Wes Edens Backs MLS Expansion Bid as Las Vegas Climbs to Top Spot

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Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Wes Edens is one of a handful of people trying to lure a Major League Soccer team to Las Vegas as the city emerges as the most likely location for the league’s 30th franchise.

Edens and Vegas Golden Knights owner Bill Foley are part of separate groups hoping to bring an expansion franchise to Allegiant Stadium, the $2 billion home of the Las Vegas Raiders, according to multiple people familiar with the plans. Another group, backed by the Renaissance Companies, is looking to bring a team to Cashman Field, home of the city’s USL franchise.

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Over the past few weeks, Las Vegas has emerged as the most likely location for the next MLS club, according to someone familiar with the league’s thinking. It looked for a while like the 30th MLS team would be in Sacramento, but the withdrawal of that bid’s principal owner has cast uncertainty over its future.

A representative for MLS declined to comment on the expansion. A spokesman for Edens also declined to comment, and a representative for Foley didn’t immediately respond to a request.

Should an expansion team be given to the city, it’s unclear what the fee might be. The next MLS board of governors meeting is Aug. 25, and expansion is on the agenda, as it has been for every meeting since 2004.

Co-founder of Fortress Investment Group, Edens’ sports holding include the Bucks, English soccer club Aston Villa, and esports organization FlyQuest. He has direct business ties to Las Vegas, as well. Fortress is backing Brightline West, a high-speed rail project hoping to connect Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

Edens fits the profile of the type of owner that the MLS has courted in recent years, and will continue to court. He has investments in other leagues, he’s younger than the original generation of league owners, and he’s already shown in Milwaukee how a tech-forward approach can grow valuations.

“Diversity of thought is the most important aspect of the new owners over the last 10 years,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said last month during a SporticoLive event.”

Long considered off limits because of its proximity to gambling, Nevada’s largest city has become the hottest market in sports. Foley’s Golden Knights made their NHL debut in 2017, and the NFL’s Raiders moved to town last year. Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai just purchased an NLL expansion team in the city, and it’s been discussed as a possible landing spot for baseball’s Oakland Athletics.

The Renaissance Companies’ plan, according to chairman Floyd Kephart, involved partnering with billionaire Seth Klarman and his Baupost Group to redevelop the area around Cashman Field in downtown Las Vegas, which Kephart called the “largest undeveloped site in the city.”

In April, the group let its exclusive negotiating agreement with the city expire because it was not immediately apparent an MLS franchise was available, Kephart said. He said the group hasn’t spoken with MLS in a number of months.

“Our last conversation was, ‘When you guys decide there’s a franchise available, let us know,’” Kephart said. “So we’re sitting. And if we’re not the right guys for Las Vegas, then they’ll get the right guys, but Las Vegas will get a franchise, I believe.”

The earliest opportunity for any Las Vegas investor would be to nab MLS’ 30th franchise, a slot originally awarded to Sacramento in late 2019. That bid is now in jeopardy after billionaire Ron Burkle, its lead investor, left the project due to issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The project isn’t officially dead, but the team’s crest has been removed from the MLS website, and people close to the league say it’s looking increasingly like a Sacramento team won’t be joining as scheduled in 2023.

MLS, which had 20 franchises just five years ago, has expanded rapidly since. The league now has 27 teams following the debut of Austin FC this season, while franchises in Charlotte and St. Louis are set to join in the coming years. That expansion has come alongside a rapid rise in expansion fees—Charlotte paid $325 million, more than double Austin’s fee—and an uptick in team valuations. The average MLS team is now worth $550 million, according to recent numbers from Sportico, with three franchises worth more than $800 million.

Edens has first-hand experience with appreciating sports assets. He and Marc Lasry bought the Bucks in 2014 for $550 million, then the most ever paid for an NBA franchise. The team just won its first NBA title in 50 years and is now valued at $1.86 million, according to Sportico’s numbers. Last year he told a Las Vegas paper that if the Bucks had been unable to get a new arena built in Milwaukee, the group “definitely” would have considered a move to Nevada. “It’s just such a tremendous market,” Edens said.

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