Marcos Bretón

How the passion and emotion that drove Sacramento’s MLS bid nearly destroyed it

Investor Kevin Nagle, left, and Republic FC President Warren Smith on Saturday came to terms, in negotiations mediated by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, after a dispute over money and festering emotions threatened Sacramento’s Major League Soccer bid.
Investor Kevin Nagle, left, and Republic FC President Warren Smith on Saturday came to terms, in negotiations mediated by Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, after a dispute over money and festering emotions threatened Sacramento’s Major League Soccer bid. Sacramento Bee file

It was about money, of course. But also about so much more.

Opinion

The dispute that threatened to undermine Sacramento’s bid to secure a Major League Soccer franchise was at once serious and farcical. It pitted Warren Smith, who founded Sacramento Republic FC, against Kevin Nagle, whose wealth and connections have transported the scrappy minor league team to the doorstep of America’s premier soccer league.

It was the dreamer vs. the wealthy patron. Blood, sweat and tears vs. the bottom line. A battle between two men with big hearts and big egos.

Smith owned the Republic organization – a team that has won the hearts of Sacramento fans – along with its brand and intellectual property rights. Nagle controlled a group of investors with the financial clout to take the Republic from the minor leagues to MLS.

They couldn’t reach their goals without one other, and couldn’t agree with each other. They argued over what the Republic brand was worth to Sacramento’s MLS bid. They stalled on what Smith’s contribution was worth to Nagle. They tripped on how much Nagle – backed by big-name investors including 49ers owner Jed York and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman – was willing to pay for it all, given he likely will have to spend as much as $200 million for a spot in the MLS.

When Mayor Darrell Steinberg announced Saturday that the two men had come to terms after Steinberg mediated hours of negotiations, the specific deal points were not disclosed. But it’s clear that just as much as money, emotion drove this story.

It began with the emotion Smith invested in founding the Sacramento Republic with a simple plan: Create excitement around a minor league soccer franchise that would attract investors rich enough to propel the team into the ranks of MLS.

Smith, who helped bring the Sacramento River Cats to the region, hit the jackpot when Nagle, a Kings investor, bet his connections on Smith’s dream. Nagle invested in the Republic in 2014, near the end of a Cinderella inaugural season marked by sellout crowds and a championship in the third-division United Soccer League.

The Republic’s first home games at Hughes Stadium drew more than 20,000 fans. The team moved to a soccer-specific stadium at Cal Expo called Bonney Field. A fan group, the Tower Bridge Battalion, traveled with the team and brought a level of passion and intensity reminiscent of soccer fans in Europe.

Hats and scarves bearing the Republic logo became ubiquitous. And memorable moments already have been etched into local lore, such as the 2014 playoff game when the Republic rallied late from two goals down to win. It was dubbed “The Miracle at Bonney.”

All of this caught the attention of MLS. And when league officials first visited Sacramento in 2014, the Tower Bridge Battalion marched through the streets of midtown in a show of spirit that – along with the city’s “shovel-ready” plan for a stadium in the downtown railyard – helped Sacramento earn a spot on the expansion shortlist.

Last week was supposed to be the moment of exultation when all of this effort resulted in a formal bid to MLS. But the Sacramento Republic name was not included in Sacramento’s application, and Smith was absent from the news conference hosted by Nagle, who had submitted the bid.

Republic fans roared on social media, with some saying they wouldn’t spend a dime on any MLS team divorced from the culture the Republic has cultivated.

MLS leaders publicly declined to address the feud, but privately were fuming. Steinberg was blindsided because no one had briefed him on how serious the rift between Smith and Nagle truly was.

As the story unfolded Wednesday, and the Republic released a statement rebuking Nagle, it became clear that Smith was willing to take the ordeal public before he would sell his assets for less than he believed they were worth.

“This is deeply troubling to us,” the statement read. “If the bid submitted yesterday by Mr. Nagle did not include Sacramento Republic FC, it was in violation of our agreements and without our authorization.”

Someday the parties involved may laugh about last week’s events. But if you care about the continued evolution of downtown, you know this was no laughing matter, even if Smith’s decision to publicize the dispute made everyone look a little ridiculous. Sacramento’s hopes for an MLS stadium to anchor the downtown railyard would be damaged if the Republic were not part of Sacramento’s bid.

With 11 other cities hot for an MLS team, who needs Sacramento if the local partnership has splintered?

Mayor Steinberg intervenes in ownership dispute as MLS bid is pending.

Steinberg stepped in because Sacramento has many civic reasons for wanting this plan to succeed. The city wants to animate the railyard. The stadium would be privately financed, making it attractive to city and business leaders hoping such private investments in Sacramento will spur more.

And you know what? In a few short years, the Republic has built something wonderful. It starts with the name of the club – The Republic – one that speaks to the city’s political history and nods toward equality and inclusiveness. The club attracts a younger fan base. It has built natural partnerships with local brewers and bands.

An MLS bid without the magic Smith created not only would have diminished Sacramento’s chances of reaching the big leagues, it would have needlessly forsaken one of the sweetest new institutions in the region.

Enter Steinberg. On Thursday, he summoned both Smith and Nagle to a meeting. He put them in separate rooms and walked back and forth between them for hours – all while attending to other civic challenges such as homelessness. He reminded both men how important they are to the city and the sport.

He met with them for hours more on Friday, and ultimately helped them zero in on a deal to end the bad publicity long before MLS rules on Sacramento’s bid.

Hopefully, the next time this issue makes news, it will be to announce that Sacramento is home to the newest franchise in Major League Soccer.

Managing partner Kevin Nagle expresses confidence in Sacramento's chances for expansion team.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton

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