When my wife and I were looking for a place to move our family to escape the Midwest, we considered several locations. She loves mountains and water, I love big cities. We spent an anniversary in Asheville, she vacationed to the Carolina coast as a kid, and though we’d never been to Charlotte before, we knew North Carolina should be at the top of our list.

So what put Charlotte above other options for us? Professional sports.

The first time I heard of Charlotte was while playing with the Hornets on the “NBA Jam” video game. The Purple and Teal were a popular choice for kids all across the country: Muggsy Bogues provided the speed, steals and shots, and Larry Johnson provided the dunks. And the color scheme — it was ’90s iconic.

And then the Panthers came around, too, and people around the country began to recognize Charlotte as a “major” city.

Is Charlotte a “major” city without the Hornets and Panthers? Of course. Are there other needs in the city besides helping to fund the arrival (or return) of professional sports teams? Absolutely. It’d be silly to pretend otherwise.

But for this kid growing up in the Midwest, a kid who’d never been to the Carolinas, the Hornets and the Panthers put Charlotte on the map.

There’s another professional sports team hoping to join the duo of the Purple and Teal and the Black and Blue. In January, Bruton and Marcus Smith of NASCAR fame submitted a bid to Major League Soccer to bring a professional soccer franchise to Charlotte, hoping to play in a renovated/rebuilt Memorial Stadium in Elizabeth, just outside the I-277 loop.

And they’re asking for help to pay for the $175 million stadium: A 50 percent split between public and private funding, with the city’s contribution coming from a “tourism tax” pool specifically created for this sort of investment.

In January, Mecklenburg County voted to pay $43.75 million for the stadium, and also agreed to finance $75 million to be paid back by the Smiths over 25 years, in addition to their $12.5 million initial investment. The city is expected to vote on its share of the funding, between $30–$45 million, at the end of the month.

The completed stadium would be owned by Mecklenburg County, and the team would play a minimum of 17 regular season games there over the course of the March-October season.

The public costs are far lower than major cities (including Charlotte) have put towards NFL, MLB, or NBA venues.

Charlotte City Council members have asked fans to let them know their opinion on the funding vote, and MLS4CLT has put together a new website for residents to let the council know what they think.

I think the proposal for a 50/50 public-private split on funding the renovation/rebuilding of Memorial is a win-win-win for everyone involved. It’s a good deal for the city, which reaps multiple benefits of another professional sports franchise putting Charlotte on the map. It’s a good deal for the county, which gets a brand new “world-class” stadium while paying only 25 percent of the cost.

And it’s a good deal for us as Charlotteans.

Sports teams are civic assets

I grew up in St. Louis and my relationship with my city and, in some ways, my identity revolved around professional sports. When Cardinals baseball season started in March, I knew summer was coming. And when baseball season came to an end, I knew I was in for a cold winter of Blues hockey (and Rams football, too, but let’s not go there). As a Buckeye in college football crazy Ohio, my wife has a similar story.

Johnny Wakefield, right, with his brother and dad.

Professional sports were the main reason my suburban family actually went into the city. It’s how I connected with my hometown. Teachers, servers, bank tellers, grocery store cashiers — they knew the score of last night’s game and who the home team was playing the next night.

Sports provide a common language and a rallying point for cities full of people with different skin colors, religious beliefs and socioeconomic statuses. Sports unite us in support of something we all love together. Sports teams are civic assets.

We all know that Charlotte is a different city on Panthers game days. Fans flood uptown streets, hotels, bars and restaurants, and hang black and blue flags everywhere for four months.

After the Panthers won the NFC Championship in 2016, I hugged strangers on the streets of Uptown, watched people of all backgrounds dance and celebrate together, and suddenly identified with our new home in a brand new, deeper way. For the first time, Charlotte was really home for me.

And the Hornets-Heat playoff series in 2016 wasn’t that different. Kemba Walker and company made the then-Time Warner Cable Arena electric during that series, and if Dwight Howard and the new additions have their way, we’ll see the city rally around them again this Fall.

Major League Soccer has the same potential.

It might not be your league of choice yet, dear reader, but soccer is the sport of choice for literally billions of people, and its popularity is rapidly growing.

Friendly matches between European clubs have brought crowds of more than 60,000 to Bank of America Stadium. And Atlanta (yes, Atlanta), has sold out every game so far in its inaugural season, with attendance figures steadily above 45,000.

Asking for public funding for any sort of stadium is difficult, if not outright offensive. There are other real, pressing needs in our city, one with terrible economic mobility and public schools in need of funding (my wife is a CMS teacher — we know).

