As Louisville City FC prepares for USL-Pro kick-off, MLS expansi - WDRB 41 Louisville News

As Louisville City FC prepares for USL-Pro kick-off, MLS expansion slots become a hot commodity

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Soccer fans crowd into Fourth Street Live to watch the USA v Portugal match. Soccer fans crowd into Fourth Street Live to watch the USA v Portugal match.
Owner Wayne Estopinal (center) poses with Mayor Greg Fischer, Coach James O'Connor (left), OCSC Owner Phil Rawlins (center right) and USL President Tim Holt (right) after Louisville City FC's official announcement. Owner Wayne Estopinal (center) poses with Mayor Greg Fischer, Coach James O'Connor (left), OCSC Owner Phil Rawlins (center right) and USL President Tim Holt (right) after Louisville City FC's official announcement.
The new MLS Logo unveiled this week as part of the MLS Next re-branding initiative. The new MLS Logo unveiled this week as part of the MLS Next re-branding initiative.
Louisville City FC's logo was designed by Michael Manning of New Albany, Indiana. Louisville City FC's logo was designed by Michael Manning of New Albany, Indiana.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Major League Soccer unveiled a new logo and re-branding plan in a press conference Thursday morning. The short press conference had all the enthusiasm of a major announcement as MLS Commissioner Don Garber hailed the league's move as another major step forward.

He welcomed members of the league's newest organizations to the press conference from Orlando City Soccer Club and New York City FC, touting the league's growth. “We will have 21 teams next season, and by the end of the decade we will have 24 teams,” Garber said.

The league is preparing to head into its 20th year, riding the coattails of the one of the biggest years soccer has ever seen in this country, and everybody seems to want in on the action.

On Wednesday, an ownership group in Charlotte, NC threw its hat in with a number of cities that eventually want an MLS team. They're the latest to enter what appears to be an intensifying competition to land a hot new commodity.

Ownership for the budding Louisville City FC has made no secret of their long-term ambition of seeing their yet-to-kick-off team into the MLS, but they're not alone.

MLS officials are visiting Sacramento and Elk Grove (both of California) this week to scout possible expansion cities for the near future, while Las Vegas is scrambling to lock in plans for a soccer specific stadium so they can be considered as well.

Minneapolis is Sacramento's biggest contender for the next spot with major support from the Minnesota Vikings, but wavering support for a soccer-specific stadium has put their pitch on uneasy footing. Meanwhile, the MLS has all but awarded a team to David Beckham in Miami, pending the approval of their soccer-specific stadium.

The soccer-specific stadium plan is a must when the MLS looks for an expansion plan. The teams, and the league as a whole, need the solid revenue stream of being the only tenant of the venue and, of course, filling the seats.

So in immediate contention for a spot you've got Minneapolis, Sacramento/Elk Grove, Miami and Las Vegas. While owners of smaller clubs in San Antonio, Austin, Louisville and Charlotte have expressed public interest in eventually making their way into the mix.

So Louisville has a long way to go in order to be in contention for a spot in this expansion. Especially since there are only three spots open over the next six years and there are four cities on solid footing vying for those spots.

The team will start play in April of 2015 at Louisville Slugger Field in America's third-tier United Soccer Leagues, a league that catapulted Orlando City Soccer Club into the MLS in just four years.

Louisville City is the first USL-Pro team to have an affiliation with an MLS side in Orlando City and many MLS teams have followed suit, forming partnerships with USL-Pro clubs and signing player sharing agreements.

Louisville City FC has a long-term ambition of building a soccer-specific stadium and moving out of Slugger Field, but that will take an attendance average of at least about 5,000 fans per game over three seasons to get. If Louisville City FC averages just under 6,000 fans a game, the team will be profitable in their third year. 

Once they've moved into their new home, built a fan base and proved they have revenue streams, they still have to hope there are expansion spots available for them.

In the meantime, Louisville City is trying to capitalize on a soccer fever that swept the nation during the World Cup. Fans flooded Fourth Street and Saints Bar in Saint Matthews, showing off the kind of atmosphere passionate soccer fans create in large numbers.

