By this time next year, Louisville City FC will have a new home, as the two-time United Soccer League Champions will move out of Louisville Slugger Field and into an 11,300-seat stadium in Butchertown.
There are a number of motives for the construction of the Butchertown stadium, one being that the USL will require each of its clubs to have a self-owned soccer-specific stadium by 2020. That requirement provides necessity for the stadium, but one other impetus could be at play — a move to Major League Soccer.
The Mayor’s office confirmed with Insider Tuesday that the city has been speaking with MLS in coordination with Louisville City FC to try to attract MLS to Louisville.
“We’ve been in contact with Major League Soccer, in coordination with the Louisville City Football Club,” said Jean Porter, director of communications for the Mayor’s Office. “The mayor is a huge fan of LCFC and is supportive of the idea of bringing MLS to Louisville.
“From the team’s success to the exciting plan to open a new stadium in 2020, we continue embracing the growing demand for soccer in our city, as part of an overall effort to build on our already vibrant arts, sports and entertainment scene.”
The Courier Journal reported in December that the city had been speaking with MLS to see what Louisville needed to do to put itself in a place to be an expansion candidate.
The team told Insider that its current focus was on its immediate future in USL for the time being.
“Our primary focus as a club is to complete our soccer-specific stadium in Butchertown,” team President Brad Estes said in a statement. “We want to focus on building our stadium and filling it up with our fans. We will evaluate a possible move to MLS in the future if it makes sense, but our focus as a club is on our immediate future.”
Louisville does not have a professional sports team that competes at the top tier in its respective sport in America.
The University of Louisville provides the majority of the entertainment in the city for sports fans, with a Power 5 athletics department that competes in bowl games and the NCAA Tournament on a regular basis.
But for professional sports, the city only has the Louisville Bats (which compete in the Triple-A League of Minor League Baseball) and Louisville City FC (which compete in the USL).
With a new stadium and a successful team, Louisville City could look to change that.
A feasibility study done by Conventions, Sports & Leisure International for the construction of the Butchertown stadium stated that this team was Louisville’s best shot at a major professional sports team.
“Based on Louisville’s population and media market size relative to other markets and lack of competition from other professional teams in the market, many community leaders believe MLS is Louisville’s most realistic opportunity at landing a major professional sports franchise,” the report said.
The case for the big leagues
The team has had recent success in the USL, winning back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018, and making the conference finals in the club’s first two seasons of operation. LouCity has also finished in the top two spots in its conference in each of its four regular seasons.
LouCty has also been able to put fans in seats on a regular basis, finishing in the top five in average home game attendance in the USL in each of its first four seasons (currently fourth in attendance this year).
And as for its stadium plan, Louisville is in better shape than several other cities, some of which are actively pursuing MLS membership. Adnan Ilyas, a contributor for Stars and Stripes FC who has covered MLS expansion, sees LouCity’s stadium plan as a positive for its potential MLS membership.
“That’s something where I think Louisville is actually very well situated,” he said. “You’ve got your stadium plan lined up, it’s doing well, that’s what the league loves to see.”
This all bodes well for Louisville City in a potential MLS bid, but it’s not necessarily the biggest factor.
The structure of American soccer leagues are far different than that of soccer leagues around the world. Leagues in Europe are often structured into multiple divisions, and teams that finish at the bottom of their division are demoted to the division below them, while teams that finish at the top of their division are promoted to the next division above them. Promotion and demotion is entirely based on quality of play.
In America, there is no promotion or demotion system. MLS teams are entirely determined by league officials, and that often results in money being the driving factor when the league considers expansion teams. This includes the depth of pockets for the owners, and the success of the club as a business.
“Having a team that does well indicates that the team is well-run, which is a good sign, and obviously it helps with attendance,” Ilyas said. “I think the business side of it is more important, unfortunately.”
And there’s a high price to pay as a club if you’re accepted into the league. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in April that the expansion fees for the next two members of MLS would be $200 million.
“You want to have a billion dollars, if you can, between who owns your team,” Ilyas said. “It’s really kind of an exclusive party in that way.”
Louisville City’s initially released ownership team featured 47 members, and included owners and CEOs from businesses all over the area, as well as University of Louisville Athletic Director Vince Tyra, according to a the Courier Journal.
