The temperature was plummeting into the 40s on Thursday night as Republic FC took the pitch at Papa Murphy’s Park. Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders FC were in town for a meaningless preseason friendly with Sacramento. The star attraction of the night – men’s national team star and Sounders forward Clint Dempsey – was sitting on the sidelines in street clothes.
Yet a crowd of around 6,000 fans turned out – an attendance figure that would thrill most other teams in the second division USL. Fans mingled around the concourse sipping craft beer and the Tower Bridge Battalion supporters club cheered from the stands, singing “Republic till I die.”
As Sacramento’s prolonged campaign to join Major League Soccer drags on, will this level of loyalty continue?
Sacramento’s MLS bid, once considered the strongest among 12 contenders, stumbled in December when Republic FC Chairman Kevin Nagle and Mayor Darrell Steinberg acknowledged they needed to attract a billionaire investor to lead the bid and convince MLS that the team can be financially stable. Nagle said Thursday that he is in serious conversations with a handful of potential investors, including three to five who appear to be the most enticing.
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Jon Henry and Shelley McFarland were sitting in their seats at Papa Murphy’s Park an hour before Thursday’s match began. They’re entering their fourth season as season-ticket holders and have no plans to abandon their club if the MLS effort falls short.
“I think (an MLS award) would be fantastic,” Henry said. “I think, though, that our team is going to have a strong fan base pretty much regardless.”
For more casual fans, being left out of the MLS sweepstakes could cut into their loyalty.
Tom Hanlon said he attends three to four matches a year; he did not go to Thursday’s match. He said in an email interview that the possibility of joining MLS “has most certainly fueled my fandom” and that being passed over would certainly cut into that passion.
“While I don’t feel as though I would stop going completely, there’s something to be said about the excitement surrounding a top-tier atmosphere,” Hanlon said.
Hanlon compared the feeling to his loyalty for the River Cats. He enjoys attending games at Raley Field, especially on warm summer nights. But the River Cats are a minor-league franchise with no expectation of joining Major League Baseball. Hanlon doesn’t follow where the River Cats are in the standings and they don’t “stoke (his) Sacramento pride.”
“There is excitement that would be lost should Republic miss out (on expansion),” he said.
Jeremy Gallus attends two or three matches a year, mostly when his friends have a spare ticket. He went to Thursday’s match but headed home soon after halftime.
He said he’d go to more matches if Republic FC were playing in MLS in a downtown stadium, not on the grounds of Cal Expo. “It would be part of the centralized community,” he said. “And I’d go for the atmosphere.”
For now, it doesn’t appear the MLS process is hurting Republic FC’s brand. Chief Operating Officer Ben Gumpert said the team expects steady attendance figures this season and that most of the franchise’s sponsors – including key partners like UC Davis, Raley’s and Wells Fargo – have renewed their support.
“We have such a solid core of fans,” Nagle said. “They’re not going to abandon us.”
Still, when asked whether he was concerned attendance could drop if MLS chooses Cincinnati or Detroit ahead of Sacramento, Nagle responded, “Who wouldn’t have that concern?”
“We just have to continue to put a solid experience out there for the fans,” he said.
As the expansion process drags on, Gallus said he and his friends are losing interest – and becoming slightly jaded. He’s upset MLS has focused on whether Sacramento has a billionaire backer in its expansion bid and, by his estimation, has overlooked the passionate fan base and City Hall’s support for the effort.
“A month ago there was a lot more hype about it, I feel like everyone had a sense of excitement,” he said. “Now we’re not even talking about it. We’re kind of over it.”
The father-son duo of Paul and Thomas Appleby want MLS to make up its mind and have looked forward to watching their club play in an electric atmosphere at a 20,000-seat stadium against the best professional competition the nation has to offer. They’ve been season-ticket holders since Republic FC launched in 2014.
If MLS doesn’t happen in Sacramento, however, the Appleby men said they will still be out there supporting their team.
“We’re here for the soccer,” Thomas said.