That happened all over the nation and many casual fans started to take notice of the MLS as major players signed with domestic clubs one after another, including international stars David Villa, Frank Lampard and Kaka.

Meanwhile, the league inked a new TV deal with ESPN, FOX and Univision that will increase its broadcast revenue from about $30 million annually to about $90 million annually over eight years.

And though it's peripheral to the MLS, it's also worth noting that Chevrolet spent $560 million dollars to put their logo on the front of English Premier League powerhouse Manchester United's jerseys for the next seven years.

These numbers matter because 20 years after ten teams paid $5 million dollars each to start Major League Soccer in the United States, a good deal of money is now being spent on the sport, and the league, domestically.

But why?

In a private study of the possible economic impact of an MLS team on Orlando, the consulting firm CS&L estimated around $1.2 billion over 30 years. CS&L's Brian Parker told the Orlando Sentinel way back in 2012 that a new soccer-specific stadium (which has been approved and commissioned) would produce 390 jobs, personal earnings of $565 million and tax revenue of $9.1 million.

That kind of study can't be a coverall for every city that looks at adding an MLS team, but the fact that the New York Yankees and EPL club Manchester City just dropped an unprecedented $100 million to get New York City FC into the MLS next year speaks volumes about what people seem to be expecting.

Before NYCFC, the highest expansion fee paid was Montreal's $40 million in 2012. The league's most valuable team, the Seattle Sounders, paid just $30 million in 2009.

Investors seem convinced there is money to be made in these small stadiums, but where is it coming from?

“We're not trying to crack the code to have soccer be the most important sport in the United States,” Don Garber told Bloomberg earlier this month. “We continue to do what we're doing, which is grow carefully and incrementally. And as the country has millennials becoming more important, and the Hispanic population exploding, we're in a good spot to be able to capture that opportunity.”

The league's average attendance has been higher than that of the NBA and the NHL for two years now and sits at 18,608 heading into the playoffs this season.

Sports economist John Vrooman summed it up best in an interview with CNBC when asked if the popularity of soccer would drive down that of another sport: “Soccer fans are more like NHL fans: They are few, but they are tenacious, dedicated and knowledgeable about the subtleties of the game not apparent to the impatient North American viewers.”

A “tenacious, dedicated” fan base probably sounds pretty appealing to investors. It's that X-factor that cities look for in attracting young, energetic talent to inject life into the economy in making and spending money.

But as investors clamor for spots in the MLS expansion, city support seems slow in coming around, especially when it comes to locking in plans for soccer-specific stadiums. Stadium plans have been the primary hold up in Miami, Las Vegas and Minneapolis.

The same problem prevented the launch of an MLS-approved team in Cleveland in 2004 when the primary investor actually passed away before sufficient financial support could be recruited for a stadium.

Meanwhile, the league is still looking for a buyer for the struggling Chivas USA, who may sit out the 2015 season in order to re-brand and regroup under new ownership.

The fervor seems present as investors line up to fill the expansion slots, but with the league's brief history there are more questions than answers about the future of these franchises.

Especially when it comes to lower leagues like USL-Pro, as they put their faith in the the success of the MLS by partnering with teams in player-sharing deals and bet on the passion (and the wallets) of millennial soccer fans.

Louisville City FC is inheriting a strong franchise from Orlando. They have already signed coach James O'Connor who is hard at work building a staff and scouting players. A handful of players will likely be signed on from OCSC who have experience winning USL-Pro championships.

Not to mention owner Wayne Estopinal has a close relationship with OCSC owner Phil Rawlins who led the team's successful charge from USL-Pro to Major League Soccer.

With strong fan support from the Louisville Coopers, the ingredients are all there for a successful kick-off in USL-Pro. But Louisville City FC has a long way to go on untested terrain if it wants to compete against top-tier investors for a spot in the country's top-tier league.

Top MLS Teams Value Revenue
Seattle Sounders $175m $48.0m
Los Angeles Galaxy $170m $44.0m
Portland Timbers $141m $39.1m
Houston Dynamo $125m $32.6m
Toronto FC $121m $30.9m
New York Red Bulls $114m $28.1m
MLS Average $103m $26.0m
source:  Forbes 2013

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