Much of the money is already being poured into the team for the stadium build. The Butchertown stadium will have a total price tag of $65 million, and $50 million of that has been financed.
A move to MLS would require renovations to be made to the Butchertown stadium to meet MLS standards. CSL’s study projected that an MLS-specific stadium would cost $125 million — a $60 million increase over the cost of the Butchertown stadium. Add that onto the expansion fee of $200 million — which is likely to increase, Ilyas said — and LouCity is looking at a $260 million-plus bill to get into the league.
As the costs of this move rise, the payoff isn’t guaranteed. LouCity would be in a league with much stronger competition, and would see a drop in its win/loss success. However, the team would provide more value to its fans by having better opponents. This could have an immediate payoff, according to economist Mike Clark, the associate director of the Center for Business and Academic Research at the University of Kentucky.
“The idea is as you move up into this higher level of competition, there are more fans that are interested and may be willing to pay a higher price to get into those games, and so there is value there,” Clark said.
Nonetheless, this would still be a gamble, observers said. Leaving a league that LouCity has had so much success in could lead to some tumultuous times in terms of performance. FC Cincinnati had the best record in the USL last year, but its first season in MLS has resulted in the worst performance in the league through 23 matches.
“They’re making an investment with the idea that they’re going to have these long-term rewards, but there is some uncertainty there,” Clark said.
The road to MLS expansion is a crowded one
Louisville would be far from the only city vouching for a spot in America’s top-tier soccer league, and the league will only allow so many new franchises. MLS currently has 24 teams, and that number will increase to 27 by 2021 with the additions of Miami, Nashville and Austin.
Garber said in April that the new cap on the league’s expansion is 30 teams. The overwhelming favorites to land the 28th and 29th spots are St. Louis and Sacramento, Ilyas said. Sacramento has been a candidate for expansion since 2014.
In addition to those two, San Diego, Phoenix, Tampa Bay, Raleigh, San Antonio, Indianapolis and Charlotte are all contenders as well, according to an article from Ilyas on Stars and Stripes. Representatives from Charlotte, Las Vegas, Sacramento, St. Louis and others are expected to be at the MLS All-Star Game festivities Wednesday, MLS said.
Ilyas said he expects the league to focus on the West Coast after adding Sacramento and St. Louis. And by the time Louisville makes a bid for MLS, it could have competition from other USL teams that are in larger markets.
The study by CSL International in 2016 listed Louisville as the 19th-largest Designated Market Area in the country among cities that have USL teams, based on population. Among those 19, eight already have MLS teams, and Austin will make nine. St. Louis and Sacramento are also ahead of Louisville, so if those cities join, that would still leave eight other cities ahead of Louisville in terms of market size.
Louisville also ranked near the bottom among potential MLS markets in median household income and corporate base, according to CSL’s 2016 study. Some of those markets have since been awarded MLS teams.
MLS can afford to keep growing
As soccer continues to increase in popularity in America, MLS expansion efforts continue. And America’s geography actually invites more expansion.
Ilyas explained that most countries that feature prominent soccer leagues are much smaller in land size and in population, which allows them to keep their leagues small. America, on the other hand, stretches much farther and has a much larger population.
“There are way too many teams, and too many good teams, to just have teams play one game home and one game away for the regular season,” Ilyas said.
Other prominent professional sports leagues in America have between 30 and 32 teams. Ilyas said it’s likely that MLS gets to 32 teams eventually, but if soccer demand continues to grow, the league could go beyond that.
An expansion beyond 32 teams would be Louisville’s best bet for getting to the next level. While the team lags behind a number of cities in market size, and there are already other candidates in place, Louisville City has pulled a plan together for its stadium that will be finished and hosting games well before the team would be able to get into MLS.
That could benefit Louisville greatly, as MLS officials may prefer a team that’s already in its stadium to one that has to prepare plans to build one.
“Based on Louisville’s rank as the 49th largest Designated Market Area (“DMA”) in the U.S. and the demographics of cities that have publicly declared their interest in MLS, it may prove challenging for Louisville to be part of the next round of expansion by 2020, but could become more plausible if MLS expands to 32 or more teams in the future,” CSL’s report stated.