But this is not a public handout of taxpayer dollars, lining the pockets of our region’s elite. Bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte with this bid would provide Charlotte with yet another civic asset at a fraction of the cost of other major sports leagues.

MLS4CLT would renovate a publicly-owned structure, with 50 percent private funding, and then pay the expansion fees out of its own pockets (other bids are offering less). Veterans have voiced their support for a renovated memorial. And the team that plays in that new Memorial Stadium would put Charlotte’s name on the map yet again, this time through the top American division of a sport that has won the hearts of young audiences and our rapidly-growing immigrant population.

And for all the people that weren’t here when the Panthers and Hornets came to town, for those who don’t yet have a Major League Soccer team? They’ll have a team, too, as Observer sports columnist Tom Sorenson wrote last week, one that’s all theirs, and one that connects them to Charlotte in a brand new way. I saw it happen when I lived in Seattle in 2009, a city full of transplants that have embraced their team to record-breaking effect.

If the Hornets and Panthers had never come to Charlotte, might my family still have moved here? Sure.

Would people around the world have heard of Charlotte for other reasons? Of course.

Do we have other serious issues we need to work on as a city? Undeniably yes.

But when you have a chance to become a more attractive place to raise a family, to become a tourist destination for soccer fans from around the world, to provide construction jobs in the short term and service jobs in the long term, to give your current residents another excuse to spend money in their city, and to provide another rallying point for the city to unite behind, especially the young, diverse bunch that are moving here in droves and love the beautiful game, with private investment paying the majority of the bill?

You simply can’t pass that up.

Find more coverage of soccer in the Carolinas at SoccerNSweetTea.com.

Photos: James Willamor/Flickr; Johnny Wakefield

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25 COMMENTS

  1. I would love for MLS to come to Charlotte. I just question why we need another stadium. You said it yourself: “Friendly matches between European clubs have brought crowds of more than 60,000 to Bank of America Stadium.” IMO, you should kill two birds with one stone. Put MLS in Bank of America stadium and pocket the tax funds that are going to be required for the billion dollar stadium that the Panthers are going to require in the next few years. Then put both teams in that.

    • MLS has already said that they want soccer-specific stadiums. Trying to put a team in Bofa stadium would hurt or bid’s chances of winning. Also, the panthers own the stadium. I doubt they would want to share with a team that isn’t under the same ownership.

  2. As one of the many transplants to Charlotte, I have to say this is a pipedream. Charlotte is not a sports town. My opinion could change based on how the PGA Golf event works out. I come from Indianapolis, which is a sports town (#3 in watching the Olympics behind NYC and LA). This was a long term strategy from the Pacers moving to a downtown venue in the early 70’s, becoming the amateur sports capitol of the USA, to the infamous Mayflower move to the Hoosierdome, and the granddaddy of it all, the Indianapolis 500. Indianapolis is also seeking one of the Major League Soccer franchises and, like Charlotte, is considered a longshot by most MLS watchers. Charlotte mirrors Indianapolis in many ways: An NFL team, an NBA team, a very successful AAA baseball team, a minor league hockey team, and a soccer team. The difference is Indianapolis is also the headquarters for USA Football, Gymnastic, Swimming, Synchronized Swimming, and Track & Field. My recommendation to Charlotte and Mecklenburg county would be to use those funds to put sidewalks in the suburbs and improve the underserved neighborhoods. The Charlotte sports scene is in its infancy. Remember, it was not that long ago when Charlotte lost its NBA team to New Orleans, and had it not been for Michael Jordan, Charlotte may not have gotten a second chance. Just my point of view and I look forward to the spirited conversation telling me I am wrong.

    • Michael Jordan didn’t bring the new NBA franchise here. He just bought controlling interest after the Bobcats were already established. Also, the original franchise only left bc of discord between the city and George Shinn (the owner). It was not due to any lack of interest or fan support.

    • Hmm, well lets do take a look into these claims:

      Average Attendances:

      NFL:
      Panthers: 73,792
      Colts: 65,649

      NBA:
      Hornets: 17,332
      Pacers: 16,697

      MiLB:
      Knights: 8,974
      Indians: 8,970

      Hockey:
      Checkers: 6,179
      Fuel: 3,591

      Racing:
      I honestly cannot find attendance numbers for Coca-Cola or the All Star race but I will give the nod to Indy because I seriously doubt it equals the 300K+ by Indy 500. It doesn’t look like NASCAR gives these specific numbers?

