St. Louis voters went to the polls yesterday and narrowly defeated a proposal to spend $60 million in city tax money on a new soccer stadium for a proposed MLS expansion team. The stadium proposal failed by a 53-47% margin, while an accompanying ballot measure to raise city sales and use taxes by 0.5% and use some of the proceeds to expand the city’s light rail system passed by a 60-40% vote.
Local news coverage hasn’t provided much in the way of exit interviews with voters about why they cast their ballots the way they did, though the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did include this outstanding photo caption on an image of a woman in a soccer jersey peering out from between her fingers:
Lauren Rapp of The Hill watches vote returns creep in at Union Station during a watch party for the Major League Soccer stadium funding on Tuesday, April 4, 2017. “It’s been a rough night,” said Rapp. “And then (Stephen) Piscotty gets hit in the head.”
The failure of the stadium-subsidy vote puts MLS commissioner Don Garber in an interesting position: He’s previously raved about soccer fandom in St. Louis — and did so again last night after the vote, in a statement saying that the city would be “a tremendous market” for MLS but that the vote outcome was “clearly a significant setback” for the city’s expansion bid. Does the league now turn up its nose at St. Louis and say, “Fine, if you don’t want to throw $60 million at us, we’ll go find some other city that will”? Or does it try to find another way to make a go of it there, either by team owners digging deeper and funding the $60 million on their own, much as Orlando S.C.‘s owners did with their stadium, or by the league lowering its $150 million expansion fee request — either of which would risk the league’s standing in future “the subsidy way or the highway” demands?
If I had to guess, I’d predict Garber will take door #1 for this round of expansion, and figuring he can always circle back to St. Louis next time and see if the appetite for stadium funding has improved any, since it’s clear that MLS is going to keep expanding until such time as it runs out of rich guys willing to blow $150 million on expansion fees. In the meantime, the vote makes one thing clear: MLS fandom may be on the rise, but not enough for fan frenzy about obtaining a team to tip the balance against taxpayer distaste for giving public dollars to the rich dudes who’d own it. There isn’t a whole lot of extortion leverage in being an 80-pound gorilla.