Sacramento makes its pitch for a Major League Soccer team against three other cities

Sacramento Republic FC founder Warren Smith was the brunt of a few jokes in town in 2013 – months before his startup soccer club had even played a match – when he set a bold goal: land a Major League Soccer franchise for Sacramento.

Four years later, that goal is on the cusp of reality.

The ownership group representing Republic FC will be joined by Mayor Darrell Steinberg and former Mayor Kevin Johnson here on Wednesday to make its final presentation to MLS owners tasked with recommending two expansion cities for the nation’s top professional soccer league.

Sacramento representatives arrived in New York on Tuesday to make their final preparations. The group will walk into a midtown Manhattan office tower Wednesday morning for a two-hour presentation, where they will promote the elements that have made the city an expansion front-runner.

Those include a stadium deal that has the approval of local politicians and is considered far ahead of plans in other cities; the support of a fan base that consistently turns out in huge numbers for its second-division soccer club; and an ownership group that already has spent tens of millions of dollars on the expansion bid.

But Sacramento faces intense competition from three cities, all of which have impressed MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Nashville, emerging as one of the nation’s top tourist destinations, has a wealthy owner and a recently-approved soccer stadium deal. Detroit’s bid has the backing of two billionaires who also own NBA franchises. And Cincinnati is the only lower-division soccer city in America drawing the kind of crowds seen in Sacramento.

By the end of this month, just two of those cities will have spots in Major League Soccer to begin play in 2020. Representatives for all four will be in New York on Wednesday to make their case.

Johnson shepherded the city’s bid during his last two years in office, and he and Steinberg represent Sacramento’s political support for the bid.

But Kevin Nagle, chairman and CEO of Sacramento Republic FC, will be the one carrying much of the financial responsibility. The expansion fee for a new team is $150 million, and Nagle’s group said it also intends to privately finance what could be $200 million in construction costs for a new 20,000-seat stadium in the downtown Sacramento railyard.

“Match day is upon us,” Nagle said Tuesday in a statement. “For four years, Sacramento has been preparing for the opportunity to make our case as the next great MLS city. I could not be prouder of our bid and community, and look forward to showcasing the Republic FC story to the commissioner and expansion committee tomorrow.”

Team officials said Johnson has remained an adviser to Nagle throughout the MLS bid process and will attend Wednesday’s presentation at Nagle’s request.

If there are any concerns about Sacramento’s bid, they may lie with the depth of the ownership group.

Nagle made his fortune as a pharmaceutical company executive and is among the most prominent of the local minority owners of the Sacramento Kings. Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, also has a stake, as does local developer and Kings co-owner Mark Friedman.

Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman recently said she will not invest in the team. But the team announced Wednesday that she had agreed to stay on, after all.

Whitman announced last month she will step down in February as head of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, and Republic FC officials said she was assessing her personal investments after that decision.

Republic FC plans to bring on additional investors to its bid, but it’s unclear when those investors will be identified.

While Nagle’s fortune does not match up with those of the ownership groups leading the competing bids, Sacramento does have one thing MLS Commissioner Garber has said is important to him: ties to the local market. Garber has often spoken fondly of Nagle, telling reporters in Sacramento last year that the Republic FC group has “been able to check the boxes that are required” to land an expansion spot.

The expansion committee is expected to forward recommendations on the next two expansion cities to the league’s board of governors, comprised of the league’s other team owners. The board will debate the final decision on expansion at its Dec. 14 meeting and is expected to announce the winning bid as early as the following week.

Editor’s note (Dec. 6): The Bee reported Tuesday that Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman was planning not to invest in Sacramento Republic. The team announced Wednesday that she had rejoined the effort as an investor.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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