      *All these numbers were found through either ESPN or league databases if you want to check my numbers.

      You also bring up the PGA Championship as a chance to change your mind. Well according to the CBJ, the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow has already outsold and surpassed every other PGA Championship to date.

      Calling Indy a sports town and Charlotte not one doesn’t make any sense as with every team sport Charlotte outpaces Indy.

      • Well for 2016, Indianapolis Indians had the top attendance in AAA baseball.

        Colts play in a smaller stadium than Panthers. Both sell out their respective stadiums so that is a wash.

        I will concede on the Pacers as they still are trying to win back their fan base after the Detroit brawl.

        I will concede Hockey as well as the same 3600 people have been following Indianapolis hockey since the WHA Racers.

        However, Indianapolis has hosted:
        a Super Bowl
        multiple NCAA Final Fours (Men and Women)
        Multiple NCAA swimming and diving championships,
        multiple Olympic trials in Track, Swimming, Gymnastics, and Diving
        World Basketball Championship
        Pan Am Games
        National Sports Festival
        Solheim Cup (Women’s Ryder Cup)
        Multiple PGA Player Championships
        US Open
        Let alone NHRA Championships, Brickyard 400, MotoGP, Formula One, and Red Bull Air Racing.
        Also the Circle City Classic, Big Ten Football Championship and Basketball Tournaments.
        This is why Indianapolis is a much bigger sports town, in my opinion, than Charlotte.

        Charlotte should put a bid in for the Women’s NCAA Final Four. Enclose Bank of America Stadium, you have a shot for a Men’s NCAA Final Four. Why aren’t the Carolina Hurricanes in Charlotte?

        Today’s news about a Major League Baseball Team in Charlotte is a possibility as Atlanta may not consider us a fan base. I have known for years Indianapolis will be a perpetual AAA team as three teams would veto a Major League team there and are on record (Reds, Cubs, and Cardinals), unless we lure Tampa or Oakland to Victory Field.

        Until I see more National events outside of three NASCAR races, Panthers football, and Hornets basketball, I maintain Indianapolis will have a bigger footprint on the sports scene than Charlotte.

        • The Charlotte Knights averaged a higher attendance than the Indianapolis Indians for 2016. The only reason the Indians had a higher total attendance is because they had 1 extra game played. This is a wash. The Knights would probably have had a higher total if they had that extra game.

          Also, are you forgetting about the international soccer games that Charlotte has hosted? I’m not sure why you point out all these random sports considering none of them have anything to do with how well an MLS team would do in the same city. If your argument is that MLS won’t do well in Charlotte just because it doesn’t have as many other random sports as Indianapolis, then you’re forgetting that the first Charlotte Hornets franchise led the league in attendance for multiple years even though there were no other major professional sports teams here. So, i’m not sure what your point is?

        • What Yon said, Indians had a larger total attendance because they had an extra home game, but on an average nightly basis the Knights had more people.

          Charlotte has hosted basketball tournaments, ACC football championships, and NBA ASG (soon to be another one in 2019), AAA ASG, International Champions Cup, and soon to be the aforementioned PGA Championship.

          You’re right, Charlotte should have domed their stadium or make Spectrum larger to land deeper rounds in the NCAA tourney. But that is the main reason Indy gets some of these other things, not because of a more rabid fan base for all things sports.

    • I just feel the need to once again point out that the funds being requested for the stadium come from a fund that can, by law, only be used for tourism related projects. So unless improving under served neighborhoods and building sidewalks somehow increases tourism, your final point is moot.
      As for Charlotte not being a sports city, even if that were true, which it isn’t (Panthers sitting at 8th in attendance which is 12 spots higher than Colts, Hornets at 17 which is 5 spots ahead of Indianapolis, and Knights at #1 attendance in the USA), what better way to foster a sporting culture than to add another major league sports team?

  3. Keep public money out of these private businesses!! We shouldn’t be paying for stadiums with our tax dollars. These are corporations that exist to make a profit.

  4. Instead of trying to spark interest in MLS. Here are some facts.
    -The average MLS game attendance is 21,330 while MLB is 30,169.
    -Regular MLS season is 34games, giving you 17 home games a year.
    -Regular season MLB is 162 games, giving you 81 home games a year.

    As far as money goes, MLB is CLEARLY a better option for the city. Who knows if/when MLB will ever expand, but you can surely say that Charlotte is in a perfect market for a MLB team. Try to lure Oakland or Tampa and reep the rewards. Don’t just settle on an expansion MLS team.

