Team owner David Tepper, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles at the announcement Tuesday. (Don Muret / Staff)

Expansion team will play in NFL stadium rather than build new

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Major League Soccer on Tuesday officially announced that its 30th franchise will start play in North Carolina’s biggest market in 2021. A raucous crowd, energized by supporters groups chanting and beating drums, cheered MLS Commissioner Don Garber, team owner David Tepper and Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles as they made the announcement at the Mint Museum Uptown.

Tepper, owner of the Carolina Panthers, has reportedly committed to paying a league-record $325 million expansion fee after a fast-track process for a club to play in Bank of America Stadium, which will undergo a retrofit to accommodate the sport.

For MLS, it’s a departure from a league going through rapid expansion and facility development. Over the next five years, seven new soccer-specific stadiums are tentatively scheduled to open in Austin, Cincinnati, Columbus, Miami, Nashville, Sacramento and St. Louis.

In Charlotte, it’s a different story. In one sense, it’s a case of MLS returning to its roots by playing in NFL venues, which was the case when the league first started play in 1996 with 10 teams. 

The Columbus Crew opened the first soccer-specific stadium in 1999 and with the exception of a half-dozen teams, most clubs play in facilities designed specifically for the sport. Over the past 10 years, though, the Seattle Sounders, and most recently, Atlanta United, have filled much larger stadiums designed for both the NFL and MLS.

The Panthers have paid close attention to Atlanta United, which shares Mercedes-Benz Stadium with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons. Charlotte and Atlanta sit about 250 miles apart, and officials with the Panthers and the city of Charlotte have attended Atlanta United games, where the team has led the league in attendance over its first three seasons, averaging 50,000-plus attendance.

Tepper said he’s also had discussions with Arthur Blank, owner of Atlanta United and the Falcons. Blank privately financed most of the cost of the $1.6 billion stadium, which the city has embraced with a fervor, especially for MLS. 

On their own, the Sounders have consistently averaged 40,000 in attendance since joining MLS in 2009. Last month, the Sounders drew 69,274 fans for the 2019 MLS World Cup.

The Panthers, meanwhile, reportedly have commitments from 60 companies to buy suites for MLS games, and initially, the number of deposits for season tickets in Charlotte was outpacing Atlanta United when it began the process in 2015, according to one media outlet.

Of the 31,000 deposits, Atlanta United sold an MLS record 22,000 season tickets for its first season in 2017.

“To me, it’s less about building a facility that can attract a crowd that’s greater than the average of 22,000 to 25,000 that we’re currently sized for,” Garber told VenuesNow in a September interview. “It’s more about the fact that in a handful of markets, we’ve seen such overwhelming success that has created energy and excitement on a global scale. Twenty years after the first soccer-specific stadium was built in Columbus, the thinking is that under certain circumstances, it makes sense to look at larger facilities as it relates to playing in an NFL stadium.”

In Charlotte, Tepper, who bought the Panthers in 2018 and is the NFL’s richest owner with a net worth of $12 billion, has publicly discussed his desire to eventually build a new retractable-roof stadium in Charlotte in a public-private partnership with the city. Presumably, it would be designed to accommodate MLS as well. 

“The stadium situation fits with the long-term decision that we made about this city and knowing that we had one team left (for expansion) and what David’s plans are for the future,” Garber said after the announcement. “If we thought they were going to be in Bank of America Stadium forever, we wouldn’t have made the decision.”

Until then, the retrofit of Bank of America Stadium will include building new locker rooms for MLS, carving out a tunnel at midfield for teams to enter the field, making adjustments in the end zones for supporter groups and installing additional lighting for the 35,000 upper deck seats. It’s a tight timeframe considering the team’s launch in 2021. Construction starts later this month after the NFL season concludes, Tepper said. (Separately, for football, the Panthers plan to build a small number of bunker suites in the west end zone, where the Panthers enter the field).

“All of those issues have been addressed in our discussions with David,” Garber said. “This stadium will be MLS ready. They’ll work on ensuring that it has the right environment for its supporters and it looks very much like our other stadiums, whether they’re soccer-specific or (larger NFL) stadiums like in Atlanta and Seattle.”

The city has committed $110 million to help pay for those upgrades and build a practice facility. Most of that money will go toward the practice facility, Tepper confirmed. It’s unclear how much money the Panthers will invest in the stadium renovations.

The Panthers have not talked much about installing a roof canopy to protect soccer fans from the elements in a Southeast city where average temperatures in the summer months run in the high 80s, according to usclimatedata.com. Rain is a consideration too, considering the MLS season runs nine to ten months. A roof retrofit is something studied the Panthers have studied in the past, according to architects and engineers.

“There’s potential for a lot of things in the future,” Tepper said. “We also have another thing called night games.”

In MLS, all soccer-specific stadiums have roofs covering the stands, similar to their European counterparts.

In Seattle, CenturyLink Field provides roof cover along both sidelines. Mercedes-Benz Field and B.C. Place, the home of the Vancouver Whitecaps, both have retractable roofs. In the Northeast, NYFC and the New England Revolution play at Yankee Stadium and Gillette Stadium, two venues without roof structures. Next season, the Chicago Fire move back to Soldier Field, with no roof, after playing at soccer-specific SeatGeek Stadium since 2006.

“If you’ve seen the (CONCACAF) Gold Cup games here, the stadium looks beautiful,” Tepper said. “To make this building MLS compliant, we need to take it one step above that.”