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June 26, 2019

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MLS to Las Vegas? The process of luring a top soccer league

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Rendering of the Las Vegas Epicenter Sports & Innovation District.

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The Las Vegas City Council passed a resolution Wednesday to begin negotiations with a developer to build a Major League Soccer stadium as part of a mixed-use development at the downtown Cashman Center site.

There are plenty of questions still to be answered, starting with the obvious.

What actually happened yesterday?

The short of it: not much in terms of concrete plans. The city approved a proposal to enter into an agreement with Renaissance Companies Inc. to come up with a master plan over the next 180 days for redevelopment of the 62-acre site where Cashman Field currently sits. That would include a new MLS stadium, as well as business, commercial and residential areas around the stadium.

As of right now, no money has been agreed upon, and nothing is finalized. This is the beginning of the process.

Does this mean Las Vegas is getting an MLS team?

Not yet. MLS has 24 teams, including Cincinnati joining this year. Miami and Nashville will join in 2020 and Austin in 2021. The league has a stated desire to reach 30 teams, with Sacramento and St. Louis expected to claim two of three remaining spots. The 30th team is unknown, which is where Las Vegas comes in.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in April that Las Vegas will be one of the cities considered, but so are Charlotte, Detroit and Phoenix.

Once Renaissance and the city agree to a plan for a stadium, they will submit a bid to house the 30th MLS team. The Las Vegas Lights FC would be that team.

What will that stadium look like?

The proposed stadium will seat 25,000 fans at the current Cashman Field site. It would not have a roof but would have a retractable field so that the grass could come out and be replaced by another surface for another event.

Part of the plan would revitalize the downtown area by including spaces for apartments, businesses, restaurants and shopping.

Who’s paying for it?

That’s what the 180 days are for. Mayor Pro Tem Lois Tarkanian the money is her only objection, asking the developers to “just try not to take a whole lot of taxpayers’ money, because that’s going to be the big question.”

Renaissance chairman Floyd Kephart said he is not sure where that negotiation will go, and it may include public money.

“I think all taxpayers should support this redevelopment,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer to what the financing structure will be at this particular point. It’s one of those things that we have to work out with the city.”

Do other MLS stadiums use public money?

It’s not uncommon. The stadium in Cincinnati cost $250 million in private funds and $35 million of public money, and Nashville fronted the cost of a $250 million stadium with the team owner paying it off.

However, Austin is building a privately funded $225 million stadium project.

What if MLS chooses not to come here?

Cashman Center will still get a makeover. The stadium will not be redeveloped to MLS standards, but the Lights will still get an upgrade on their current home.

Who will own the team?

Currently, Lights founder Brett Lashbrook and his family own 100% of the team. Lashbrook has agreed to sell the team contingent on the approval of the master plan. ESPN confirmed a report that the owner will be Seth Klarman, a Boston-based hedge fund manager.

Lashbrook said he will sell all his stake in the team pending the master plan approval, not MLS approval.

What about Bill Foley and the Golden Knights?

Golden Knights owner Bill Foley is interested in an MLS team, to play either at the Raiders’ stadium or at a new to-be-built stadium. Golden Knights officials did not wish to expand further. The hockey owner's efforts are different than those of Las Vegas.

“We are exploring the possibility of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Las Vegas,” the Golden Knights said in a statement. “We do not have any additional comments at this time.”

Do other MLS teams play in NFL stadiums?

Three do: Atlanta United FC (Falcons), Seattle Sounders FC (Seahawks) and New England Revolution (Patriots). All three of those teams are owned by the same owners of the respective NFL franchises.

It is unclear how involved, if at all, Raiders owner Mark Davis would be in a potential MLS team.

The issue is not stadium availability, as the NFL will only need the stadium for eight regular season games, plus preseason and postseason. The problem stems from everything else that goes into a stadium: sales of naming rights, suites, personal seat licenses, etc.

Does the Golden Knights news affect the news from yesterday’s vote?

Maybe. As of Tuesday, the Renaissance group was the only plan for a stadium. It is still further along than Foley’s idea, and Renaissance said they were encouraged that Las Vegas’ desire to have a team expanded beyond just its plan.

The Renaissance group was not outwardly perturbed by the news of Foley’s venture.

“MLS has been pretty clear in the past that they want a specific-owned stadium so we’re proceeding on that basis,” Kephart said. “We believe in downtown as a really strong place to be in the future.”

If that is true, it could come down to the city council vote six month from now. If the Renaissance group proposal uses public money and is voted down, it could either torpedo Las Vegas’ hopes of an MLS team or boost Foley’s chances, which could still be improved over time.

Will MLS work in Las Vegas?

The city council members seem to think so. The stadium is located in Ward 5, whose council member, Cedric Crear, was ecstatic at the possibilities.

“We are the cultural epicenter of the city,” Crear said, citing the museums in his ward. “Why wouldn’t it be fitting to have a world-class soccer facility and development that would be located right in Ward 5?”

MLS attendance numbers have quite a range, from Atlanta United FC pulling 52,535 fans per game, all the way to the Chicago Fire averaging only 10,635. The average for the league is 20,373.

The Lights, fueled partially by the area's Hispanic population, are averaging 7,593 fans per game, which is fifth-best in the lower-tier United Soccer League. That number could jump if the team became an MLS franchise.

Finally, what’s next?

We wait. At the latest, we’ll hear from the city council in 180 days if an agreement is not reached before then. MLS could award its 30th team to another city. More news about Foley’s plan could come out.

Still, all this is nothing but good news for soccer fans in Las Vegas. There is momentum for the first time in years that MLS could come to town, joining the Golden Knights, Raiders and Aces among the top level of their respective sports, and further transforming Las Vegas into even more of a major league sports town.

 

 

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