    • Sure MLB might be more profitable short term, but thats very narrow vision. MLS is the fastest growing league in the US, while MLB is suffering from continued decline in average attendance. Soccer is far and away the most popular sport among modern children. Also, an MLB team would mean completely scrapping or canabalizing the terrific attendance of the Knights with a far sketchier proposition. There is very little public demand for an MLB team. An MLS team would be able to start with a clean slate as opposed to the baggage associated with luring a MLB team. Getting a pro Soccer club in Charlotte is just way way more viable long term.

  5. I think that the MLS would be great for Charlotte – but I think that the billionaire Smith family can pay for the stadium if they really want it. There is basically no way the city or county will benefit from paying for a stadium. There are very few events that the stadium can host that don’t already have a home at BofA Stadium, Matthews Sportsplex, etc. The Memorial Stadium site is already completely located in wealthy Elizabeth, surrounded by CPCC, so there aren’t any new bars or fancy apartments to go up around it. Charlotteans barely show up for Panthers, Hornets and Knights games when they aren’t so hot. How can we expect them to rally behind a brand-new team in what is (at best) the 5th most popular sport? Lets use the money for things that will actually help the city like affordable housing, transit, police, or paying our teachers.

  6. An alternative: MLS
    Use the Eastland Mall site. It’s close to Uptown. Invest in and develop ALL zip codes. The property is located in a very diverse area. A stadium could:
    Enhance community improvement and development,
    Provide employment opportunities for people who live in that corridor,
    Build a magnet soccer school; after school and summer camps,
    The Smith family could expand their sports empire and stimulate growth and community development .

    • Eastland Mall has been ruled out by MLS, the city leaders, and the Smiths. The lack of public transportation and the extremely high risk of gentrification surrounding the Eastland Mall site are factors that are not suitable for the city and its citizens.

    • MLS wants a downtown stadium. Picking Eastland Mall would hurt our bid’s chances and likely cause us not to get a team at all.

  7. I don’t disagree with the sentiment that sports teams contribute to the civic fabric of a city, but sentiment is not sufficient justification to spend millions of taxpayer dollars. The key question is: are the benefits of MLS worth the public investment? The benefits are worth *something,* to be sure, but are they worth *enough* to justify the expense?

    Turns out a lot of smart folks (including the St. Louis Fed, Brookings Institution, Reason Magazine, and The Atlantic) have asked this question, and the answer across the political spectrum seems to be a resounding ‘NO.’

    Further – Charlotte City Council has a history of saying yes to every opportunity that comes their way, as if they aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from. With Council’s stated goals of improving economic mobility, job creation, affordable housing, and public safety in light of the social inequities laid bare by the Keith Lamont Scott shooting last year, I have to ask: how does spending tens of millions of public dollars on soccer support any of these goals?

  8. Why are our public tax dollars being used to support the private profits of a billionaire? The so called “investment” is really just crony capitalism. If the economics of any private enterprise are so good, they should have no problem lining up private financing.

  9. Bruton Smith needs welfare from the taxpayers, so we all need to chip in to help this poor bastard. We certainly don’t have any other need for the millions that conman wants from us. You are his tool. Memorial Stadium is on park land dedicated to the people of Charlotte, not Smith.

  10. I really hope we can land this MLS expansion it’d be great for the community and the MLS is one of the fastest growing leagues in the world. I find it interesting that no comments have mentioned what could happen to the Charlotte Independence if we were to land this expansion. It’s important to try and acquire them the way other cities have done who are already in the MLS or currently bidding. Minnesota United is a perfect example, the bidding group acquired there local club who i think played in 2nd tier. By doing that they strengthened their bid and eliminated the possibility of undercutting a local/lower tier team. Charlotte should do this to not have any hostility if landing the expansion and also strengthening the bid as a whole. Plus it saves a lot of resources whereas you’re not starting a club from scratch but rather updating one from a lower tier

  11. No. Do not want. Charlotte needs to get its affordable housing and transportation problems under control before we do anymore giveaways to rich people. I know it is a different fund, but doing this project is basically spitting in the face of Charlotte’s working poor.

    We KNOW that Charlotte has the worst economic mobility rating. We have no affordable housing and incredibly complicated transportation problems to solve. All we have managed so far on that front is handwringing and a pointless study funded by a foundation who are the same groups behind a pro-soccer deal. We can’t get any actual action on the housing, but we can get a HUGE stadium deal done, no problemo? Wow. Let them eat cake, I guess

    I just googled the project. The guy fronting the deal was the brand manager for Bobcats! lol! That went sooooo well.

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