Opinion: Charlotte, MeckCo Should Bargain Hard Over MLS Deal

Taxpayers shouldn't have to shell out megamillions for a pro soccer team
Mecklenburg County
A rendering from last year of Memorial Stadium renovated for a Major League Soccer team. A new proposal calls for the historic stadium's demolition along with the Grady Cole Center's (upper right).

Charlotte, and Charlotteans, might benefit from a Major League Soccer team and stadium. It’s not a good or bad idea on its face; like most prospects of wooing a professional sports team to your town, success lies in the execution, and a huge chunk of the execution lies in how much taxpayers end up surrendering in the deal.

In this case, early indicators aren’t promising. Citizens ought to press Charlotte City Council members and Mecklenburg County commissioners to strike a better bargain than what’s on the table now.

Steve Harrison laid it out in the Observer this morning:

A proposal presented to Mecklenburg County commissioners in closed session last week calls for the city and county to each spend $50 million toward a $150 million stadium in Elizabeth just outside of uptown. The local ownership group of Bruton Smith, the billionaire race track owner, and his son, Marcus, CEO of Speedway Motorsports, would spend $50 million for the stadium.

The county would also demolish Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center to make room for the stadium. The county would also provide the land – assessed at $12.9 million – for the new stadium.

The county would own the stadium, but the Smiths would manage it. That agreement is similar to the city’s deal with the Charlotte Hornets. The team manages the city-owned and funded Spectrum Center.

Charlotte’s early proposal – which has not been discussed publicly – would also require taxpayers to spend more than other recent MLS franchises, including teams in Los Angeles, Miami and Orlando.

Marc Ganis, president of a Chicago-based sports consulting firm, said Charlotte’s early proposal to have the public pay for two-thirds of the cost of a stadium is high by MLS standards. That’s more of a ratio usually seen for NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball stadiums.

“The proportion of (public money) in Charlotte is higher than it sometimes is with other soccer stadiums,” he said.

Public officials in Charlotte have proven themselves too eager in the past to agree to pro sports teams’ demands. It’s an inexact comparison, but the City Council folded too easily a few years ago over improvements to Bank of America Stadium. The city’s deal with the Charlotte Hornets and Spectrum Center is even more of a sweetheart arrangement for Michael Jordan & Co.—the city built the arena on its own and shares maintenance costs with the team.

The city and county should realize they have a chance here to guide the Smiths into an arrangement that would benefit the city at large. In a positive sign, council members are already talking about the possibility of a soccer stadium on part of the vacant Eastland Mall site, which in theory makes tremendous sense: It’d solve the longstanding headache of finding a tenant; spur economic development around it; tie in to the planned Gold Line extension to east Charlotte; and find a readymade audience of futbol fans among the Latino and African communities that populate the neighborhoods surrounding the property. We’re early in the process, but that sounds like a win-win to me.

Besides, all due respect to MLS, but it’s not the NFL or NBA. Charlotte and Mecklenburg County have some leverage here to make sure they get a good deal or none at all. They should use it.


Categories: The Buzz