ST. LOUIS • Major League Soccer will begin searching for a stadium site in St. Louis and planning for its financing and operations immediately, the league’s commissioner told the Post-Dispatch Thursday.
Commissioner Don Garber said he was “very excited” by the idea of an expansion team playing on the St. Louis riverfront — the proposed site of a National Football League stadium, until the St. Louis Rams left for Los Angeles.
He also said the soccer league would begin gathering potential owners. Multiple local individuals have contacted him as well as St. Louis civic leaders, he said.
Garber made no promises that MLS would move to St. Louis. But he said that now is the time to find out.
“This is a unique moment in time where we can really, finally see if St. Louis is MLS-ready,” Garber said.
Earlier Thursday, Garber met in the league’s New York City offices with Dave Peacock, the former president of Anheuser-Busch, co-chairman of Gov. Jay Nixon’s NFL stadium task force and chairman of the St. Louis Sports Commission.
Garber said that the league has long been considering St. Louis as an expansion site — he met Peacock 10 years ago in St. Louis, he said. But earlier efforts always fell through.
Now, he said “is the right time” for St. Louis. “With an expansion team, you can actually build a club that is born in St. Louis,” he said. The team, he continued, can build fans over generations.
The league has been on a growth spurt since Garber got the job. It added two teams in 2015 — in New York City and Orlando, Fla. — hitting 20, total. It plans to add four in the next few years: Atlanta and Minnesota in 2017, a second Los Angeles team in 2018, plus, if David Beckham can overcome stadium problems, one in Miami that year, too.
And it wants to reach 28 soon thereafter.
Garber said a team in St. Louis could kick off as soon as 2020.
There are several competitors for an expansion team. Garber said the league is also looking at Sacramento, Calif., San Diego, San Antonio and Detroit.
Three big factors govern expansion, he said: Fans. Ownership. And stadiums.
“Nobody argues that St. Louis is not a great soccer market,” Garber said. It has a passionate fan base, and a great soccer history. With packed crowds at national team and international soccer games here, St. Louis fans have recently proven their market power. The league also likes the potential rivalries between St. Louis and existing teams in Kansas City or Chicago.
St. Louis has had a harder time, however, pinning down local owners and finding the correct stadium site.
But after the Rams left for Los Angeles, “a number” of potential owners began contacting Garber, Peacock and political leaders, Garber said.
They wanted to know how much a team would cost to buy and operate. Owners have paid as much as $100 million in expansion fees recently. Operational costs, however, weren’t something Garber felt he could discuss with prospective owners without knowing more about St. Louis sites and financing.
That’s the league’s first step, he said.
The league likes downtown stadiums, Garber continued. They connect fans to the city, public transit, bicycle routes and hip downtown business districts like Washington Avenue in St. Louis, he noted.
“We want our club to be the center of gravity,” he said.
Garber said he hasn’t looked at other St. Louis sites, and hasn’t made any decisions. Still, he said the Mississippi River location is compelling. “I’m very intrigued about being adjacent to one of America’s great national treasures and being a part of what we’ve heard is a major revitalization of the riverfront,” he said. “That would give our club the opportunity to be a really deeply connected, important part of the community.”
Moreover, he said, the site looks like it has plenty of space for the stadium, parking and, perhaps, even public-use soccer fields.
It will be difficult to persuade the public that an MLS stadium is worth taxpayer support, he acknowledged. But the league believes it is, and will try to prove it.
“We are very excited about the possibilities in St. Louis. We believe it’s MLS-ready,” Garber said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do as it relates to determining a stadium solution, and figuring out who ultimately can be the owner of the team. But, overall, we’re very focused on St. Louis as a potential expansion market.”
Peacock and Nixon both responded Thursday.
Nixon called St. Louis “one of America’s great soccer cities,” and talks with the commissioner “productive.” He said he was pleased that MLS — and its private investment — was actively pursuing expansion here.