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The Fragility of MLS Expansion Bids

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Orlando City’s history and Sacramento Republic FC’s current situation show how MLS expansion bids can fall apart.

Image courtesy of Orlando City SC

Prior to Friday night, Sacramento seemed to be headed to MLS and the NWSL. Both leagues had already announced the acceptance of the expansion bids, which were submitted by Sacramento Republic FC. The moves would make Sacramento the next big soccer city in the United States. But the bid quickly fell apart when the lead investor, Ron Burkle, unexpectedly dropped out. The change in fortune shows how fragile MLS expansion bids can be.

The Sacramento Republic joined the USL in 2014 and immediately made an impact. They broke league attendance records from day one and appeared to be a hotbed for the sport. The support for the club continued, with MLS Commissioner Don Garber saying it was only a matter of time before the Republic joined the first-division league.

The only thing the club was missing was a big-money investor. That was resolved when billionaire Burkle, who is already part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, joined the group on Jan. 22, 2019. With Burkle on board, MLS officially announced its newest expansion, followed by a similar announcement from the NWSL.

On Friday night, it was announced that Burkle pulled his financial support for the cause, citing the global pandemic as a reason. The shocking news was heartbreaking for Republic fans, who thought they were finally headed for the first division of the men’s and women’s game. Neither bid is technically dead, but it appears much less likely than it did prior to the announcement.

While the news was surprising, it wasn’t the first time that a smaller market had run into trouble. When cities or clubs depend on a big-money investor or public funding to build the stadium necessary for expansion, it only takes one snag to ruin everything.

In 2013, Orlando City had a plan that would lift the club from the then-third division to MLS. Similar to Sacramento, the club’s founder, Phil Rawlins, didn’t have the money to be the lead investor in an MLS club. Fortunately, Rawlins was introduced to Flavio Augusto da Silva by the club’s goalkeeping coach, Marcos Machado.

Like other mid-market teams, Orlando City was told it needed to build a soccer-specific stadium. While Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer was on board, they needed additional funds from Orange County.

On Oct. 22, 2013, the Orange County Board of Commissioners voted on whether it would approve public funding to be used for the club’s new MLS stadium. The club needed five of the seven commissioners to vote for the funding for approval. The final vote was 5-2, barely ensuring Orlando City would be the league’s 21st team.

Eventually, Orlando City decided to pay for the stadium itself. But that was during the 2015 MLS season, when the club was drawing huge numbers. It was the big crowds and lack of state funding that convinced the club’s top investors that paying for the stadium was worth the investment. If the county vote hadn’t gone Orlando City’s way, allowing the team to enter MLS in 2015, the investors might not have ended up paying for a stadium themselves.

The fact that Orlando City’s bid came down to one vote shows how fragile MLS bids can be. Had one commissioner voted no instead of yes, Orlando City would have been in a similar situation to the one Sacramento is in now. The club would’ve been looking for a way to secure funding and its expansion dreams might’ve been dashed.

When Orlando City achieved expansion into MLS, it had just broken the USL’s attendance record at the 2013 USL Championship Game. Similarly, Sacramento has shown the support and structure to make the transition into MLS. But both clubs have shown how fragile an MLS expansion bid can be and how quickly it can fall apart.