By Cameron Lee
July 25, 2019
Soccer has been a hot topic in Charlotte for a few years now. Public fanfare started to dwindle since the 2017 vote to decline Memorial Stadium’s ownership rights to the city for a Major League Soccer stadium led by Nascar tycoon, Bruton Smith. But then emerged David Tepper, the billionaire hedge fund manager and now owner of the beloved Carolina Panthers who seems to be proactive in making not just Charlotte, but the region, a sports entertainment destination. With the recent news of Ally Financial stepping up to become a lead partner for the prospective MLS team, momentum is building stronger. But can Charlotte really support an MLS team?
While most of the public concern from the Bruton Smith-led camp in 2017 to push for renovations of Memorial Stadium were taxpayer funds from the city and county, Tepper has both the resources and capital to properly acquire an MLS franchise. With the recent announcement of Relevant Sports Groups’ five-year commitment to bring the International Champions Cup to Charlotte, the city now seems to be a front-runner. With other destinations like Las Vegas, Sacramento, Phoenix and Raleigh vying for teams, the demand is high.
When Relevant Sports Group announced earlier in July the immersive pop-up fan experience, House of Soccer, there seemed to be genuine excitement in the city. Coming off last year’s International Champions Cup match that paired German powerhouse Dortmund with Premier League club Liverpool (which drew an impressive attendance of 55,447), the city continues to build a strong case for an MLS team.
Soccer’s popularity in the states seems to be at an all-time high, at least for the moment. Most of the country has been caught up in the seasonal tradition of rooting for the dynamic USWNT team even if the hysteria turned somewhat political. But, the 2019 International Champions Cup in Charlotte netted only 34,902 attendees, a sharp decrease from last year. To be fair– much like the NBA– soccer is a superstar sport in the US, and last year’s match featured American phenom Christian Pulisic (who now plays for Chelsea) and Liverpool’s international soccer star, Mohamed Salah (who didn’t play but drew large crowds). In addition, AS Roma, the original club team scheduled to play Arsenal in Charlotte, withdrew from the tournament due to UEFA Europa League Qualifier obligations. The lesser known Fiorentina was added as a replacement.
Megan Rapinoe, who hosted a short soccer clinic on Saturday, was the talk of the town as the crowds at Romare Bearden Park hit its peak when the USWNT star arrived. Mobs of fans of all ages followed her every move as she was being escorted around by security from the park and into Bank of America Stadium where she participated in the ceremonial coin toss. Outside of the excitement and transformation of Romare Bearden Park into the House of Soccer and swarms of Arsenal fans that marched from the park to the stadium, at times, the event felt more like a commercial than a fan fest. Sponsored by Bud Light and featuring a somewhat unknown, but talented, country artist Walker Hayes, there were moments where the event felt contrived. One of the bright spots of the weekend featured Grits & Biscuits, the travelling Southern hip-hop show that sells out venues across the country, although they got minimal response from the mainly suburban soccer mom and dad audience. Current and former athletes like Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller, Jonathan Stewart, and Tre Boston looked like they enjoyed their time at the event and were all very fan-friendly. Kids were entertained with a plethora of activities including a video game station and a handful of competitive soccer-related games and face painting areas. The VIP lounge offered a little shade and complimentary drinks in a vibrant lounge setting. Overall, the event was very well organized and mostly all of the fans in attendance seemed genuinely happy (outside of the scorching heat).
But the biggest takeaway from the weekend was the diversity. While soccer has historically been known to be a popular adolescent sport in affluent white suburban communities, futbol always brings multiculturalism to the forefront. We all know that money and politics are at the center of every major decision in the city, but soccer in Charlotte is an opportunity to bridge cultural gaps in the community. While wandering Uptown it was hard not to notice the wide-range of countries represented from around the world. Hearing multiple languages being spoken in a city that’s been known to be quite monotonous was super refreshing.
Our neighbors in Atlanta may be the prime example of Major League Soccer thriving in an NFL football city, but Charlotte will have to be united (pun intended) as a multicultural soccer community. Let’s see how it goes.