Major League Soccer in Elk Grove?
Well, why not?
A group led by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who sits on the board of soccer's national governing body, is exploring the possibility of landing an MLS franchise for the suburb.
One of Núñez's partners in the project, Sacramento attorney Dick Hyde, said Tuesday the idea is in its early stages.
"I wouldn't characterize it as a long shot, but it's an endeavor that's in its infancy," said Hyde, who was part of a group that tried to bring the MLS to Sacramento a decade ago. "I think Elk Grove is probably a really good spot for soccer."
Elk Grove officials are ready to at least look into the concept. The City Council tonight is expected to approve a negotiating agreement with Núñez's group, Northern California Soccer LLC.
Landing a team wouldn't come cheap. Based on recent history, an MLS stadium can cost upward of $100 million. And team owners would have to pay the MLS a fee of at least $40 million for an expansion team, said league spokesman Dan Courtemanche.
There are plenty of other hurdles. Elk Grove, saddled with foreclosures and an unfinished mega-mall, hasn't been spared the impact of the region's weak economy. Sacramento is struggling to hold onto the NBA's Kings, and it's unclear whether a region with 11.4 percent unemployment would be capable anytime soon of supporting big-time soccer.
For that matter, putting a team in the Sacramento area isn't high on the MLS' list of priorities. The league just added its 19th team, in Montreal, and would like to have a second team in New York. Beyond that, it isn't focused on additional expansion and doesn't have any teams looking to relocate, Courtemanche said.
Still, he wouldn't rule out expansion several years down the road and said soccer has a solid foundation in the Sacramento area.
"Sacramento is certainly a market that has supported the sport," he said.
Núñez and MLS Commissioner Don Garber sit on the board of U.S. Soccer, the sport's national governing federation. Núñez couldn't be reached for comment, and Courtemanche said he doesn't know whether the former Assembly speaker had contacted Garber about a franchise.
The agreement between Núñez's group and Elk Grove wouldn't commit either side to do anything besides talk, look for a stadium site and see if a financial deal can be worked out, said City Manager Laura Gill. Núñez's group wouldn't talk to anyone but Elk Grove for the next five years.
Asked about the likelihood of getting a team, Gill said, "I don't know, to be frank. But we have an entity that has an interest."
The MLS scouted Sacramento in the mid-1990s, when the league was getting off the ground and looking for markets. The city was passed over.
Then, in 1999, a group including Hyde and former Sacramento Kings owner Gregg Lukenbill was given development rights on a 100-acre parcel of city-owned land near what is now called Power Balance Pavilion.
The group looked at building a baseball stadium but also hosted a delegation from the MLS.
"If we designed on paper a city that would be perfect for our league, Sacramento has exactly what we want," league executive John Ertmann said at the time. But the idea went nowhere, and the city cut ties with the development group.
Hyde said he's more optimistic this time, largely because the MLS has become a success.
The league drew an average of 17,872 fans a game this year, slightly more than the NBA and NHL, according to the Sporting News. The most successful team, the Seattle Sounders, drew an average 38,496 fans per game.
"This potentially has some life to it," said Elk Grove City Councilman Gary Davis.