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.
— Seth Stewart (@pressboxseth) December 7, 2012
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.
The sport of the future no longer, it’s time to bring soccer to the heart of Charlotte. #MLS4CLT
— MLS4CLT (@MLS4CLT) June 29, 2017
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.
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.
Halftime is apparently the only time the crowd sits down. I’ve never been anywhere where the full stadium stands for 90 minutes pic.twitter.com/mDW2YWaarO
— The Soccer Tour (@TheSoccerTour) July 5, 2017
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