City Beat

Sacramento emerges as serious contender to land Major League Soccer

Sacramento’s minor-league soccer team debuted just this spring and plays its games in a temporary stadium at the state fairgrounds. But an emerging partnership with the Sacramento Kings has suddenly turned the startup squad into a serious contender to join Major League Soccer, the highest echelon of pro soccer in the United States and Canada.

A contingent led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, Sacramento Kings President Chris Granger and Warren Smith, president of third-division soccer club Sacramento Republic FC, made a 75-minute presentation Wednesday to top MLS executives touting the city’s strength as a big-league soccer market. The group also discussed potential sites for a new downtown soccer stadium and scheduled a visit with MLS to Sacramento in September.

“We bought a team and people thought we were crazy,” Smith said following the meeting. “Look at us now.”

MLS plans to add two teams by 2020. The league has awarded one franchise to Miami, but that bid hinges on whether a group there led by international soccer star David Beckham can build a downtown stadium. Miami officials and Beckham have been unable to reach an agreement to date.

That leaves Sacramento in a tight competition with Minneapolis and Las Vegas for the final spot. A group from Las Vegas also pitched MLS officials in Portland, which is hosting the league’s annual all-star game.

MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott said there was no timetable for when the league would award its next expansion franchise. Before deciding whether Sacramento will make the cut, the league wants to visit the market and assess stadium sites.

Sacramento officials could also make their case at the league’s board of governors meeting, scheduled for September in New York. A vote on expansion could occur as early as the league’s annual meeting at the end of the season in December.

“(Sacramento) is being taken very seriously, and we had a very productive meeting,” Abbott said. “We’ve always had a great view of the market.”

Johnson, who helped engineer a plan last year to keep the Kings from moving to Seattle and to construct a new basketball arena downtown, said the meeting with MLS was “a very proud moment for Sacramento.” He also recognized the tight race that has emerged for the last expansion spot.

“We want to be chosen now,” he said. “We don’t want to wait for down the road.”

The Kings’ new owners, led by software executive Vivek Ranadive, are in discussions to invest in Republic FC in order to bolster Sacramento’s chances of landing an MLS franchise. An agreement between the sides would likely not be finalized for weeks.

“We are supportive of soccer in Sacramento,” Granger said. “We think an MLS team would be a great addition to Sacramento.”

The Kings’ involvement in the city’s pitch gained momentum in recent weeks – and helped speed up Republic FC’s play for an MLS spot. Abbott and other MLS officials have spoken fondly of Ranadive and his partners.

Last year, as Republic FC prepared to begin its inaugural season, Smith announced that the franchise’s goal was to be granted an expansion spot in MLS by 2016. The team started strongly, drawing crowds of over 20,000 to Hughes Stadium. MLS officials said they were impressed, but seemed to consider Sacramento as an underdog for a spot in the league.

In recent months, a new level of urgency developed in Smith’s plan after Miami and Atlanta were awarded expansion teams. The groups in Minneapolis and Las Vegas emerged with vast financial resources and stadium plans.

By this summer, Republic FC’s philosophy had changed. The new plan: land that last spot in MLS this year – or risk waiting several years for the next chance.

Before that plan could take hold, Republic FC needed an investor with deep pockets and cachet in the world of big-league sports. Enter Ranadive and his top lieutenant, Granger, a widely respected executive in professional sports.

An MLS official familiar with the league’s recent conversations about expansion said Ranadive’s name was first mentioned in a meeting of top league officials and owners two weeks ago. At that moment, the source said, Sacramento jumped from the status of also-ran to top contender.

Republic FC’s jackrabbit push for major-league status is a reflection of MLS’ caution against going overboard on expansion. While the league is actively considering adding two franchises, it has said it won’t go beyond that for several more years.

Whitney Wagoner, a sports business expert at the University of Oregon, said the go-slow mentality is an extension of MLS’ unusual and highly centralized business model. MLS itself owns the teams; individual team “owners” are actually investors in the league, she said. Player salaries are paid by the league, with the exception of a handful of superstars.

This centralized structure has fostered a disciplined approach to expansion, she said.

“It’s part and parcel of the controlled growth,” Wagoner said. “Controlled growth is definitely the story.”

Republic FC officials think they have the infrastructure in place to handle a promotion to MLS right away. The team employs 33, more than any other team in USL Pro except Orlando, which will begin play in MLS in 2015.

The team is also discussing expanding Bonney Field, its current stadium on the grounds of Cal Expo, from 8,000 seats to as large as 14,000. That venue – or the 20,000-seat Hughes Stadium – could be used as a temporary stadium for MLS until a permanent facility is constructed.

As part of their presentation Wednesday, the Sacramento contingent reviewed potential locations for a downtown stadium. Several sites are under consideration, including the downtown railyard.

Developer Larry Kelley, who is buying the downtown railyard, said he has “had discussions” with Smith.

“The reality is, if you look around, MLS wants to be in an urban environment,” Kelley said. “If you look downtown, what is the biggest swath of undeveloped land? It’s the railyard.”

Abbott said MLS prefers downtown stadiums, citing the success of Providence Park in Portland.

Kelley is buying the 240-acre property, formerly a Union Pacific yard, from Illinois real estate company Inland America Real Estate Trust, the latest in a series of owners. The deal is expected to close in about two months, Kelley said.

In the past five years, roughly $200 million worth of infrastructure work has been performed at the site, readying it for development. That includes roads, bridges and other work needed to connect the railyard to the rest of downtown; much of the work has been funded by a pair of voter-approved state bonds, along with money from the 2009 federal stimulus program.

This isn’t the first time the railyard has been proposed for a sports facility. The southeast corner of the property was going to be the location for a new Kings arena under a deal the city made with the team’s prior owners, the Maloof family, in 2012. That deal fell apart, the Maloofs sold the team last year, and the new owners last week began work on a $477 million arena at Downtown Plaza.

Kelley said a location north of the 2012 arena site, along Seventh Street, could work for a new Republic FC stadium. The site is near a planned light-rail stop.

It’s “where we would encourage them to go,” Kelley said. The site is about a half mile from Downtown Plaza, he said.

Denton Kelley, Larry’s Kelley’s son and a partner in his father’s business, cautioned that other spots within the railyard are being considered, as well. “There’s really nothing ironclad in terms of locations,” he said.

City officials have been trying for years to jump-start the railyard, said to be the largest undeveloped infill site in the country. In time, they hope to see a mix of housing and commercial development, along with an “intermodal” transit hub. UC Davis is looking at creating a “third campus” devoted to food and agriculture.

A soccer stadium could provide a much-needed boost to development.

“We look at it as a potentially great catalyst,” Denton Kelley said.

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