Major League Soccer ponders Sacramento’s bid today. What are the capital city’s chances?

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Sacramento Republic FC players and fans rally at city hall for approval of new stadium on Tuesday April 9, 2019.
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Sacramento Republic FC players and fans rally at city hall for approval of new stadium on Tuesday April 9, 2019.

Sacramento has been knocking on Major League Soccer’s door for five years, hoping to be allowed entry. Is that door about to open?

Thursday in Los Angeles, the league’s board of governors will meet behind closed doors to discuss, among other soccer affairs, whether it’s time to add a new team, and whether California’s eager capital city is the right place.

The league has been on a growth spurt and intends to add a 28th team this year. League Commissioner Don Garber said Sacramento and St. Louis are the front-runners.

Here’s the lay the of the land:

Will they pick a winner today?

Soccer officials aren’t saying. The board of governors could well vote a winner today. But if they do, the league’s practice is to keep its decision quiet to allow time for the league and the winning bidder to finalize negotiations on a franchise contract. Typically, the league then sends out a release saying it will hold an event in a given city to make a major announcement.

Which means?

We are more likely to know in the next few weeks. Sacramento’s group has been politely angling for a quick decision.

Any thoughts on which city is ahead?

The good news is that the commissioner says the choice is really is down to just those two cities. Both cities are said to have submitted highly qualified bids. So an interloper city stealing the league’s interest is unlikely at this point. But the league isn’t tipping its hand.

MLS Commissioner Garber recently gave his take on Sacramento’s bid, saying that landing lead investor Ron Burkle, a billionaire Southern California businessman, was key to solidifying the city’s bid.

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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg helped assemble the city’s investment group. “I’m bullish on our chances,” he said on Wednesday. “I know we are in a very strong position.”

What’s the case for Sacramento?

Sacramento’s may be slightly stronger at the moment than St. Louis, at least in the public eye. MLS very much wants the winning city to have a soccer-focused stadium ready to build in the next two years. Sacramento’s Los Angeles-based investor group has a stadium site and deal in hand with deep investor pockets. The site is just east of Seventh Street in the downtown railyard.

How about the fan base in each city?

Sacramento is ahead there. The Sacramento Republic FC soccer team, which plays in the lower-tier USL, is averaging 10,000 fans per game so far this year, according to Soccer Stadium Digest, while the St. Louis USL team is averaging only 4,000.

What’s the case for St. Louis?

MLS watchers say the league has had its eyes on the Gateway Arch city for some time, in good part because St. Louis has one of the richest soccer histories of any American city, dating back 100 years. Jonathan Tannenwald, president of the North American Soccer Reporters group, doesn’t have a vote, but leans toward St. Louis based on history and central location. Moreover, St. Louis’ investor group is home-grown, and it too has very deep pockets.

If the decision is made now?

St. Louis suffered what appears to be a minor contre-temps earlier this week. The city’s Board of Aldermen declined to vote on a proposal that would have allowed some local taxes to go toward financing a new stadium. Conversely, Sacramento’s City Council voted unanimously earlier this month to put some skin in the game, an estimated $33 million in fee waivers, tax rebates, advertising rights and infrastructure financing.

Why is MLS choosing only one city?

One 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 ultimately 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.”

Why would outside investors want to bring soccer to Sacramento?

The main Sacramento soccer investor Ron Burkle, a billionaire businessman based in Los Angeles, hasn’t talked publicly about his interest in the capital city, other than saying he has worked hard on landing a team for Sacramento.

His partner Matt Alvarez told The Bee the two of them are major sports fans and they have wanted to partner on a new venture. Sacramento, a fast-growing city, is a great launching ground, they say, for that venture, in part because the deal here would be bigger than soccer.

The pair has negotiated to buy a 31-acre plot in the downtown railyard, only half of which is needed for their soccer stadium. The rest of it site could be developed into housing, offices, entertainment venues or other money-making uses. The location is good, close to downtown, close to the river and the train depot, and will include a light rail station.

Who else benefits if Sacramento lands major league soccer?

Developer Denton Kelley of LDK Ventures, the entity that owns most of the railyard, said a soccer stadium would help kick start the city’s long hoped-for redevelopment of the huge and largely vacant rail site, which is almost as big an area as the existing downtown.

His company wants to lure new businesses and workers to the site, hopefully including cutting-edge technology businesses that attract younger workers. Kaiser Permanente has already committed to building a medical campus in the railyard. A soccer stadium and ancillary development would help give the area and downtown as a whole a national identity, he said.

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Tony Bizjak has been reporting for The Bee for 30 years. He covers transportation, housing and development and previously was the paper’s City Hall beat reporter.