Sacramento council unanimously approves soccer deal, gets immediate praise from MLS

Is Sacramento finally about to become a Major League Soccer city?

That question could be answered as early as next week in Los Angeles, when the MLS board of governors meets behind closed doors to discuss adding another franchise to the fast-growing league.

In an 11th-hour move to improve its chances of being chosen, Sacramento tossed a $33 million deal-sweetener into the mix: The Sacramento City Council voted 7-0 Tuesday night to approve an incentive package to help a local investment group build streets and other infrastructure around a privately financed $252 million soccer stadium in the downtown railyard.

The league released a statement immediately after the council’s vote applauding the deal.

“Major League Soccer is pleased the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved the preliminary term sheet for construction of a new soccer stadium at the Railyards site should Sacramento be awarded an MLS expansion club.

”We look forward to continuing our discussions with Ron Burkle and his partners regarding possible MLS expansion in Sacramento.”

With the incentive deal in hand, soccer officials from Sacramento, possibly including Mayor Darrell Steinberg, will travel to Los Angeles next week to be ready to make their case to league officials.

“We’ve checked all the boxes,” Steinberg said. “We have demonstrated to the league that we want this. We are absolutely the right choice for the league.”

The question is whether the league will come to a conclusion at its board meeting. Ron Burkle, the supermarket magnate leading Sacramento’s bid, said in a statement last week he is hoping the league will make a decision.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber told The Sacramento Bee last month that Sacramento and St. Louis are the two front-runner cities, and that the league hopes to make its call soon. But he declined to say exactly when.

If past practice is any measure, the league’s board could choose the winning city next week, but keep it secret for days or weeks so the league can make a splashy public announcement in the winning city.

To add more intrigue to the mix, one noted MLS watcher, economist Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis, said he would not be surprised if the league changed direction and announced that both Sacramento and St. Louis will be awarded teams this year.

He said his theory is based on the fact that the league likes both cities, both cities have mounted solid proposals, and the league likely will want to expand to 30 teams, not just 28.

“Why pick one when you can pick both?” he said. MLS is in a growth mode, he said, for good reason. “The more markets you are in, it creates more eyeballs for the sport, which leads to better TV and streaming deals, and better corporate partnerships down the road.”

Sacramento sought to boost its bid Tuesday night by offering the Burkle group an incentive package that includes roughly $5.4 million worth of development fee waivers and tax rebates. The incentive package also involves setting up a special infrastructure financing district around the stadium site in the railyard to capture tax revenue to pay for up to an estimated $27.2 million in infrastructure around the stadium.

The team would build that infrastructure, which includes streets in the railyard, pedestrian walkways, a sewer line and a light rail station. The city would then rebate future increased property taxes from the site back to the team to cover those costs.

The city also would rewrite its sign ordinance to allow the team to build up to six digital display boards round the city.

The team would privately build and pay for the stadium on land it would purchase from the private development company that owns most of the railyard.

Steinberg said the incentive package shows both the Burkle group and MLS that the city is a willing financial partner in making top-tier soccer a success here.

If the city wins a franchise, the team will take the place of the existing lower-tier Sacramento Republic FC and will play under the same name.

The council vote was preceded by a two-hour hearing before a packed chamber, including Sacramento-born player Cameron Iwasa and other members of the current Republic team. Two dozen people spoke, all in favor, several pointing out that soccer is a sport for everyone.

“It means so much to see how the city has grown the past few years, and it makes sense to grow the city more,” Iwasa said.

Several council members characterized the incentive package as a key to opening a new section of downtown.

“This is an excellent way to get so much development in the railyards that has been put off for decades,” Councilman Jeff Harris said.

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