The next several weeks are going to be critical in Sacramento’s quest to land a Major League Soccer franchise.
The owners of the Kings must come to an agreement with the owner of Republic FC. The guys with the money will negotiate with the guy who created the opportunity for MLS in Sacramento – Republic FC president Warren Smith.
How these negotiations go will say a lot about Sacramento’s chances of becoming an MLS city. With big-money competition from Minneapolis and other cities, Sacramento has to present a unified front and a shared vision for what an MLS franchise would be and where it would play.
The MLS has spoken; a downtown stadium is a must. That’s been the trend in the league and that’s where Sacramento must figure out a stadium-financing plan.
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Suddenly, the downtown railyard – a failed site for a Kings arena – is in play as a soccer venue.
The hope is that the Kings’ owners and Smith can lure MLS with the best elements of what Sacramento has to offer: A big-money owner in Vivek Ranadive and the spirit of a wildly successful start-up that Smith created.
The Kings’ ownership group could push past Smith and try to go it alone. They have the resources and credibility in the sports world. But that would be a shame and a lost opportunity to create something even most special here.
Republic FC as a minor-league soccer franchise has been one of the coolest developments Sacramento has had in some time. Smith started it with little more than a dream of soccer that he sold to many – me included – over pints of Guinness at de’Vere’s Irish Pub.
Now look. The Republic packs them in for every game. The team logo, fans and marketing have been right on the money.
Smith always knew his primary goal was to build something exciting that would attract people with big money. Mission accomplished.
Ranadive and Co. see the natural synergy between an NBA franchise and an MLS team. They see the possibility of a downtown MLS stadium complementing the downtown arena for the Kings.
Kings president Chris Granger also is a huge soccer guy with many connections to MLS and soccer abroad. Republic FC’s front office has Kings alums in its ranks. The NBA is a winter and spring sport while MLS is summer and fall, creating year-round possibilities for marketing and corporate partnerships.
MLS is creeping up the sports pecking order in the United States, meaning the Kings could be on the ground floor of a league that already is legitimate in only its 18th year and is poised to get even better.
MLS is the league in which most members of the U.S national team play, and the national team has been the sports story of the year so far by generating TV ratings during its World Cup games that surpassed the World Series and NBA Finals.
MLS had more than 20 of its players in the World Cup and likely will send more four years from now.
The MLS game is far more pleasing than it’s ever been. As a huge fan of the English Premier League, I couldn’t watch MLS four years ago. Now it’s a good product that will be even better as the younger generations cycle into the game from youth leagues that are getting better all the time.
MLS is very strong in the 18-34 demographic. According to the Nielsen State of the Media Report of 2013, roughly 76 percent of MLS fans own a smartphone – compared to 66 percent of the population. That stat alone should send Ranadive’s pulse racing, considering he is the guy pledging to wire the new Kings arena for Internet access like no other arena in the NBA.
I’ve seen another huge opportunity for MLS in Sacramento. Last month, Raley Field sold out an exhibition game between two notable Mexican league teams. The stadium was packed with almost no advertising in English.
That audience is there for Ranadive and Co. They not only want fans at their soccer games, they want them at their basketball games and parking in their downtown lots.
No one should be surprised that the Kings would pursue Republic FC so soon after buying an NBA team.
Time and again, Sacramento has proved it will support any team or sporting event that saves them a drive to the Bay Area. Fans will support a team with Sacramento written across the front of the jersey.
If Ranadive and Smith can work together, an underserved sports market will respond and a region will take significant steps forward.
When MLS officials come to Sacramento in September to view possible stadium sites, the hope is that an ownership is firmed up and a stadium plan is underway. Mayor Kevin Johnson has the chance to add to his legacy of saving the Kings by attracting MLS.
Another big win is there to be had.