Was Sacramento's soccer savior sitting courtside at a Kings game Wednesday night?
Ron Burkle, the billionaire grocery magnate who was involved in two attempts to purchase the Kings, was spotted sitting in the front row at Wednesday's game at Golden 1 Center with Republic FC Chairman Kevin Nagle, team COO Ben Gumpert and former Mayor Kevin Johnson.
The sighting immediately sparked speculation that Burkle is among the small group of potential deep-pocketed investors Republic FC is in conversations with as it tries to solidify its bid for a Major League Soccer expansion spot. Republic FC officials declined comment and a spokesman for Burkle could not immediately be reached.
“Not a day goes by when we don’t have multiple conversations with someone intrigued by the opportunity in Sacramento,” Gumpert told reporters earlier this week during a team media luncheon.
Sacramento remains in the hunt for an expansion spot that is expected to be announced soon. Cincinnati and Detroit are the other finalists, although Cincinnati is believed to be the front-runner.
However, the expansion bid in Cincinnati was dealt a setback Wednesday.
FC Cincinnati, the soccer club leading that city’s expansion effort, and the Cincinnati Public Schools district failed to reach agreement on the team’s attempt to buy land for a new stadium near downtown.
While FC Cincinnati has two other potential stadium sites it’s considering, the West End location was the closest to the city’s downtown – and Major League Soccer has often said it wants stadiums for its expansion teams in urban cores. Republic FC has a city-approved plan to build a new stadium in the downtown railyard and has already spent millions preparing the site for construction.
FC Cincinnati president Jeff Berding has set a March 31 deadline for the team to settle on a stadium location.
As Cincinnati's bid falters, Sacramento still has significant work to do to secure an expansion spot. The team acknowledged in December it did not have the financial heft MLS wanted to land the bid and operate a viable franchise in the long term.
Burkle could help fill that role. He is worth an estimated $2.1 billion. And he has a history with Sacramento sports.
Johnson recruited Burkle to purchase the Sacramento Kings in 2011, when the team’s former owners – the Maloof family – tried to move the franchise to Anaheim. With Burkle looming, Johnson’s campaign to keep the Kings here had credibility, and the Maloofs backed off their relocation attempt.
Two years later, the Maloofs tried to sell the Kings to a group in Seattle and again, Burkle emerged as a potential owner. Johnson recruited Burkle and health club financier Mark Mastrov to lead Sacramento’s rival bid to buy the Kings.
Burkle is part owner of an athlete management firm, Independent Sports and Entertainment. His involvement in that company forced him to leave the ownership group seeking to buy the Kings in 2013 over concerns that he would have a conflict of interest with the NBA. The company represents several NBA players, but no Major League Soccer players are listed as clients on the firm’s website.
After Burkle retreated from the Kings ownership group, current chairman Vivek Ranadive assumed the role as leader.