Hewlett Packard CEO Whitman joins Sacramento Republic’s bid for Major League Soccer berth

Adding high-profile Silicon Valley executive Meg Whitman to its ownership roster, Sacramento Republic FC formally submitted its bid for an expansion team Tuesday to Major League Soccer.

Team officials said the last-minute addition of Whitman, chief executive of Hewlett Packard Enterprise and an unsuccessful candidate for California governor, will strengthen Republic FC’s expansion effort in a larger-than-expected competition against 11 other cities. Whitman is investing in Republic FC with her husband, Stanford University professor Griff Harsh.

In a letter to fellow owners, Republic FC managing partner Kevin Nagle said Whitman and Harsh “believe in the future of MLS, and they have great respect for what our community has been able to accomplish in this effort to date.”

At a press conference in downtown Sacramento, Nagle said team official Kunal Merchant was in New York submitting a “first-class, state-of-the-art, top-of-the-line bid” at MLS headquarters. Tuesday was the deadline for submissions.

MLS officials in December said Sacramento was one of 10 cities vying for four expansion spots. That list grew to 12, but Nagle said he wasn’t bothered by the prospect of additional competition. “I’m not threatened at all by any of the other cities,” he said.

The league has 22 franchises, with a 23rd coming on in 2018 in Los Angeles. The first two expansion choices could be announced this year.

Sacramento has been considered a leading contender if not an outright favorite for one of the spots. MLS Commissioner Don Garber, in a visit to Sacramento last April, all but promised the city an expansion team and said he thinks Republic FC would be playing at the major league level by 2020. He added “they’ve been able to check the boxes that are required” for admission to MLS.

In December Garber announced Sacramento would have to formally apply like the other cities. While that seemed like a setback, Republic FC officials said they believed the quick deadline for applications would favor Sacramento because it has been working on expansion since 2014 and already has lined up a strong ownership group and a shovel-ready, privately financed stadium deal. It also has built a strong fan base in the minor league United Soccer League.

“Sacramento has proven advantages,” Nagle said.

Republic FC’s ownership group includes owners of the Sacramento Kings and Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers. Whitman adds another deep pocket to the group.

The former CEO of pioneering online auction house eBay, Whitman jumped into California politics in 2010. After winning the Republican nomination for governor, she lost badly to Jerry Brown despite spending $144 million of her own money. Her wealth became an albatross and she was dubbed “Queen Meg”' by critics.

A year later, she became chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, the legendary Silicon Valley company that had fallen on hard times. In 2015 she split the company in two pieces. She retained leadership of what is now called Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a $50 billion-a-year company, and has engineered something of a turnaround. Although revenue fell last year, profits improved.

Whitman stepped into the political spotlight again last year, endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton instead of eventual winner Donald Trump, a Republican.

Sacramento’s MLS competition is Charlotte, Cincinnati, Detroit, Nashville, Raleigh, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, Tampa Bay and two latecomers that joined the fray in the past two weeks: Phoenix and Indianapolis. Garber has made well-publicized visits to cities besides Sacramento, including a trip Monday to San Diego, where he said he was intrigued by the city’s cultural and business connections to soccer-mad Mexico.

“What we think about when we look at growing professional soccer in America, it is a close partnership with Mexico,” he told a crowd of dignitaries that included U.S. soccer legend and San Diego resident Landon Donovan. San Diego officials handed Garber the city’s application for expansion during a rally on the flight deck of the USS Midway Museum.

MLS officials earlier indicated a decision on the first two teams could come this spring or summer; on Tuesday the league said it hopes to have an announcement by year end. Nagle said he’s been told the decision might not come until 2018. “Their (due) diligence process is going to be very detailed,” he said.

Ryan Lillis: 916-321-1085, @Ryan_Lillis