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Will deep pockets, NASCAR help Charlotte win major-league soccer team?

Promotional video for Charlotte group's soccer bid

A 90-second promotional video that Marcus Smith submitted for Charlotte to land a Major League Soccer expansion team is infused with vignettes of NASCAR races, the sport for which the Speedway Motorsports CEO and his family are known.
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A 90-second promotional video that Marcus Smith submitted for Charlotte to land a Major League Soccer expansion team is infused with vignettes of NASCAR races, the sport for which the Speedway Motorsports CEO and his family are known.

A 90-second promotional video that Marcus Smith submitted for Charlotte to land a Major League Soccer expansion team is infused with vignettes of NASCAR races, the sport for which the Speedway Motorsports CEO and his family are known.

Soccer – which Smith admits he has little experience with – is seldom mentioned in the video amid scenes of the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets.

But Smith and his team believe their experience building race venues and promoting that sport will give them an advantage, even over cities such as Sacramento and St. Louis that have focused on their grassroots soccer interest.

They also believe that having a stadium site and agreement approved with Mecklenburg County is a plus, even if the City Council hasn’t agreed to help pay for the stadium.

Marc Ganis, a Chicago sports business consultant, said Marcus Smith and his father, race track magnate Bruton Smith, are familiar names to MLS owners. But the league may need convincing that Charlotte is a soccer city, he said.

“The Smiths are known sports operators and have meaningful wealth,” Ganis said. “They are a known quantity. They don’t have to sell themselves like others do. But does the community need to be sold as a soccer town? That’s another question.”

League President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said Wednesday that other bidding ownership groups have interests outside soccer, too.

“When we look at a family like the Smiths, we’re impressed by the experience they have broadly in sports entertainment, and we think that could be a real asset to us,” Abbott said in a call with reporters.

The Smith family is known for its NASCAR ties and deep pockets. Marcus Smith heads Speedway Motorsports, which owns nine U.S. race tracks. His father, Bruton, inducted to the NASCAR Hall of Fame last year, appeared on Forbes’ annual billionaires list multiple times in the 2000s. The Smiths spearheaded an effort to try to bring the X Games to Charlotte, and have also expressed interest in one day buying the Panthers.

In his MLS video submission, Marcus Smith said he plans to bring “what we have learned after almost 60 years in the NASCAR business to Major League Soccer.” The Smiths have virtually no professional soccer experience.

The video did not show or mention the city’s youth soccer culture or the city’s minor-league soccer team, the Charlotte Independence. The president of the Independence has said he feels “run over” by the Smiths’ bid. On Wednesday the team announced it is moving from a temporary stadium at Ramblewood Soccer Complex to the Sportsplex at Matthews, beginning June 17.

President and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. Marcus Smith talks about bringing Major League Soccer to Charlotte, NC.

Fancy bids

When Nashville applied for an MLS expansion team Tuesday, the city’s mayor delivered the bid herself to the league office in New York City. The day before, the ownership group of a prospective team in San Diego presented its bid to the MLS commissioner on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Midway.

The Smiths’ bid seemed a bit less buttoned up. A day before applications were due, a spokesman for Smith said the ownership group had not yet secured an architect for the facility – although the owners did submit a conceptual rendering of a stadium in Elizabeth to members of the media after the deadline.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Abbott said the league expected that teams would be supplementing their applications throughout the review process.

“We recognized that different markets would be in different places with respect to their ownership groups and with respect to their stadium plans (at the Jan. 31 deadline),” Abbott said. “We just wanted to know where they were, and hopefully they were as far along as they could be.”

MLS is planning to expand by four, to 28 total teams. The league could add two teams this year and then two more teams at an undetermined time in the future.

Twelve cities submitted bids.

League executives said Tuesday that during the first and second quarters of this year, the MLS expansion committee and Commissioner Don Garber will review applications and conduct in-person interviews with owners and officials from bidding markets. The first two expansion teams will be announced by the end of the year, and will begin playing by 2020.

If Charlotte does land a team, many believe the city is more likely to receive one of the two latter slots.

Sacramento is a favorite to win one of the first expansion slots. The MLS commissioner has hinted the city is likely to get a team, and the ownership group already has a concrete plan for a new 20,000-seat downtown stadium.

But as bids were being submitted Tuesday, controversy erupted over whether the city’s successful minor-league team, Sacramento Republic FC, was being unfairly cut out of the bid, according to the Sacramento Bee.

St. Louis, which has a strong community interest in soccer, is also considered a front-runner. The ownership group, however, is still haggling with the city over whether public money can be used for a downtown stadium.

San Diego’s bid also received a boost when the NFL’s Chargers left for Los Angeles, leaving the city with only one major pro team, baseball’s Padres.

Mecklenburg County Manager Dena Diorio said she believes MLS wants a team in the southeast U.S. as part of the expansion and that Charlotte’s competition is Raleigh/Durham, Nashville and Tampa/St. Petersburg. The league has a team in Washington, D.C., and is adding a team in Atlanta.

In a December call announcing the markets bidding for expansion teams, Garber lauded the Smith family as having “a lot of energy, and lots of professional sports experience.”

City likely won’t fund stadium

The expansion fee for the first round of teams is $150 million – to be paid by team owners – and that is on top of the stadium costs.

For Charlotte, the Smiths have proposed a $175 million stadium in the Elizabeth neighborhood. The county would raze Memorial Stadium and the Grady Cole Center to make way for the MLS stadium.

The county agreed last week to spend $43.75 million on the project, though citing insufficient time, City Council opted not to vote on its matching subsidy.

On Wednesday the prospects of the city helping fund the stadium dimmed.

Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts said that the City Council doesn’t support spending $43.75 million on the project, though she said council members might consider a smaller investment in a year or two.

She said one concern council members have is other needs for hotel/motel taxes, which must be used for tourism.

“We have heard about upcoming needs for tourism dollars,” she said. “We have an upgrade of the convention center, and possibly an upgrade of Bank of America Stadium. There are others, like Discovery Place.”

She said other council members want to focus on issues such as affordable housing and hiring more police.

“It’s not a priority and not a contribution that the city can make at this time,” Roberts said.

Smith has said that he and his team would reevaluate stadium funding options when the time comes, should the city decide not to pay the proposed $43.75 million.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Pat Cotham, who voted against a proposal to replace Memorial Stadium by investing $118 million into a new soccer stadium, talked about the county's vote. Commissioners voted 5-3 Thursday to move forward with the inv

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Other bids

Twelve cities submitted bids with Major League Soccer for expansion teams: Charlotte, Raleigh, Nashville, Tampa, San Antonio, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Detroit, Indianapolis, Phoenix, San Diego and Sacramento.

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