Follow the money

If you follow the money – where it’s being spent and the size of the bets being made – you have to feel pretty good about the future of soccer in this country. 

While I realize that people routinely place bad bets (I mean, the house always wins in a casino), the types of bets being placed on soccer’s future indicate a critical mass of investors who believe in what’s coming. And when this large of a number make these kind of investments, the number tends to create a critical mass that brings hopes into reality.

As MLS as one type of barometer, we only need look at the franchise fees paid by entering teams. In 2013, NYCFC paid a $100 million dollar fee to enter. A few years later, FC Cincinnati and Nashville SC paid $150 million to join. The fee then rose to $200 million with a projection of later franchises coming in at $325 million. These fees, in addition to the combination of private and public money that is going into building soccer specific stadia in each city, or a stadium under the control of the soccer team owners, in terms of parking and other revenue (well… hmmmm… in most cities.  Hello, MLS champions?).

That’s a massive rise in value that a number of folks are buying into.

And if we look around our own region, as my colleague Chris Ivey points out in his piece about Knoxville’s USL 2 team, we see an entire different example of bets being placed. Looking directly north, in 2020, the Lynn Family Stadium opened in Louisville, KY, serving as the home for both former Nashville SC rvials, USL Championship side Louisville City FC, as well as NWSL side Racing Louisville FC. Lynn Family Stadium is a soccer specific stadium seating 11,700 and built to be expandable to more than 15,000. This simply doesn’t happen without a strong belief in the future of soccer at even the second tier levels of soccer. 

More pointedly, it was the recent announcement by Lexington Pro Soccer, the owners of a USL 1 franchise to begin playing in 2023, that really caught my eye. The multi-use stadium, seating 6000 people, is to be built downtown, right near Rupp Arena, with over 2000 spaces for parking. Moreover, the club announced plans for a youth academy and other routes to increase youth access to soccer development in the area. 

Imagine: a third tier soccer team, that doesn’t even yet have an official name, is building its own soccer specific stadium directly downtown. This is not inexpensive property; the location is prime real estate. As recently as 15 years ago, MLS stadia were being built miles away from downtown areas to make them a little more affordable and teams in the second and third tier of soccer were lucky to play from year to year in the same city owned municipal fields, many of which were not ideal for soccer.

While I realize that some of these owners are hedging their bets by building a stadium that includes numerous other business (e.g., hotels, residential areas, entertainment oriented affairs) that would thrive without soccer, this is only a hedge. You don’t build something like this without a faith in the value rising. You certainly don’t invest in a sport that isn’t on a projected growth curve.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic once noted that MLS wasn’t as serious about soccer as a sport because, while in Europe, owners didn’t mind taking huge losses in order to win, MLS franchises were attempting to ultimately make money. While I have no idea about the ultimate “truth” of this statement (and while I can’t find it, so trust me or not on whether he said it), the underlying logic of it is reasonable enough.  While owners may have numerous reasons for such investments (e.g., solidifying the family name in a community, a real zest for soccer), they are not spending the money, as the joke goes about funding new restaurants, to turn their giant fortunes into small fortunes. Ultimately, they are betting that an investment now that requires a loss will ultimately grow into a franchise worth multiple times over that initial investment.

I love soccer; I love watching it grow. I’m particularly fond of doing so, as Ivey notes, in the southeast. And while I’m not particularly concerned about the wealth of owners, I actually like the meaning of their wealth, if only because of what that tells us about the investment being made.

The future looks very good indeed.

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