Very rarely can you experience a seminal moment in the history of a community or city. I felt that way earlier this month during the inaugural home match of the MLS expansion franchise Charlotte FC. I have lived in Charlotte since 1998, when Sports Business Daily was acquired and relocated from South Norwalk, Conn., to become part of Sports Business Journal. I’ve witnessed tremendous growth over two decades, and on an unseasonably warm Saturday, I saw the city and a region come alive around a sports team unlike any time I can remember since the Carolina Panthers were going through a 15-1 season in 2015, on their way to Super Bowl 50. The entire day was filled with history, symbolism and yet an eye on the future.
For MLS, the successful launch set a new standard for expansion teams, as Commissioner Don Garber and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott marveled at the market’s reaction. I particularly thought of Abbott, who will be retiring from MLS at the end of this year, and how this spectacle of an NFL stadium jammed with an MLS-record of 74,479 fans matched his initial vision for the league when he was writing its business plan in the mid-1990s. At a private luncheon on game day, March 5, one of the league’s key founders and advocates, Phil Anschutz, gracefully welcomed the league’s newest owner, David Tepper, to MLS with appreciation and a generous offer of any assistance — humorously clarifying that he meant outside the 90 minutes of game competition. The dignified, yet low-profile Anschutz felt the opener was so important to the league and its growth that he led a contingent of AEG and LA Galaxy executives and sponsors to Charlotte. That evening, Garber, Anschutz and Tepper stood together and watched fans enter Bank of America Stadium, culminating in a stream of hundreds of fans from the various Charlotte FC supporter groups marching into the facility, a group younger, more diverse and more enthusiastic than those attending a typical Panthers game.
Later, as his team was warming up, Tepper strolled the field and enthusiastically waved his arms, extolling the crowd before a dramatically produced opener and the singing of the national anthem that had more than 70,000 strong picking up singer Michelle Brooks-Thompson after her microphone cut out. At a time when war rages in Ukraine and the world is coming out of COVID, the rare moment of unity was one of the more chilling moments I can recall at a sports event. The home team lost 1-0, but this is a sport that plays better in person than on TV, and the fans were in it the entire time.
Overall, the opener was a big success for Tepper, his organization and leaders Nick Kelly and Joe LaBue, as well as MLS and the city of Charlotte. The buzz around Charlotte FC will settle, and team sources expect the franchise to average around 30,000 fans per game, a very respectable number for any startup MLS franchise. The organization’s merchandise is already one of the league’s hottest, and the PR and media coverage around the launch has been frequent, broad and overwhelmingly positive. A losing record could discourage fandom over the full season, but for now, this has been a supremely successful launch.
For MLS, it now has a team that will create natural rivalries with franchises in Atlanta, Nashville, Orlando and Washington, all while welcoming St. Louis as the 29th team in 2023, where the early business and buzz is very encouraging. The league will look to nail down Las Vegas as its 30th market and put the brakes on expansion to focus on building the league in other areas. And for my hometown of Charlotte, it’s the latest, welcome addition in one of the nation’s fastest growing regions and a burgeoning sports market.
I’ll stay with soccer and end by saying I was pleased to see the re-election of Cindy Parlow Cone as U.S. Soccer Federation president. Yes, I was surprised the vote was as close as it was, as former president Carlos Cordeiro receiving 47% percent of the vote shows just how fragmented soccer organizations are in the United States. A return of Cordeiro would have been a massive distraction to the federation and of great concern to the corporate community. I don’t know Parlow Cone well, but I go by what I see — and U.S. Soccer is in a much stronger and healthier place than it was under Cordeiro. In a short period of time, Parlow Cone has a number of business accomplishments — a new media deal with WarnerMedia, a settlement in the discrimination lawsuit with the women’s team and a new deal with Nike. Now with a four-year term, she and her team can focus on exciting ways to grow the game and its commercial business. But to start, she must marshal all her leadership skills to try to unite the fragmented federation.
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.