‘It’s a historic day for the Queen City’: Charlotte lands MLS franchise

‘It’s a historic day for the Queen City’: Charlotte lands MLS franchise

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — It’s official -- Charlotte is getting a Major League Soccer team.

David Tepper’s vision of bringing an MLS team to Charlotte has been realized and a new kind of professional football will play inside Bank of America Stadium starting in 2021.

One of the biggest announcements in the history of Charlotte was made Tuesday morning, as MLS officially named the Queen City the home of the league’s 30th club.

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The signs were up and the fans were out in uptown, welcoming MLS to Charlotte. At 10 a.m., city leaders, Tepper and MLS executives gathered at the Mint Museum to make the announcement.

The team will begin play in 2021 and can begin signing players immediately.

>> We’re covering all things MLS today. We’ll have team coverage on the league’s announcement and we’re digging into what this new team will mean for the Queen City in a special show at 7 p.m. on Channel 9.

Former USWNT member and UNC Chapel Hill graduate Heather O’Reilly kicked things off by singing James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind” to a raucous crowd before introducing MLS Commissioner Don Garber, Tepper and Mayor Vi Lyles to the stage.

Ahead of the historic announcement, Garber tweeted Monday night: “big day tomorrow!”

“Today is a historic day for the Queen City,” Garber said Tuesday as he stood at the podium. “It is my pleasure to welcome Charlotte to the MLS.”

He said two words defined the league’s negotiations with Tepper and the city: ambition and community.

RAW VIDEO: Charlotte awarded MLS expansion franchise

Garber told the crowd that Charlotte has always been a market of interest for MLS because of the passion for the game, a booming job market and excitement throughout the city.

He went on to explain that Charlotte needed three things in order to land an MLS franchise: a committed owner, a public partnership and a club embraced by the corporate community.

He said it all started with Tepper.

“He really believes in the city," Garber said. "He really believes in the future of soccer in North America. We are proud to welcome you, David, to the Major League Soccer family.”

Garber told Eyewitness News anchor Allison Latos the league and Charlotte have a lot in common.

“We are a league on the rise,” Garber said. “It is the fastest growing professional sports league in the country and Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the country.”

Garber also took the time to praise Lyles.

“Without Mayor Lyles, we are not here today,” he said.

Tepper, who owns the Carolina Panthers, was next to speak. He walked across the stage, looked directly at the gathered fans and asked, “Are you ready to party?”

He said he immediately called Lyles when he found out Charlotte was to be awarded an MLS franchise.

“It’s the most expensive present I ever gave to a woman,” he quipped.

Tepper said some of his motivation to bring MLS to Charlotte was that he coached his children in soccer for nine years and could never win a cup. Now is his chance.

Garber mentioned Tepper’s ambition and sense of community sealed the deal in bringing MLS to Charlotte. Tepper said he believes “the power of soccer will bring everyone together and join communities.”

“For me, if I am going to come some place, I want to do great things in the community and that is the greater region around Charlotte,” Tepper said. “The Carolinas don’t understand how great they can be. They really don’t. The city is just right for the sport. We have had (soccer) games here and there was pretty good support for the sport. We think we can build a really good fan base. The city needs a sport during that (summer) period.”

Tepper promised that “we are going to make Charlotte rock on Saturday nights.”

Tepper said he hopes to match some of the success -- and perhaps exceed -- what Atlanta’s MLS franchise has enjoyed over the past few years. Tepper also did his best to start a new rival with its Interstate-85 opponent four hours down the road.

“Charlotte is hot!” Tepper said at the news conference. “Screw that other city! We are going to have one hell of a rivalry."

Lyles spoke as well, thanking Tepper and the entire City Council for their work in bringing a third major league team to Charlotte.

“I want to thank the people in this community and to David Tepper,” she said. “He came to Charlotte with a big vision and has followed through on it. We are a sports city."

When Tepper bought the Panthers from Jerry Richardson in 2018, he said during his introductory press conference that he wanted to bring an MLS team to Charlotte in the near future. He quickly hired Tom Glick, who has a background with MLS, as the team's president as part of that vision.

Eighteen months later, he has succeeded in landing a team.

The 62-year-old Tepper said soccer is “in my blood.” He grew up playing soccer in Pittsburgh, watch as a fan and has coached youth soccer teams. He also joked that he tore an ACL in his knee playing soccer at 45.

“I've said it before, Charlotte loves a party, and this will be a two-hour party,” Tepper said. “And there's nothing like it in sports. It's a totally different experience.”

Lyles said Charlotte thrives on public/private partnerships.

“We are welcoming, diverse and inclusive,” she said. “When we talk about change, it is not just about the team. Their headquarters will be at Eastland. This brings opportunities for transformation for the entire east side.”

Charlotte will field a team for the 2021 season. Garber also told Channel 9 that the Queen City will host the MLS All-Star game in the future, though a date has not yet been decided.

Tepper said he’ll aim to get a general manager and coach in place within the next month or so.

