MLS expansion: San Diego has the momentum to become club No. 30

In February, MLS commissioner Don Garber stated that Las Vegas and San Diego were the two leading expansion candidates to become the league’s 30th team. Multiple sources tell ESPN that it’s San Diego’s bid that has considerably more momentum, though.

One source with knowledge of the league’s thinking went so far as to say that San Diego “is clearly the leader in the clubhouse,” and that if the deal goes through, a team could begin play in 2025.

Expansion bids have long relied on the magic triad of market, ownership group and stadium solution, although the specific requirements have varied throughout the years. Ownership groups need to be much better funded now, especially as the league’s expansion fees have increased to the $325 million that Charlotte FC paid in 2019.

Stadium requirements have shifted as well. MLS used to require new teams to build their own venue, and while that’s still the league’s preference, the success of existing stadiums in Charlotte and Atlanta has created some flexibility on this issue.

San Diego is close to having all three of the aforementioned requirements filled. Garber has long expressed an affinity for the market. There is considerable support for the sport, as evidenced by the presence of Liga MX side Tijuana just over the U.S./Mexico border. There’s also USL Championship side the San Diego Loyal, as well as a vibrant youth soccer scene.

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In terms of ownership, and as first reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune last October, the league has been engaged with an investor group that includes the Mansour Group, headed up by Mohamed Mansour, a London-based billionaire businessman with degrees from North Carolina State and Auburn. Also in the investor group is the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, a Native American tribe whose reservation is located near El Cajon. Mansour’s net worth is estimated by Forbes to be $3.6 billion, and he would be the majority owner. The Sycuan Band brings financial heft to the group as well, given its involvement in casino gaming, running the Sycuan Casino Resort.

Mansour’s connection to soccer runs deep, given the Mansour Group’s ownership of Right to Dream, an academy based in Ghana that provides playing pathways and college scholarships for both boys and girls that are aspiring players. New England Revolution winger Emmanuel Boateng and FC Dallas defender Ema Twumasi are among the program’s graduates. Right to Dream also owns Danish top-flight side Nordsjaelland, and the expectation is that a team in San Diego would look to benefit from Mansour’s relationship with Right to Dream.

The source with knowledge of the discussions said MLS and the prospective ownership group in San Diego are “meeting weekly,” although at present there is no memorandum of understanding or long-term agreement. That said, they said that there could be an agreement in San Diego “by the end of the summer,” although the goal remains finalizing a deal by the end of 2023.

In a joint statement, Mansour and Sycuan Tribal Chairman Cody Martinez said, “We continue to push forward with confidence, and we are working together to make the deal a reality. While we are still in the due diligence process, we remain excited about the prospect of bringing Major League Soccer to San Diego, a city and community with such a rich cultural and sporting heritage.”

That leaves the stadium as the last mountain to climb. Earlier this month, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported on a proposal for a 136-acre, $2.5b development in nearby Chula Vista that would include a soccer stadium. However, the source familiar with the league’s interest in San Diego said there had been “zero discussions” with Petra Development, which is pushing the project.

Of considerably more interest to the Mansour/Sycuan partnership is a purpose-built stadium at San Diego State — Snapdragon Stadium — which is available to be utilized. The NWSL’s San Diego Wave already play their home games there. There is also a university administration seemingly eager to schedule even more events there beyond the six dates taken up the school’s football team, as well as the Wave.

“We continue to have really good conversations, and we’re looking forward to hopefully getting something done sooner rather than later, and getting that last piece of the puzzle in the stadium from what we had originally planned,” San Diego State Athletic Director John David Wicker told ESPN in an exclusive interview.

In the past, MLS has been reluctant to have its teams be tenants in their home venues because it often meant missing out on ancillary revenues such as in-stadium sponsorship, ticketing, concessions and parking. Wicker felt that pain of that kind of relationship when the SDSU football team played games at the since-demolished Qualcomm Stadium, with the then-San Diego Chargers as the primary tenant. In this case, while there is bound to be back and forth in any negotiation, Wicker is keen to find a deal that works for both parties.

