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What Would Need to Happen For Louisville to Get a Major League Soccer Team?

Advocates of Louisville having a pro sports franchise focused for years on bringing the National Basketball Association to the city.

But Louisville is best suited for hosting a Major League Soccer team, according to a recent study by the American City Business Journal.

If that's the situation, what would it take to make a Louisville MLS franchise a reality?

For starters, it would take patience.

Wayne Estopinal, chairman of Louisville City FC, the minor league soccer team set to play its second home game on Thursday, said MLS isn't looking to expand its roster of teams until 2020.

"The league made that decision a couple of years ago just to keep it from being a free-for-all," he said.

And he stressed that, just weeks into Louisville City FC's inaugural season, it's too early to even begin thinking about MLS in Louisville.

"We've not had meetings with the MLS here in Louisville," he said. "That would be ridiculously premature to think that they're wanting to talk to us right now."

But if one were to think about bringing MLS to Louisville, Estopinal said there are three parameters that must be considered. He was part of the group that assisted bringing the USL Pro team from Orlando to Louisville, and he also helped establish the new MLS team in Orlando.

He said the parameters then are the same now.

A city must have a proven market place, which includes attendance, support and corporate participation, he said.

He said a city must also prove the team, including the players, coaches and supporting organization, will be competitive. And lastly, an organization seeking to bring an MLS team to an area must "have a soccer-specific stadium deal," he said. Louisville City FC plays its home games at Louisville Slugger Field--very much a baseball stadium.

"Those three things are paramount," Estopinal said.

The biggest challenge for Louisville's hopes to enter MLS is market support, he said.

If Louisville was thrust into the MLS realm, the city would fall into the "bottom third smaller markets in the league," Estopinal added.

"We would have to have some really good support," he said, noting the support would need to come from within the city and well beyond the metro area.

In these early days, support for the Louisville City FC has been strong, Estopinal said. The first game of the season at Slugger Field had nearly 6,000 people in attendance.

Maintaining that level of support, Estopinal said, will be key for getting nods from potential MLS expansions.

Another key challenge would be a stadium.

Estopinal said minor moves have been made in regards to constructing a stadium, but "nothing of great substance" quite yet.

And some sports fans' hopes for the NBA in Louisville endure. J.  Bruce Miller, who has advocated for bringing a professional basketball team to Louisville for years, said he doesn't have any issue with a Major League Soccer team coming to town. But he does question how the city will justify assisting in the development of a professional soccer stadium when the KFC Yum Center has suffered financial struggles in recent years.

"In my opinion, the city, the county, the state and everyone else involved ought to be more worried about (the KFC Yum Center) than anything," he said.

The KFC Yum Center cost about $240 million to develop. The newly opened University of Louisville Cardinal soccer stadium, which seats about 5,300, cost about $19 million to construct. Estopinal said an MLS stadium would need to seat about 20,000 fans.

In an email, a spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer said there has yet to be an official cost estimate for developing a professional soccer stadium in the city.

"Our goal for the moment is ensuring the minor league team is successful and the stadium full," he stated.

The study conducted by American City Business Journals analyzed personal income data for 83 metro areas across the United States. Researchers then compared the income data to average ticket prices and revenue data for the five major sports—basketball, baseball, football, hockey and soccer—and major college programs.

The comparisons gave researchers an idea of how likely it would be for a city to support a professional sports team.

Louisville earned a perfect score of 100 for it's potential to provide the financial backing necessary to support an MLS team. This means the total personal income of the metro area ($61 billion) is enough to cover the estimated $14 billion it costs to support an MLS team, even with the near $26 billion it costs to support the city's major college team, University of Louisville, according to the study.

The price tag for putting an MLS team in a city is indeed steep, Estopinal said. Investors put out about $70 million two years ago in franchise fees to bring an MLS team to Orlando, he said. Orlando already had a stadium, he said, but needed some "ramping up" to accommodate an MLS team.

"That's a lot of money," he said. "You don't do that in the two weeks before the season starts. We started a year and half before our first game in Orlando, we started building an organization."

Also, other USL Pro cities also earned a perfect score for soccer in the American City Business Journal study.

Austin, Tulsa, Rochester and Richmond are also cities that could support an MLS team, according to the study. St. Louis, which also is hosting a USL Pro team for the first time this year, didn't fare so well in the study with a score of zero. Indianapolis, which has a minor league soccer team, earned a score of 23, not plausible for an MLS team anytime soon. Charlotte earned a score of 71, right on the border of being able to support an MLS team.

Austin is one of the top economically performing cities in the nation and Richmond has an established USL Pro team that Estopinal calls a "perennial play-off" team, factors that could lead to Louisville being overlooked when MLS officials begin looking for potential expansion cities.

But Estopinal said Louisville likely wouldn't be competing for just one expansion spot when it comes time for Major Soccer League to grow.

An expansion would likely take the league from 24 teams to 30 or 32 teams, he said. But for now, that's all speculation.

He confirms, though, the high standard of athletics in Louisville makes it a first-rate contender.

"I think we can compete with any of these cities," he said.

Right now, he said there are a number of goals he'd like see accomplished before the conversation turns to MLS. He wants to see the Louisville City FC have a successful inaugural season. He wants to see support for the sport in the area continue to grow.

The nearest MLS team is in Columbus. A soccer fan himself, he said the highest level of the sport would bring people from across the state and neighboring states to Louisville.

"We would find that it would be an incredible spark further into this regionalism idea," he said. "I think it would help pull us together a little bit, there would be an incredible civic outcome of us having a team here."

Correction: This story was updated to note that Indianapolis has a professional soccer team.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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