5 advantages for Charlotte's new MLS club
(Photo: Kevin Ketchie)
by Philip Sanford
Building a franchise is challenging when you only have 15 months from establishment to first match. Beyond the logistical components like facilities and staff, the franchise will need to build a fan base beyond the supporters' groups.
But Charlotte MLS has advantages to leverage when building this base into a sustainable model that will carry beyond the hyped first season when the new car smell wears off in a fickle sports market.
1. David Tepper and the Carolina Panthers
The Carolina Panthers organization is the biggest asset the new franchise has to develop a fan base. The most popular team in town has been around for 25 years, and David Tepper owns both franchises outright.
Before Tepper's bid became public, a survey about a potential MLS franchise was sent to just about any person who had purchased tickets from the Panthers. Getting that direct access to the region's biggest and most supportive fan base is something that was not available to Marcus Smith when his group put together a failed bid in 2017. It was also something that Jerry Richardson would not have used as he never showed interest in establishing a franchise.
Tepper's presentation to the MLS was bolstered by his PSL and suite owner support, gaining year-round commitments to their seats instead of just during football season. The Panthers keep the MLS franchise from starting from scratch and the data collected from fans so far should be used to establish and maintain the base.
2. Accessible ticket prices
Real estate prices and other cost of living expenses in Charlotte have reflected the region's rapid development and destination for transplants. What hasn't skyrocketed during that time compared to other markets is the price of attending a top-level sporting event in the city.
The Panthers remain just below the NFL average for ticket prices and the Charlotte Hornets remain one of the most affordable destinations in the NBA. The combination of sharing a stadium with different revenue generating events year-round, receiving public assistance, having a favorable tax and lease situation for that stadium, and having the owner with the deepest pockets in the league should allow the franchise to keep tickets at a reasonable rate without tacking on start-up costs an independent franchise would have to absorb.
3. Supporters' groups
The impact of supporters' groups like Mint City Collective is best explained by Jay Landskroener in Episode 2 of the Mint City Soccer Show. Jay's thoughts and experiences are much better than mine, so read this summary, but listen to the podcast for a much better explanation!
The Mint City Collective was established prior to the franchise being established and, similar to the Panthers sending out MLS related surveys, the very influential Roaring Riot supporters' group are helping to build this group. Working hand-in-hand with the Panthers' top fans has helped drive the news to non-soccer sports fans.
After that establishment, Jay explains in the podcast that the Mint City Collective did proactive work with supporters of other sports teams in Charlotte. Supporters' groups are necessary to establish a base of diehards, but following the Roaring Riot model will be essential to welcoming in casual fans through different methods like tailgate parties, charity events, fundraisers, and community outreach in Charlotte and beyond.
This group will show that you do not need to be a diehard to follow the team and you can engage with fans whose interest ranges from "expert level" to watching a match for the first time.
4. Youth organizations
Charlotte is not unique as a major metropolitan region with an active youth soccer scene, but it does have a strong one. And when the franchise plays its first match, Charlotte will be one of only 23 American markets in the top flight of professional soccer (two franchises in the New York and Los Angeles markets, and three MLS clubs in Canada).
With the right combination of talent, name recognition, and success on the field, this franchise could hook in young fans during their formative years and build future support for life, like the Panthers have done since the mid-1990s.
5. Lack of competition
Finally, this franchise can succeed because of its unique geographic location and lack of similar activities during the peak of the MLS season. Charlotte is far enough from Washington D.C., Nashville, and Atlanta to establish its own fan base and not bleed into those regions.
Charlotte is also positioned well to be a destination for soccer fans from areas represented by the fifteen Soccer 'n' Sweet Tea clubs. Within the Charlotte sports community, the franchise's biggest competition for fans will come from its partners at the Panthers, and the regular seasons for each franchise will only overlap by a month.
The Charlotte Knights minor league baseball team however plays in the summer, and has been a go-to for residents living in and around Uptown Charlotte searching for an easy source of entertainment. As built up as Uptown has become with restaurants and bars, the entertainment resources are still lacking. The competition for the Charlotte MLS walk-up sales will be limited to the Knights and smaller concerts at the AvidXchange Music Factory. With only 17 home, regular season MLS games versus series played in consecutive days like you see with the Knights, an MLS match will be unique enough to stand out in the summer in Charlotte.
This franchise has advantages in place because of how it was established and the personnel decisions made by David Tepper and his team before and after the official announcement in December. How those advantages are used to build the fan base from the very beginning will go a long way to determine the sustainability, growth, and success of the franchise into the next generation.