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October 20, 2014

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Las Vegas on short list to land pro soccer expansion team, Justin Findlay says

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Rendering of the proposed MLS stadium in downtown Las Vegas.

Las Vegas is on the short list to secure a Major League Soccer expansion franchise.

That’s the message Justin Findlay, who is working to bring soccer to Las Vegas and build a soccer-specific stadium at Symphony Park in downtown, shared Thursday with a group of about 40 supporters at McMullan’s Irish Pub.

“The best sport in the world is available. We can get a team right here,” he told them. “Guys, this is possible. It is really, really possible.”

In mid-May, when the Findlay Sports and Entertainment Group and stadium developer the Cordish Cos. announced their plans, Findlay admitted they were significantly behind other cities pursuing the final MLS expansion team.

That’s no longer the case, Findlay says.

He was encouraged after entertaining MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott this week in Las Vegas. Abbott met with Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and other city officials, toured downtown and got a sense of how MLS would work in Las Vegas.

Although league officials won’t comment on expansion possibilities, you can argue the MLS brass wouldn’t have traveled to Las Vegas if it wasn’t in serious consideration.

“Hearing right from the horse's mouth, this is really a possibility,” Findlay said. “We just have to convert on our plan. There are no reasons why these big, big dreams can’t happen.”

Converting the plan will involve overcoming a few significant roadblocks.

The first hurdle is Aug. 20, when the financing plan for the stadium needs to be approved by the Las Vegas City Council. The 24,000-seat stadium, which is proposed to have a retractable roof and air-conditioning ducts every three rows in the stands to help minimize the Las Vegas heat, will require some public funding for a project previously estimated between $150 million and $200 million.

Findlay didn’t release specifics on public funding but said it wouldn’t require a property tax increase. Public money would come from bonds, which would be repaid from a sales-tax district. The tax collected on the sale of tickets to events at the stadium or food sold at those events would help pay off the bonds. If the council doesn’t approve the plan, Las Vegas won’t get a team or stadium.

Council voted 6-1 on May 21 to give Findlay and Cordish until Sept. 1 to come up with the finance plan. But in January, before the Findlay group joined forces with Cordish, the council by a slim 4-3 vote approved an extension for Cordish to continue developing plans for an arena.

Cordish had exclusive rights with the city to develop in the 61-acre Symphony Park and was targeting an arena for basketball or hockey until Findlay approached them about soccer.

It could be the marriage to bring the area its first professional team.

MLS is expanding from 19 to 24 teams by 2020 — New York, Miami, Orlando, Fla., and Atlanta have already received new franchises. Las Vegas is competing with Austin, Texas; Minneapolis; Sacramento; San Antonio; and San Diego for the last team.

There’s also a significant chance the team awarded to Miami and soccer icon David Beckham could fall through, bringing another possibility for Las Vegas. Beckham hopes to build a waterfront stadium but has had two proposals rejected by city officials.

Other cities Las Vegas is competing against also have difficulties:

• Minneapolis has two ownership groups proposing a franchise, which could hinder its bid. Its team would likely share the Minnesota Vikings' new facility in a similar arrangement to Seattle with the MLS Sounders and NFL Seahawks sharing Century Link Field.

• In Austin and San Antonio, cities about 80 miles apart, it’s become a two-city turf war to get approval. And Texas already has the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas. Does it need a third team?

The stiffest challenge could be Sacramento, which already has the widely popular Sacramento Republic FC in the United Soccer Leagues. It’s the same league Orlando , which was already awarded an MLS team, is part of.

And, of course, the Las Vegas group has to convince the MLS Board of Governors — the league’s other owners who vote on expansion — that our summer heat won’t be overbearing for players and fans.

In addition to a retractable roof and air-conditioning ducts every three rows in the stands, the stadium proposal calls for all seats to be shaded so the heat won’t interfere with fan experience. The temperature inside the stadium would be 30 degrees less than outside.

“The one thing I can promise you is that we are moving faster than any other city,” Findlay told supporters.

Findlay has been aggressive in gaining support, meeting with business owners, officials and fans to share his vision. He went to the World Cup in Brazil and has visited multiple MLS owners, reaffirming his theory on soccer’s popularity and how a Las Vegas team could thrive.

Las Vegas has been rumored for a professional sports team and new stadiums multiple times over the past decade, getting residents excited because of the possibilities before nothing transpired.

But Findlay, whose family is one of Southern Nevada’s most notable because of its successful car dealerships and sponsorship of athletic teams, points out, “there have never been any local families part of it. It’s always been out-of-towners.”

Phillip Garcia, head of the local branch of the American Outlaws, the official fan club of the U.S. National team, jokingly responded: “If you turn out to be Chris Milam, I’ll blast you.” Milam proposed a basketball stadium for Henderson and said he could deliver a NBA team.

Findlay has made multiple trips to Oregon for Portland Timbers games, observing one of the MLS’ model franchises and seeing how it transforms the city on games days.

First, he had to convince his father, Cliff, one of UNLV basketball’s biggest boosters and someone with little appreciation for soccer, of the value of pursuing a team. After one trip, Cliff Findlay was quickly sold.

This weekend, Justin Findlay is back in Portland with more locals — Derek Stevens of the D Hotel, Jonathan Jossel of the Plaza, Cam Walker of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority Board, and others — showing them how he believes downtown Las Vegas can be on MLS game days.

One of the traditions they’ll observe is the March to the Match, when supporters march throughout the streets leading into the stadium. They sing fight songs, wear team apparel and create a true home-field advantage.

Las Vegas will see its version of the exercise for the Aug. 20 council meeting. Hundreds of supporters, ranging from soccer diehards who gathered Thursday at McMullan’s to youth soccer players, will march to council chambers at City Hall in support of bringing soccer to Las Vegas.

Ray Brewer can be reached at 990-2662 or [email protected]. Follow Ray on Twitter at twitter.com/raybrewer21.

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