City Beat

A whale on the way? Republic FC in talks with ‘several’ potential billionaire investors

Sacramento Republic FC fans enter Papa Murphy Field near the lighted LED sign as the as the Sacramento Republic FC host the Seattle Sounders in a friendly match, Thursday Feb 15, 2018.
Sacramento Republic FC fans enter Papa Murphy Field near the lighted LED sign as the as the Sacramento Republic FC host the Seattle Sounders in a friendly match, Thursday Feb 15, 2018. Special to The Bee

The group leading Sacramento’s effort to land an expansion spot in Major League Soccer said it has held serious conversations with several billionaires interested in becoming investors in the bid.

Those talks have been with at least three potential investors who could take a lead role – or lead roles – as Sacramento competes with Cincinnati and Detroit for the 26th spot in the nation’s top pro soccer league.

Sacramento Republic FC officials previously said they are searching for new investors who will help not only cover an estimated $250 million in stadium construction costs and a $150 million MLS expansion fee, but also solidify the team’s long-term viability as a major league franchise.

“Sacramento’s path to MLS is clear,” Republic FC CEO and Chairman Kevin Nagle said in an emailed statement. “We’ve proven the strength of our market, downtown stadium plan and local investor support. Now, our final task is to deliver a lead investor with the vision, credibility and wherewithal to put us over the top. We are in detailed conversations with several groups that fit that bill, and confident that we’ll find the right partner to deliver the MLS club our fans and community deserve.”

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Sacramento Republic chairman and CEO, Kevin Nagle, talks to the media before the friendly match as the Sacramento Republic FC host the Seattle Sounders in a friendly match at Papa Murphy Field, Thursday Feb 15, 2018. Brian Baer Special to The Bee

Mayor Darrell Steinberg also has been involved in the discussions with potential investors and said “there are numerous opportunities.”

“I think my feeling today is that I am more encouraged than I have been in several months by the progress,” Steinberg said. “It’s just a matter of hopefully finalizing at least one of those (investor) opportunities.”

Republic FC officials declined to identify the potential investors.

Sacramento has been working toward an expansion spot for three years. It was one of 12 cities to submit an application for a team in January 2017. The team currently plays in the second-division United Soccer League.

Nagle and Republic FC Chief Operating Officer Ben Gumpert traveled to New York last month and met with MLS Commissioner Don Garber and other top league executives to update the league on their progress.

Garber previously had said he wanted to name the next expansion team before the MLS season begins March 3, but a league spokesman said Thursday that the league has “not set a date for the announcement of the next expansion club.”

“Major League Soccer continues to have productive discussions with the other three finalists for the next team to be awarded during this round of expansion – Cincinnati, Detroit and Sacramento,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said in an email.

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Tower Bridge Battalion member Rave Bear yells during the Sacramento Republic FC friendly match against the Seattle Sounders at Papa Murphy Field, Thursday Feb 15, 2018. Brian Baer Special to The Bee

Sacramento, Cincinnati, Detroit and Nashville were finalists for the 25th and 26th franchise spots in MLS, and representatives from all four cities made detailed pitches to MLS officials in New York in December. Nashville was awarded an expansion spot later that month.

Once considered the front-runner for expansion, Sacramento’s bid began to lose momentum late last year after it was revealed the group did not have the financial heft MLS wanted. Nagle and Steinberg held a press conference announcing they were searching for a lead investor, with Nagle saying the league’s questions about the team’s financing gap were “fair and reasonable.”

Not long after, Cincinnati emerged as the new front-runner to land the 26th expansion spot. But that city’s bid also remains unresolved as an ownership group led by billionaire financier Carl Lindner tries to settle on one of three possible stadium sites. Detroit, which does not have a plan for a soccer-specific stadium, is considered a long shot for the next expansion award.

Even if the league chooses Cincinnati, Sacramento would still be in line for the next round of expansion. MLS has said it will award expansion teams to a 27th and 28th city, but has not provided an exact time line for the decision.

“Our relationship with Major League Soccer has been and continues to be very positive,” Steinberg said. “It’s obvious from what we have seen over the last months that their process is fluid as well. We just have to do our part here, and if we do, there’s a very strong likelihood we will succeed.”

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The Tower Bridge Battalion enter the stadium as the Sacramento Republic FC host the Seattle Sounders in a friendly match at Papa Murphy Field, Thursday Feb 15, 2018. Brian Baer Special to The Bee

The strength of Sacramento’s bid is in its stadium. The City Council has approved the plans for a new 20,000-seat facility in the downtown railyard. Republic FC began preparing the site for construction last year, although that work has been paused until the expansion bid is awarded.

Steinberg has said he is open to the city providing some financial assistance to the construction of a new soccer stadium in the downtown railyard through the donation of city-owned land and by deferring stadium construction fees. It also is expected that a debate eventually will take place over whether the city should provide a more direct cash subsidy to the stadium project, although no formal negotiations have taken place.

Steinberg said last month he was confident the city could land an expansion team without a subsidy and said the public long has expected that the stadium would be privately financed.

Republic FC launches its fifth season Feb. 15 with a friendly match at Papa Murphy’s Park against MLS power Seattle Sounders FC. The team starts its regular season in the USL with a March 17 home match against San Antonio FC.

Sacramento Republic FC representatives arrived in New York on Tuesday, December 5, 2017, to make their final preparations, and a group of dedicated fans made the trip as well. The Sacramento contingent will walk into a midtown Manhattan office tow

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis

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