Major League Soccer President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott says St. Louis is well-positioned for an expansion team, but whether it will happen is yet to be seen. Politics could decide things as voters will be asked to fund up to 40 percent of the $200 million stadium. The specifics of that proposal, which would include the city taking ownership of the 22,000-seat stadium, are still being negotiated, but it's expected to appear in the April 4 municipal elections. In a 20-minute telephone interview Tuesday from the league office in New York, Abbott explained why MLS is so interested in St. Louis and why the league has confidence in a proposal put forth by SC STL, which includes investors with ties to the Cardinals, Blues and St. Louis FC.
Q: What are the odds for St. Louis to secure a team and why is there such faith in the ownership group SC STL?
A: "We've been working almost for a year now with public officials and business leaders in St. Louis, including the governor and the mayor. Through that process we have been able to understand really the depth of their passionate commitment, capacity and the specificity of their plan. It has all the elements you really need. They've got sports experience, business experience, financial capacity and a strong working relationship with the public officials that have allowed them to propose this partnership. They themselves are also making a sizable financial commitment."
Q: So you've seen SC STL's finances?
A: "Absolutely, we've seen what they have. As we do with all potential ownership groups we do a very thorough vetting. We have great confidence in their commitment and the capacity they have to fulfill their obligations under what's required by the league and any public-private partnership in St. Louis. It's really a dream team ownership group."
Q: There's a $200 million stadium proposal for downtown, but SC STL wants up to 40 percent of that funded by public money. Why do you support that idea?
A: "We've been working collaboratively with public officials for over a year and it was their judgment it was appropriate to bring the public-private partnership to a vote. We believe the type of partnership being proposed here is of great value to the community. We have seen the success of these partnerships in markets throughout the country. It's difficult to build stadiums today without them. The cost of stadiums obviously have escalated significantly in the last 20 years. The stadiums bring benefit to the communities beyond just the benefit of a team in the community. Stadiums themselves have multiple uses. That's why we see communities embracing partnerships of this type."
Q: Why does the MLS think St. Louis would be a strong market for professional soccer?
A: "There are four factors we look at when we evaluate a market: the strength of the ownership group, the facility plan, dynamics in the market and the contribution of that market in helping the league achieve its overall goals. Based on our own research into St. Louis, we know there is a strong fan interest. But that will only lead to success if we have the right ownership group and stadium plan. I think what's really attractive about St. Louis is it is in many ways the historical home of the sport in the U.S. What also struck me the first time I went was the number of people in influence and authority who had played the game their entire lives. You just feel the sport when you're there."
Q: How would having a team in St. Louis boost the league's "overall goals," as you say?
A: "Given its location in the middle of the country, St. Louis presents the opportunity for strong rivalries with places such as Chicago and Kansas City. Rivalries are what has been driving interest in this league. You look at the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers in the Pacific Northwest, that has generated a lot of interest. St. Louis has the opportunity for a rivalry in the league and that helps grow overall interest in the league. It's also a strong media market and that's something that we look to also as we think about expansion."
Q: The league wants to expand to 28 teams. It will soon have 23, and a 24th in Miami is almost a lock. SC STL vice chairman Jim Kavanaugh said they want to have a team playing in 2020 or 2021. What is the time frame for fielding four more teams?
A: "We haven't yet announced a timetable for the launch of expansion clubs. I'm not sure when that might happen." (MLS Commissioner Don Garber previously said expansion in St. Louis would not happen prior to 2020.)