Tepper will hope to build on the city's strong Hispanic population. When Mexico has played here in the CONCACAF Gold Cup in the past, it has drawn more than 50,000 fans to Bank of America Stadium, many who come with the Mexican flag draped around them.

“They are traditionally very big soccer fans and you see them when you have the Mexico games here,” Tepper said. “They will fill the stadium or half-fill the stadium. So I think that is very much an untapped market. ... We have a great location to bring out those fans."

The team name has not been established yet, but should be announced in the spring. Some of the names under consideration are Charlotte FC, Charlotte Crown FC, Charlotte Fortune FC and Charlotte Monarchs.

Garber said the league positions itself as a league for a “new America” made up of young millennials, and he said Charlotte fits that mold.

“That's really what our brand stands for and that new America lives right here in Charlotte,” Garber said.

Thirty percent of MLS' fan base is made up of Hispanic fans.

“This is going to have a high index of diverse communities as a percentage of the fan base," Garber said. "It’s one of the things that attracted us to Charlotte.”

The Major League Soccer season starts in March and runs through October, and clubs play 34 games each year.

Currently, average attendance for an MLS game is about 21,000 league-wide -- with the exception of Atlanta and Seattle. Those clubs average 40,000-50,000 fans per game.

The average ticket price for a game this year was $31 (for comparison, the average NFL ticket price was $102).

A lot of work has happened behind the scenes to bring an expansion team to Charlotte. Last week, sources told Channel 9 that the city council agreed to provide $110 million in hospitality funds for the team as well as changes to Bank of America Stadium, where the club will play.

Part of the reason why city leaders are so excited about this partnership is the investment that will come from it -- from Center City to the Eastland Mall site.

We’re told the franchise will build its headquarters and practice facilities at the old Eastland Mall site.

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Tepper told Channel 9 he wants the entertainment district connecting Bank of America Stadium to Gateway Station to be like Broadway in Nashville “so you bring this vibrancy into the city.”

The entertainment district connecting the streetcar line to Bank of America Stadium is part of the city’s deal with Tepper.

Councilman James Mitchell said in addition to Nashville, another area Charlotte hopes to Model this after is Detroit.

“We have so much potential and I am committed,” Mitchell said. “We are going to get it right.”

The entertainment district and a commitment to develop the headquarters for the team at Eastland are two major reasons why many councilmembers are thrilled with Tuesday’s announcement.

“It’s going to be incredible,” councilman Braxton Winston said. “A corporate headquarters on the Eastland site was unimaginable last year.”

“We negotiated what is quite honestly one of the most mutually beneficial deals in the history of professional sport franchises getting tax dollars,” councilman Tariq Bokhari said.

Lyles told Channel 9 that the new entertainment district will have a huge impact on uptown.

“A new entertainment district, from the Gateway down to the stadium -- we’re gonna have a place that’s just fun to enjoy," she said. "Attractions all over in our Center City, especially on those game days.”

Leaders credit Tepper’s leadership for what could end being dramatic changes for Center City and east Charlotte.

“It is good to have a visionary,” Mitchell said. “It is good to have someone who is committed to making the city better.”

Tepper will have to pay an expansion fee that could be upward of $300 million.

City Council will also have to hold a public hearing and vote on that $110 million incentive package. Council will also need to rezone the Eastland Mall site.

The city set aside that money, but none of it has been doled out. It will be spread throughout several years and will come from tourism funds -- money that legally cannot be used for things like affordable housing and policing.

That commitment came from behind closed doors.

Lyles defended the process to Channel 9, saying it is similar to other deals the city has brokered, like with Honeywell.

There will be a series of public hearings in the future before the money is issued. The $110 million applies to everything -- Bank of America Stadium renovations, the Eastland headquarters and the new Gateway Station Entertainment District.

Where will Charlotte’s new MLS team practice in the short-term?

Channel 9 has reported Major League Soccer officials are set to announce Charlotte as the 30th franchise on Tuesday.

Channel 9 has been looking into where the new team could practice while their permanent facility is being built at the Old Eastland Mall site. A potential short-term location sits just 30 minutes south of uptown Charlotte, a sprawling 55-acre facility valued at close to $15 million.

According to the Carolina Panthers organization, Charlotte Soccer Academy is one of a few possibilities they’re considering for a short-term MLS training facility.

Sources: MLS to name Charlotte as league's 30th franchise

We spoke with Brad Wylde, the executive director of the Charlotte Soccer Academy. He said the Panthers approached them about potentially being the short-team training location for Charlotte's MLS team.

The facility is located in Pineville and includes five artificial turf fields, one natural grass field, lights, 1,500 seat bleachers, a concession stand and undeveloped land.

By mid-April, construction will wrap up on a club building featuring locker rooms, a video analysis center, weight room and physical therapy center.

“If Mr. Tepper and his organization want the capabilities or opportunities to use this facility -- I know they’re potentially looking at a training site at Eastland Mall, which is fantastic -- but if in the short term they need a place to come and train, we would welcome them with open arms,” Wylde said.

Wylde believes Tepper will want more natural grass fields.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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