Charlotte scores MLS team; few new details

Congratulations a-plenty as event uptown makes official what many have suspected for weeks. Play to start in 2021?

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Lots of pageantry and celebration this morning at Mint Museum; Tepper on Atlanta rivalry: ‘Screw that other city’

The head of Major League Soccer made official what everybody in town has suspected for weeks: Charlotte is getting a professional soccer team.

In an announcement this morning at the Mint Museum Uptown, MLS commissioner Don Garber said the words many here have been awaiting for years: “It’s my pleasure to welcome Charlotte to Major League Soccer.”

Officials gave few other new details. Mayor Vi Lyles confirmed the new soccer HQ and training facility will be at the old Eastland Mall site. And while nobody said it officially, it sounds as though pro soccer in Charlotte will start in 2021.

Highlights of the remarks:

MLS commissioner Don Garber

On Tepper: “In business, he’s got an incredible knack for identifying valuable assets. When he believes in something, you know it’s going to succeed.”

Thanked Mayor Vi Lyles and City Council for “your belief in our league and your belief in your city. This decision will bring jobs to the community. It will bring international exposure.”

The decision: Said giving a team to Charlotte is “the right decision at the right time for our league, for your city, for David Tepper.”

David Tepper

Opening remarks: “You ready to party? We’re going to have one big party all season long for soccer in Charlotte.”

On finding out Charlotte landed an MLS team: “I said, ‘Mayor, I think I’ve got a present.’ I think it’s the most expensive present I ever gave a woman in my life. I said, ‘Mayor, Charlotte has a soccer team.’”

On the future: “We’re going to try to get this MLS Cup in Charlotte really soon.”

He sang some lines to the tune of Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel”: “Since I came to Charlotte, I found a new place to live. It’s going to be the greatest city for MLS to be in.”

On rivalry with Atlanta: “There’s another city down the road to the west. Charlotte is hot. Screw that other city.”

Mayor Vi Lyles

On public investment: “Charlotte thrives on public-private partnerships because we have a common goal. Sports can be a catalyst for the transformation we think is important on how we are welcoming and diverse and inclusive.”

On Tepper: “He continues to work to build the best Tepper Sports organization. He always keeps his word. He said we were going to have Major League Soccer, and here we are with a team.”

On the eastside: “The HQ will be at Eastland, and there are new opportunities for transformation for the entire eastside.”

On the future: “This is an opportunity our city to come together as one. Men, women and children of all races and backgrounds will come together to cheer for our soccer team. … That’s the promise of our city. And that promise got a little bit bigger today.”

The scene: Leaders made the announcement before banks of TV cameras and dozens of media and dignitaries at the Mint Museum, as supporters — many of them wearing mint green scarves and T-shirts — amassed outside and lined the interior balconies of the museum. They served as the cheering section. Local politicians from both political parties attended.

Few financial details: The ceremony was short on one of the key pieces of information that many people in Charlotte want to know: the city’s financial contribution. City council members have said in the media and in a letter to MLS that they are ready to commit $110M to the effort. But there have been no public votes and few details, other than the bulk of that money is likely to come from “hospitality funds” that could consist of taxes on hotel and motel rooms, rental cars and prepared food. Those taxes must be used on projects that promote tourism. Tepper is expected to pay $325M to MLS as an expansion fee.

It’s not unusual for city leaders to pledge funds in private and wait until later to vote on spending the money. For instance, local leaders announced 400+ jobs for Microsoft on Oct. 25 but didn’t vote to approve the $664,000 in city incentives until a month later.

What is unusual is the amount that city leaders seem ready to approve. The Observer reported last week that $110M “easily dwarfs the public money spent by other cities around the country that were awarded expansion clubs.”

Giving tax money for pro sports teams tends to be unpopular, and many economists question the financial wisdom of such moves. But politicians often do it because they believe it’s good for their communities.

Other priorities: It’s also unclear precisely how much the city has available in tourism funds, or how much might remain for other priorities, such as renovating Discovery Place. Asked this month if she was concerned about the future availability of tourism tax money for Discovery Place, the museum’s CEO, Catherine Wilson Horne, told the Ledger: “It’s too early to know.”

Tepper power: We’re closing out a year that’s been successful for Tepper. In June, he persuaded South Carolina to pony up $115M for a new Panthers HQ and training complex in Rock Hill. Now, just six months later, he has secured a pro soccer team, with the apparent assistance of $110M of city tourism money.

Say what you want about the guy, but he gets things done. And he gets what he wants.

Today, Charlotte soccer fans be like…

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The Charlotte Ledger is published by Tony Mecia, an award-winning former Charlotte Observer business reporter and editor. He lives in Charlotte with his wife and three children.