Marcos Bretón

He went from penniless to super rich. Is he about to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento?

Kevin Nagle sits at his El Dorado Hills desk where he is surrounded by some of his sports memorabilia. As the chairman of Sacramento Republic FC, Nagle has used his business acumen to get Sacramento on the doorstep of being awarded an MLS franchise.
Kevin Nagle sits at his El Dorado Hills desk where he is surrounded by some of his sports memorabilia. As the chairman of Sacramento Republic FC, Nagle has used his business acumen to get Sacramento on the doorstep of being awarded an MLS franchise.

Kevin Nagle, chairman and CEO of Republic FC, works out of an El Dorado Hills office filled with high-end sports art and memorabilia, the highlight of which has to be a large mural reproducing the famous image of Muhammad Ali standing over a vanquished Sonny Liston in their fabled “Phantom punch” title fight of 1965.

It’s quite a sight in the waiting room of the venture capital firm that Nagle runs. The piece speaks to Nagle’s passion for sports, as do the vintage jerseys of Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky and other items. But Nagle’s connection to athletics is about more than just entertainment. Sports helped to fill painful voids in his life and create a framework for professional success that delivered him from a difficult childhood.

Nagle, 63, made a fortune starting and then selling pharmaceutical companies before investing in Republic FC and moving the minor-league soccer franchise to the brink of a berth in Major League Soccer, a decision Nagle hopes will come in December. He also is known as a key local investor in the Kings who was recruited for that deal by his close friend, former Mayor Kevin Johnson. When Nagle joined other locals by investing in the Kings, it was a key first step in proving to the NBA that Sacramento was serious about keeping its basketball team from relocating to Seattle.

With Republic FC, Nagle is trying to up the ante by proving that Sacramento is a place that supports not only professional sports teams, but major investments of hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s taking the risk himself by putting up his own money while recruiting big name investors such as Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett-Packard, and using that clout to finance the rest.

Warren Smith, the former River Cats executive, had the dream of starting Republic FC as a minor-league soccer team that could grow. But without Nagle, that dream never reaches its ultimate payoff. In a town full of people paying lip service to the city’s potential, Nagle is the one who did more than just talk about moving Sacramento into a new realm of economic vitality. He put his money on the table and stepped up to roll the dice.

His office is a testament to the life of privilege he built for himself by taking calculated risks, though his most prized memento is one he acquired before he became wealthy.

A 1967 photo of Kevin Nagle and his baseball team in Long Beach. Courtesy of Kevin Nagle

It’s a grainy photo of a 1967 Long Beach Little League team filled with 12- and 13-year-old boys wearing white baseball uniforms and red caps. The photo has faded over the decades, and you have to look closely to notice the slight-looking lad in the back row who is sporting the uniform but no cap.

It turns out that kid – the only player in the photo without a hat – was the son of a single mother who worked as a cashier and struggled to make ends meet. The kid had been earning his own money since he was 6 by chasing golf balls and selling them back to the players who had mishit them, but he didn’t have the $45 he needed to buy his uniform. So after making the team he talked his coach into letting him pay installments of $2.50 per game until he reached $45. The coach reluctantly agreed, but withheld ownership of the kid’s cap and official league card until his debt was paid.

So there he is, frozen for posterity in that photo, an underdog defined by tousled brown hair and a missing hat. That kid, of course, was Nagle, and that moment crystallized his formula for success: First you calculate the value of things, then you will yourself to attain them by mind, desire, diligence and patience.

Nagle said his earliest memories are of a cramped duplex he and his mother shared with a treasured uncle, and his uncle’s family, after Nagle’s biological father left when he was an infant. Home was in Moorhead, Minn., across the Red River from Fargo, N.D., before Nagle’s family packed up and moved to Long Beach when Nagle was 8.

There, he played sports and the games awoke a competitive spirit he didn’t know he had. The team structure gave him a sense of belonging that he badly needed. And playing allowed him to prove to himself that he could be as good as anyone else once he put his mind to it. That desire was stoked by living in a home where, at various times, the electricity or the phone or the water was turned off because there wasn’t enough money to make the payments.

“You start to realize it’s about survival,” Nagle said of his formative years. “I realized at an early age that I had to make a contribution. ... I had to go out there and bring something back in the way of resources.”

Nagle’s mother, Theresa, came from an Italian family where everyone pitched in, everyone worked and complaining was frowned upon. For Christmas, Nagle got presents based on need: “Shirts, socks, undergarments,” he said.

“But we were always clean, there was always enough food. ... I vowed that I would never raise my own family in (such circumstances), but I say that without any hard feelings toward my mother. When I eulogized her I said that no other person had a greater influence on me than my mother.”

Nagle’s mom taught him the value of hard work, of family and relationships. With that foundation, he excelled at using his wits to achieve his goals. He became the community college student who would get a four-year degree at Long Beach State in political science and then a master’s in business and public administration at USC while on scholarship. He’s the self-made millionaire who ascended without the benefit of legacy wealth bestowed by rich relatives.

Nagle was a data geek long before that became popular in business. He and his partners calculated that there was money to be made in managing the medical benefits of patients. In 2015, Nagle and his partners sold EnvisionRx, a drug benefit company, for $2 billion.

Befitting his humble roots, Nagle is approachable and cordial. He’s close to his two grown daughters. He had hoped to take his 92-year-old uncle, the one who sheltered his mom and him, to the World Series had the New York Yankees made it. He likes to travel in his own plane, which he has shared numerous times to friends and employees.

He moved to Northern California two decades ago, and has used his wealth to invest heavily in the idea of Sacramento as a region on the rise. He went in with friend Mark Friedman and others on the Ice Block development project on 16th and R streets that is energizing midtown Sacramento.

Nagle is a force behind Moneta Ventures, the Folsom venture capital firm that raised $25 million – a big number for the Sacramento region. He is aiming to make his own venture capital firm, Jaguar Ventures, worth up to a quarter of a billion dollars, and the plan is to invest that money in Sacramento-based companies.

With Republic FC, Nagle assembled an ownership group that will pay for the team and a $226 million privately financed stadium in the old downtown railyards (should Sacramento get the MLS bid). The project would be a cornerstone of revitalization for a massive swath of land that has sat empty for generations.

Earlier this year, Nagle and his group submitted hundreds of pages that detailed Republic FC’s plans for a stadium that will seat nearly 20,000. On Monday, consultants for MLS will be in town to review the progress Republic FC has made on its stadium plans. Those consultants will compile a progress report that will be used by a key MLS expansion committee that will meet in early November and then make a recommendation to the full complement of MLS owners, who are scheduled to promote two new franchisees to the MLS in mid-December.

At this critical juncture, Nagle thinks Sacramento has a solid chance at making the final cut. “I’m not taking anything for granted,” he said, “but I feel good.”

Considering his background, this isn’t the most dire challenge he has faced in his life. Growing up without a father, and without financial resources, was much tougher. But he wants Republic FC to become an MLS team in the same way he wanted that baseball cap when he was 12, and said he sees similarities between himself and his adopted city.

“If you look at the rest of my life, it’s like an underdog thing again,” he said. “If people are always writing off Sacramento before we start, (then) that’s the challenge for me. I’m going to take that on.”

Preliminary work is beginning on a new soccer stadium, meant to be home to the Major League Soccer franchise Sacramento hopes to be awarded by December. These images show what the stadium is expected to look like.

Marcos Bretón: 916-321-1096, @MarcosBreton


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