Charlotte formally awarded MLS team, will join league in 2021

After weeks of speculation, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, has been formally awarded Major League Soccer’s 30th franchise.

The as-yet unnamed team, which will be run by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, will play at the 75,523-capacity Bank of America Stadium and join MLS in 2021.

A formal announcement was made at Charlotte’s Mint Museum Uptown by Tepper, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber and Mayor of Charlotte Vi Lyles.

“We are thrilled to welcome Charlotte as Major League Soccer’s 30th club,” Garber said in a statement. “During the last two decades, Charlotte has experienced enormous energy and growth, which matches soccer’s explosive rise in popularity in the United States.  We are pleased to add David Tepper to our ownership group and look forward to working with him and his entire organization to launch Major League Soccer in the Carolinas in 2021.”

Tepper added: “The awarding of an expansion team for Charlotte by Major League Soccer is a proud moment and significant for Charlotte and everyone in our community. I’ve made clear for a long time that I have two goals as a team owner: sustained winning on the field and making a difference in the community. These will be our goals with Charlotte’s MLS team, and the work begins today.”

Having paid a National Football League record $2.275bn for the Panthers in 2018, hedge fund billionaire Tepper has reportedly paid a league-record $325m for an MLS team. The most recent MLS expansion fees, for St. Louis and Sacramento, were $200m, meaning that Tepper and MLS have set a significantly higher bar for future ownership groups wanting to join the league.

On the rising expansion fee, Garber told ESPN: “These are limited opportunities. As MLS moves forward of going through a process of fully expanding our league there was only one team left. Obviously, the value was going to be a part of the calculation.

“It’s also important to recognize that an investment in Major League Soccer today compared to where other sports leagues are is relatively inexpensive to capture what is going to be an enormous opportunity as the country continues to change.”

Tepper has secured $110m in public funds to help renovate the Bank of America Stadium, primarily the home of the Panthers, to make it viable to regularly host professional soccer matches. MLS prefers its teams to play in smaller soccer-specific stadiums. But the success of Atlanta United at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, also home to the NFL Atlanta Falcons, indicates that larger venues can work.

The Seattle Sounders also play in an NFL stadium, CenturyLink Field, and generated a fervent, high-spending crowd for the November 10 MLS Cup. The game had an attendance of 69,274, which was the largest crowd for a sporting event in CenturyLink Field history and the largest soccer crowd ever in Washington state.

The Bank of America Stadium held two Concacaf Gold Cup games this summer and the announced crowd of 59,283 indicates strong local support for soccer.

Inter Miami and Nashville SC will join MLS next year, while Austin FC will join in 2021, alongside Charlotte. This year it was announced that St Louis and Sacramento will field teams in 2022. Garber has also indicated that MLS could expand past its current goal of reaching 30 teams.

It is unclear, however, what the arrival of the Charlotte MLS team will mean for the future of United Soccer League Championship club Charlotte Independence.