”
That’s a big if, and then there’s the issue of finding someone who can afford the $100 million-plus entry fee associated with soccer’s top league. But the Charlotte Hornets’ first owner, George Shinn, and the Carolina Panthers’ Jerry Richardson proved overcoming skepticism is part of the path to professional sports in the state’s biggest city. McPhilliamy’s efforts appear to have catapulted Charlotte ahead of Raleigh as the most likely Tar Heel location for MLS, says Ray Alley, publisher of Greensboro-based Southern Soccer Scene. Charlotte’s large contingent of professionals in their 20s and 30s, who are pro soccer’s major fan base, gives the city an edge, he says.
McPhilliamy, who has consulted with ownership groups of various U.S. sports organizations, expects to hand over the reins to a wealthy investor able to afford the hefty franchise fee. He spent two years as senior vice president of brand marketing for the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, and then in 2011 he bought rights to the Charlotte Hounds, a Major League Lacrosse team. He entered the soccer pitch last September, buying rights to a United Soccer League franchise that had been held by a group that owned the Charlotte Eagles. The USL and North American Soccer League, which includes the Cary-based Carolina RailHawks, are considered the top U.S. minor leagues. The RailHawks are seeking new ownership after its former president, Aaron Davidson, was indicted in May as part of the international corruption scandal sweeping professional soccer.
The MLS is adding franchises in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Miami and Minnesota, putting the league at its desired 24 teams, so it’s likely to be at least five years before Charlotte could land a slot. That gives the team and local officials time to develop a soccer-specific stadium that holds at least 20,000 people, as preferred by MLS. Demolishing and rebuilding the 79-year-old American Legion Memorial Stadium near downtown is a possibility. For now, the Independence play at a temporary stadium at a complex in southwest Charlotte, where hundreds of soccer parents watch their kids’ games almost every weekend. Tapping that enthusiasm is the ultimate key to success for Charlotte’s MLS hopes.

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