Las Vegas’ bid to acquire an MLS expansion team is heating up, with the Baupost Group and its chief executive, Seth Klarman, emerging as one of the driving forces behind a deal that could result in the building of a 25,000-seat indoor stadium located in downtown.
Klarman is also a minority partner in Fenway Sports Group, owners of UEFA Champions League finalist Liverpool FC.
The Las Vegas Review-Journal was the first to report Baupost’s involvement in the proposed project, in which Renaissance Companies — working on behalf of Baupost — will redevelop a 62-acre site that is the home of Cashman Field, where USL Championship side Las Vegas Lights play.
The Las Vegas city council is expected to vote next Wednesday on whether to enter into an exclusive negotiating agreement (ENA) with Renaissance that would create a 180-day window to hold talks on constructing the stadium as well as hotels and apartments. This period will also determine who would own the stadium.
If all goes well, a master development agreement (MDA) between the city and Renaissance will go into effect.
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Baupost, whose involvement was confirmed by city documents obtained by ESPN FC, has agreed to purchase the Las Vegas Lights, contingent upon Renaissance and the city entering into an MDA. According to a source with knowledge of the deal, Baupost could submit an application to MLS for an expansion franchise soon after next week’s vote.
According to the documents, Baupost manages approximately $29 billion of discretionary capital, including approximately $7 billion of liquidity (cash or cash equivalents). The stadium site is located within a federal opportunity zone designed to spur private investment through the deferment of taxes so long as the projects create jobs.
“Las Vegas is a vibrant community and we look forward to working with the city to evaluate opportunities for development in its downtown area. We are incredibly enthusiastic about the future possibilities in Las Vegas,” said Baupost spokesperson Julie Kane.
As for the extent of talks with MLS, Kane added, “We’re not in a position to comment on any current or future discussions taking place with MLS.”
MLS didn’t immediately provide comment about the latest developments in Las Vegas. MLS commissioner Don Garber announced back in April that MLS would expand to 30 teams, with Sacramento and St. Louis having the inside track on slots 28 and 29. Expansion fees for those teams have been set at $200 million. Garber added that MLS “will take our time” in terms of naming the 30th team, though he mentioned Las Vegas as a candidate along with Detroit, Charlotte and Phoenix.
Acquiring an MLS franchise has been a long-time goal of Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman. A proposal in 2015 to build a stadium at Symphony Park, which required public money, was voted down. But one source said that it was Mayor Goodman who insisted that a soccer team be part of the redevelopment project, and in an interview with the Las Vegas Journal-Review Mayor Goodman shared her enthusiasm.
“To me it’s the greatest thing,” she said about the stadium proposal. “We’ve been working on it for a long time.”
For Las Vegas Light owner Brett Lashbrook, the approval of a stadium deal would make Las Vegas an ideal candidate for an MLS expansion franchise. The Lights, under first-year manager and former U.S. international Eric Wynalda, are currently averaging 7,593 fans per game through its first six matches, fifth-best in the league.
“MLS has demonstrated that they’re looking for markets that support soccer with soccer-specific stadiums and the success that urban stadiums have done,” Lashbrook told ESPN FC. “With this proposal, and the mayor’s support, we have all three of those.
“We couldn’t be more excited to have this opportunity. We’re in full support of the movement.”
According to Renaissance chairman Floyd Klephart, stadium architect Populous has already come up with a preliminary design, one that will account for the city’s brutally hot summers. With average daytime highs in June, July and August exceeding 100 degrees, the venue will be domed with a retractable field.
“The stadium is an engineered ETFE domed stadium roof that is a translucent plastic that allows enough daylight in to bring an outdoor feel to our 25,000-seat facility, but it will also give our fans a fully indoor stadium,” said Klephart via email.
That is in line with a recent requirement that MLS is putting on expansion hopefuls who reside in locales with high summer temperatures. At last summer’s All-Star Game in Atlanta, Garber said, “I believe that if we’re going to be in communities like [Las Vegas], we need indoor stadiums,” he said. “We can’t schedule all of our games at night in every city across the country.”