Business & Real Estate

Quest for Major League Soccer in Sacramento dominated by local investors

It was largely out-of-town money, from Silicon Valley and beyond, that bought the Sacramento Kings last year and kept them from leaving town.

The quest for Major League Soccer, by comparison, is almost strictly a local affair.

Sacramento Republic FC announced a new lineup of investors Monday, designed to fortify the team’s promising bid to graduate to MLS status. It includes a sports celebrity: Sacramento’s own Urijah Faber, the prominent mixed martial arts fighter.

“I’m always looking for things that will make Sacramento a better place,” said Faber, who was in attendance when Republic FC capped its inaugural season by winning the championship of the USL Pro minor league. “It’s really cool to see Sacramento excited about something like this.”

Faber is joining a group dominated by business people who are also minority co-owners of the Kings. But there’s a striking difference between the two teams’ ownership groups. Unlike basketball, the soccer team is firmly in the control of Sacramentans.

“There’s a great pride in that the commitment is largely a regional, Sacramento commitment,” said Republic FC majority investor Kevin Nagle, an El Dorado Hills pharmaceutical executive.

Having an array of wealthy Sacramento investors also helps bolster the argument to MLS that the market is worthy of big-time professional soccer. “It’s important to have local ownership involved,” said Lisa Parker, head of an aircraft-parts manufacturer and a new minority investor in Republic FC. “There’s no question we have a strong enough group to be awarded the (MLS) franchise.”

A dozen Kings investors have signed on with Republic FC. Some, like Nagle and Parker, are among those recruited in 2013 by Mayor Kevin Johnson to help keep the Kings in Sacramento. Others are longtime Kings investors, including a trust controlled by the family of the late Joe Benvenuti.

As Kings owners, the Sacramentans have kept a relatively low profile. The newcomers were introduced at a City Hall news conference in early 2013 as the local faces of the new Kings ownership. Three of the Sacramentans are on the team’s executive committee: Nagle, Benvenuti’s son Gary, and developer Mark Friedman.

But the locals weren’t the “whales,” the mega-investors who moved in and prevented the Kings’ proposed sale to a group from Seattle.

The “whales” include Kings Chairman Vivek Ranadive, a software tycoon from Palo Alto, and two vice chairmen: Paul Jacobs, executive chairman of San Diego telecom giant Qualcomm, and Raj Bhathal, founder of a swimwear manufacturer in Tustin.

The Kings haven’t been under the control of Sacramentans since 1992, when Los Angeles businessman Jim Thomas bought the team from a group led by Gregg Lukenbill.

Owning an NBA team nowadays requires financial resources more typically found in places like Silicon Valley than in Sacramento. The cost of entry for Major League Soccer is far lower, making it more realistic for the wealthy of Sacramento.

It’s expected that bringing MLS to Sacramento would cost around $200 million, including $80 million for the expansion fee and $120 million to build a stadium that meets MLS standards.

That’s a fraction of the $1 billion the Ranadive group could wind up spending on the Kings and related projects in Sacramento. So far the team owners have committed more than $620 million toward a 72 percent stake in the team and the Kings’ share of the arena under construction at Downtown Plaza. In addition, the Kings intend to redevelop much of the rest of Downtown Plaza. That could cost $500 million, according to an economic-impact report commissioned last fall by a political action committee formed by the mayor.

The Kings organization considered buying into Republic FC, but deferred to Nagle, who founded a pharmaceutical-distribution company called Envision Rx. He has told The Sacramento Bee his net worth is in “the hundreds of millions.”

The strength of the ownership group assembled by Nagle could be a tribute, in part, to the recovering economy. “Once you get a city on its feet ... these are the natural things that happen,” said new Republic FC investor Scott Powell, president of Sacramento Jet Center, an aviation-operations company. “You naturally get things like the MLS.”

MLS owners met Monday in Los Angeles, and a discussion of expansion markets was on the agenda, said league spokesman Dan Courtemanche. But he said MLS owners discuss expansion practically every time they meet.

A decision on Sacramento’s fate isn’t expected until the next owners’ meeting, in December. It’s widely believed Sacramento and Minneapolis are front-runners for the 24th and final spot, with cities such as Las Vegas and San Antonio trailing.

Accompanied by some of the new investors, Republic FC executives hosted a two-day visit by top MLS executives in mid-September, a visit that by all accounts helped Sacramento’s cause mightily. Nagle said the team’s officials are expected to visit MLS headquarters in New York sometime soon to make a follow-up presentation. In the meantime, Nagle said Republic FC is continuing to deliver information to league officials, with an emphasis on the still-evolving plan to build a stadium at the railyard on the northern edge of downtown.

Bringing Faber into the Republic FC fold gives the team some celebrity luster, comparable to retired NBA star Shaquille O’Neal’s investment in the Kings. Faber, a major figure in the Ultimate Fighting Championship circuit, said he hasn’t yet determined how much he’ll invest but said it won’t be huge.

“I wouldn’t consider myself a heavy hitter by any means,” he said.

Faber said he was recruited by Nagle and two other Republic FC investors: developer Ken Fahn and dentist Dr. Aaron Reeves, both of whom are also Kings part-owners.

Fahn and an early Republic FC investor, Ilan Frank, have said Kings player Omri Casspi is interested in becoming an investor. Asked about Casspi, Nagle said the list of investors is likely to continue expanding.

The ownership roster unveiled Monday includes several investors who became public in September. Others are becoming known for the first time. The investments are contingent on Republic FC gaining admission to MLS, the team said.

All told, there are a dozen Kings investors who’ve also jumped aboard Republic FC: Nagle, Parker, Fahn, Reeves, the Benvenuti family, Sleep Train founder Dale Carlsen, building-products executive David Lucchetti, telecommunications executive Brad Jenkins, aviation executive Scott Powell and developers Friedman, Phil Oates and Larry Kelley. Kelley is also a key player in the stadium plan, since he’s in the process of buying the railyard.

Also revealed as new Republic FC investors Monday were a husband-and-wife team with no ties to the Kings, Roger and Jonna Ward. Jonna runs a tech consulting firm called Visionary Integration Professionals, and Roger is in the health care field.

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