PORTLAND – Sacramento’s campaign to join the ranks of Major League Soccer appears to be gaining momentum.
Executives with the nation’s premier professional soccer league said Tuesday they would visit Sacramento as early as next month to evaluate the city’s potential as an expansion market for MLS.
Top executives with lower-division soccer club Sacramento Republic FC and the Sacramento Kings plan to meet privately today with MLS officials to continue making their case for a second big league franchise in the capital city. MLS owners and league officials are gathered in Portland for the league’s annual all-star game.
Mayor Kevin Johnson announced late Tuesday he would travel to Portland today to be part of the meeting. “Portland here we come – Let’s do this Sacramento!” the mayor wrote on Twitter. “Watching the (all-star) match will be fun, but pitching Sacramento is my goal!”
MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott told a small group of reporters on Tuesday that league officials would, among other things, tour possible sites for a new stadium when they visit Sacramento in a few weeks. He said “there are a lot of discussions going on about a facility” in Sacramento and described the city as “a great market.”
Warren Smith, president of Sacramento Republic FC, said the team has identified “multiple sites” for a stadium in or near downtown that are “close to infrastructure, bars, restaurants and entertainment.” He said the potential sites are also within walking distance of public transportation.
Several sites near the central city, including the downtown railyard, have been under consideration for a new stadium. While the financing of a soccer facility is expected to include some public contribution, Smith said discussions over a funding plan have not been held with city officials. A new stadium would likely cost around $100 million and seat at least 18,000 fans.
Smith’s goal of seeing his team elevate from the third division USL Pro league to the nation’s top professional soccer league seemed to receive a boost this week with the revelation that the owners of the Sacramento Kings are interested in investing in Republic FC and helping it secure a spot in MLS.
Abbott would not specifically discuss the Kings’ involvement in Sacramento’s soccer future but said “there are people, significant people obviously, in Sacramento who have an interest in seeing MLS come there, including the mayor who has been quite vocal about that.” Abbott then said he was impressed by both the Kings ownership team and Smith.
“I will say, obviously, that we have great respect for what the new Kings ownership group has done with the Kings,” he said. “(Kings President) Chris Granger is an incredibly talented sports executive. And when you look at what Warren (Smith) has done with the Republic, that’s really been a great, great story.”
Smith confirmed he is in discussions with the Kings’ ownership group and said he is optimistic an agreement will be reached. Granger and Johnson will also participate.
MLS plans to add two teams by 2020. Miami has been awarded one of those spots, but that franchise hinges on whether a group led by international soccer star David Beckham can build a downtown Miami stadium. So far, that effort has been unsuccessful.
Sacramento is in a tight competition with Minneapolis and Las Vegas for the final spot. Two separate deep-pocketed groups in Minneapolis are making a case for that city, and Abbott said he has met with a group in Las Vegas about its desire to join MLS. Las Vegas officials are also in Portland this week.
Abbott said that other cities, including San Antonio and Austin, Texas, have also expressed interest in expansion teams.
David Carter, head of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said having the Kings on board will give Sacramento’s bid more credibility but doesn’t make it a sure thing.
“The Kings ownership group is someone that they (MLS) would look favorably on,” he said. Still, he said, MLS has “been increasingly discerning about who they grant franchises to.”
The league will insist on knowing whether the Sacramento group has a credible business plan for soccer and whether “they have their finger on the pulse of the community,” Carter said.
Republic FC has sold out nearly every one of its games this year, but MLS will want to “make sure these folks continue to come through the turnstiles,” Carter said. And the league will scrutinize whether Sacramento residents will pay for tickets to MLS matches, which will be cheaper than NBA tickets but more than those for Republic FC matches.
Should the Kings’ involvement in the discussion catapult Sacramento into MLS, it would follow a familiar playbook. Several MLS franchises are owned by groups with ties to other major league sports.
The Seattle Sounders are co-owned by Paul Allen, owner of the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. The Colorado Rapids are owned by Stanley Kroenke, who also owns the Denver Nuggets and hockey’s Colorado Avalanche.
Merritt Paulson, owner of the Portland Timbers MLS franchise, is a former NBA league executive who helped launch NBA TV. He bought the Timbers in 2007 when they played in USL Pro and two years later was awarded an MLS franchise.