As the NFL founders, cities are dangling football-style funding promises at pro soccer franchises.
Officials from Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, and Sacramento appeared in New York on Wednesday to place their bids with Major League Soccer for an expansion team. Slots for two teams are now up for grabs in the league’s plans to expand, so cities are lining up to lob promises of tax incentives for stadium construction at the MLS. Picture the mayors of each of these cities lined up for a free kick on goal.
Cincinnati, for example, has secured $200 million in private funds to build a stadium for FC Cincinnati, and the city has pledged up to $75 million in public money to pay for the infrastructure associated with a stadium. Nashville promises $25 million in tax dollars toward build-out costs for a $275 million Nashville Soccer Club stadium, which would be paid for through a public-private financing deal. Representatives for Sacramento Republic FC argued for a plan that would cost the city $46 million to realize a privately financed $226 million stadium.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Express would play on Ford Field, the home of the National Football League’s Detroit Lions, meaning that the proposed soccer team’s owners—who also own the Lions, the Detroit Pistons, and the Cleveland Cavaliers—would merely have to pony up the $150 million franchise fee plus some smaller costs in adjusting the existing stadium.
Various metro-area would-be soccer hooligans won’t have to wait long for an answer. Major League Soccer intends to announce its decision before December 19.
If this all sounds familiar—convoluted stadium-financing deals, half-hearted pledges about cost overruns, dispiriting expansion team logos—that’s because the stadium boondoggle is America’s favorite pastime. Professional soccer may have a mixed record as far as capturing the imaginations of American sports fans in recent decades, but it’s now eclipsing football in the rush for public giveaways. In this latest round, the play’s still the same, but cities have switched the game up.
Maybe that’s because no one likes the NFL anymore: not President Donald Trump, not Jerry Jones, and not television-viewing audiences, which have been walking away over the last couple seasons (although not as fast as they’ve fled network television in general). Revelations about the sport’s grievous toll on the brains of players are mounting, and the take-a-knee civil protests have alienated many a conservative fan. No football team has had it harder than the Los Angeles Chargers, a winning team that has struggled early this season to fill even half its seats at the 27,000-seat StubHub Center—a soccer arena.
How the Chargers will find takers for its planned, $2.6 billion, 70,000-seat stadium in Inglewood when it can’t top out a soccer park, is anyone’s guess. It’s not like the other L.A. team is faring any better: As FiveThirtyEight notes, the Los Angeles Rams are closing in on the largest season-to-season drop in game attendance in NFL history. Yet city leaders around the country, seeing what might be cause for alarm in a major market like L.A., appear to have decided that the only problem here is American-style football.
Enter Austin, a city with no soccer presence and no plain stakes in Wednesday’s friendly for an MLS team. Austin wasn’t even one of the 12 cities that made the semis in the MLS expansion tournament—all of which are still eligible for the other two expansion team opportunities (to be determined later). Nevertheless, a would-be ownership group in Austin stepped forward on Tuesday with a fancy rendering of what is clearly a dedicated soccer arena, perhaps in the hopes of tipping the scales in MLS’s decision-making process.
The group, Austin Sports & Entertainment, pitched a plan to build a 15,000-seat arena with a 40,000-seat outdoor bowl under a series of rust-colored roofs, in a checkerboard design scheme tendered by the world-renowned design firm Bjarke Ingels Group. The so-called East Austin District would replace the Travis County Expo Center as the new home for Rodeo Austin, marrying the best in Central Texas bull-riding with the brightest in contemporary Danish architecture.
With all due respect to Austin’s countrypolitan rodeo tradition, that dog won’t hunt. No question, Austin Sports & Entertainment has its sights set squarely on the Columbus Crew SC, whose owner has spoken publicly about moving his team to Austin. One of the principals of Austin Sports & Entertainment is Andrew Nestor, an owner or executive for the Tampa Bay Rowdies (soccer), Bologna F.C. 1909 (soccer), and Americas Champions League (soccer).
Major League Soccer officials might view this quiet offer from Austin as reassurance that an expansion team in Cincinnati would not overcrowd the Ohio market, given the potential departure of the Columbus team. Or it could light a fire in Columbus to build the stadium that the Crew’s owner demands to keep the team in town. For what it’s worth, Austin Mayor Steve Adler’s office told me that the city won’t pay for a stadium—but that the city thinks there’s enough private capital to build one.
In the next few years, as many as four cities may build dedicated soccer arenas. That’s not counting the Banc of California Stadium in L.A. or Audi Field in Washington, D.C., both of which are under construction. Most of these cities are making the sensible decision to demand that private owners put up the capital to build any stadium, but it’s not all of them, by any means.
And no city appears to be weighing the hidden cost of a soccer arena—which is the same as that of a baseball park or a football stadium. In a decade or so, the owner will threaten to sell the team to a new sucker unless the city builds a new stadium, just like Columbus’s owner is doing now. Then, even when a city has only put up the costs of infrastructure, the investment comes up way short. Football may not be able to pull off this scheme anymore—but soccer is only getting started.