City Beat

City Beat: Sacramento Republic brings a startup vibe to soccer

Erika Bjork had one and a half feet out of Sacramento last fall. There was a high-paying job in the Bay Area calling, and she was about to become another 30-something who had left for bigger things.

“I was torn because this is where my heart is,” she said. “So I stayed here to work for this startup.”

And that’s truly what Sacramento Republic FC is. It’s more than a minor-league soccer franchise. It’s a homegrown company with big-league aspirations.

Bjork is the team’s marketing director. She’s 38 years old, one of about two dozen staffers at Republic FC under the age of 40. Strolling through the team’s offices this week, she looked right at home wearing a straw cowboy hat and sneakers.

Republic FC’s headquarters – in a former art gallery off Broadway – could easily be confused for a tech firm. The first things they installed when they moved in were a foosball table and a kegerator. Three bands live upstairs. The walls are all exposed brick.

The office is full of millennials, a generation this city is trying desperately to recruit. If Sacramento is truly serious about that effort, soccer – among the most popular sports for the under-40 crowd – is going to play a big role.

That’s why there will be a push in the months ahead to come up with a plan to build a soccer stadium downtown. Republic FC is about to move into an intimate 8,000-seat stadium at Cal Expo called Bonney Field, but the stay will likely have to be short-term if the team is serious about its dreams.

Republic FC’s mild-mannered team president, Warren Smith, has stated the ambitious goal of landing a spot in this nation’s top pro soccer league, Major League Soccer. And MLS has expressed a desire for its teams to play in downtown stadiums, near entertainment and the key demographic of young professionals.

The team has a few sites in mind. At the top of the list – at least today – is the downtown railyard, one of the largest undeveloped plots of land in any downtown of any major American city. Republic FC executives are working on plans, and a stadium proposal is expected by the end of this year.

Before the stadium talk could begin, Republic FC had to prove the city wanted pro soccer. How’s this? MLS teams are averaging about 18,200 fans a game this season. Republic FC averaged 19,527 in four games at Hughes Stadium this spring. And the atmosphere didn’t feel minor league. The crowd last weekend stayed until the end, erupting when Republic FC tied the match in extra time.

MLS has noticed the early success, and so have others. Smith said he’s been approached by wealthy investors who have expressed interest in leading the team to the major leagues. He wouldn’t name those individuals but said some have ties to the Bay Area.

Imagine that. Someone wants a piece of a Sacramento startup.

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