“The Chargers weren’t great teammates, if you will,” Wicker said. “So as you look at our stadium, the only exclusivity in our stadium is our naming rights partner. If we’re pouring Pepsi in the building, and this partner wanted to come in and put Coke on the front of their jersey, they could do that. We’ve made all of our seating available to an MLS partner when they come in. So all of our premium seating, we don’t control any of it for an MLS partner.”

Wicker added that an MLS team would have to give existing owners of premium seats right of first refusal, but if the team was turned down, it could go on and sell those seats to someone else. Marketing and sponsorship dollars would remain with the MLS team as well.

Wicker said that might mean losing some money in terms of what he termed “exclusivity opportunities” from sponsors, “but if I have successful partners in the building, San Diego State’s going to be better off in the long run,” he said.

There are no guarantees, of course, as Las Vegas knows all too well.

Vegas was once sitting where San Diego is now, seemingly in pole position. The market has plenty going for it given its continued growth as a tourism and entertainment destination. The arrivals of the NFL’s Raiders and the NHL’s Golden Knights, as well as the likely relocation of the Oakland A’s, have turned the city into a significant player in terms of professional sports. Allegiant Stadium has hosted several international soccer events, including the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup and 2021 Leagues Cup final. Las Vegas will host the final stage of the CONCACAF Nations League in June, all of this despite concerns about the field width.

Just last year, Garber said he was hoping to finalize a deal with Las Vegas in the first third of 2022. It was then that an ownership group led by Aston Villa co-owners Wes Edens and Nassef Sawiris entered into an exclusive negotiation agreement with MLS about securing the rights to an expansion team in Las Vegas. The ownership group even trademarked the name “Las Vegas Villains.” At the 2021 All-Star Game, Garber hailed Edens, who also co-owns the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, as “one of the most respected investors and operators, and clearly a really, really successful sports team owner. I happen to like him a lot personally. We’ve been intrigued by what a possibility could be with him.”

Yet the timeframe espoused by Garber has come and gone, and now the push to bring a team to Vegas appears stuck. The exclusive negotiation agreement has since expired, although the source familiar with the league’s thinking said there continue to be “friendly discussions” with Edens and Sawiris.

There’s no mistaking that the startup costs to put a team in Vegas would be immense. MLS is still insisting that while playing at Allegiant Stadium is possible, it’s strong preference is for venue with a retractable roof to be built, the better to cope with the intense heat of the Las Vegas summer. When combined with building a training facility and the expansion fee — which Garber is on record as saying would be well north of the $325m that Charlotte paid — the initial investment would be more than $1b.

That doesn’t mean all is lost in terms of putting a team in Vegas. At an event with AP Sports editors, Garber said, “We’re still focused on Las Vegas.” And San Diego is living proof that MLS expansion dreams can go dormant only to come back to life. A local referendum to build a soccer-specific stadium that was dubbed “Soccer City” failed in 2018, with the competing project put forward by San Diego State winning out. Now the city’s expansion bid is on the upswing again. Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman remains hopeful, tweeting earlier this week that in the wake of the A’s news, “we just need @NBA & @MLS for a full house.”

There also appears to still be some room left in MLS’s game of expansion musical chairs. The league has always been measured in terms of how many teams it would ultimately have, but 32 seems to be the sweet spot in terms of geographical and numerical balance. So even if San Diego completes its deal first, there’s still room and time for Vegas to get a deal done.

“I try to remind everybody that the U.S. and Canada is larger than Europe,” Garber said in the meeting with the AP. “We’re playing across multiple time zones and extended geography with multiple weather changes. So, I believe we could support more than 30 teams. There is no plan today to go to 32. It’s not as if we have earmarked cities, but the other (U.S.-based) leagues are this size or close to the size.”

Other cities could enter the fray as well. That explains why earlier this year Garber name-dropped Detroit, Phoenix, Sacramento and Tampa. Yet one source said there are no serious discussions between MLS and any of those cities other than just occasionally checking in. In a statement to ESPN, USL Championship side Sacramento Republic told ESPN, “Our club and city continue to prove why Sacramento is such a great sports market and soccer town. As we continue to plan for what’s next, we’re keeping all our options open as we prepare to take our club to the next level.”

The path to the expansion finish line is clear for San Diego, at least for the moment. The coming months will see if the city can cross it first.

Additional reporting by Cesar Hernandez.

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