Major League Soccer wasn’t expected to make news Thursday. The league was planning to add one expansion team and two cities, Sacramento and St. Louis, were in the running.
Then everything changed. The league decided to authorize three more teams at its Board of Governors meeting in Beverly Hills, and announced it was entering formal talks with Sacramento and St. Louis for two of them.
With a billionaire owner and a new soccer stadium ready to be built, Sacramento Republic FC sits on the precipice of becoming the area’s second major sports team. Team President Ben Gumpert held court with the media Thursday to talk about how far the club has come and where it’s going.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard the news from MLS?
A: It’s an exciting day for Sacramento to have the board of governor’s meeting and have an announcement, not just to go to 30 teams, but more specifically formally taking the next step with Sacramento in the expansion process. Long time coming to this day. So this is a huge day. It’s certainly not the final step though, and we’re going to take whatever steps we need to to finalize our agreements and make sure that MLS comes to Sacramento.
Q: Were you expecting this?
A: I’d say it’s been a long process, right? And so we’ve made sure that we continue to stand above and go above and beyond at every step. So expectations — we never look at it that way. What we look at is, we need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to forward Sacramento’s bid, whether that’s the downtown stadium plan, whether that’s an ownership group that not just includes local ownership, like Kevin Nagle and all that he’s done, but also Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez and all their sports experience and broad business experience, and then of course the fans and continuing to show our corporate fanbase, which continues to step up, and then of course our fans that have been out since game one in 2014, 20,000 strong, up until the game that was last Saturday, that had another sell-out crowd at Papa Murphy’s park. It’s just an unbelievable journey and we look forward to what’s ahead.
Q: So you guys have come really close before, you’ve been finalists before. Does this feel like the home stretch?
A: It’s been a long journey, but this feels different. We’ve never been to a stage like this where the commissioner has formally said that, ‘hey, Sacramento’s entering, you know, final agreement stage’ and I would say that we’re stronger than we were 16 months ago. And again, credit to the commissioner and MLS who were very open and direct about what we needed to do. And since then we’ve come with Ron Burkle and Matt Alvarez shoring up an already strong ownership group with the experience and financial capital that Ron and Matt bring. Secondly in terms of expanding not just the stadium [inaudible] itself, but a full 30 acres in the downtown railyards that enables for development that can catalyze all of downtown development. And then thirdly, and you saw last week at city council, working with the mayor and city council around a partnership, around infrastructure build, which again is all looking forward not just to soccer but to everything we can bring to the stadium and beyond, which is huge for Sacramento. This has all happened in the last 16 months and really in the last six months in a finalization process. And we feel really strong about where we sit now that we’ve never sat before.
A: The mayor has been vocal in his support of the team’s MLS bid. How does it feel to have him in your corner in such a strong way?
Mayor (Darrell) Steinberg has been fantastic as has the entire city council. Councilman Harris, who has the railyards in his district, has been a great partner. We all want the same thing, which is for Sacramento to thrive, for Sacramento to grow, for it to be a sense of civic pride. This is a once in a generation, if not more, opportunity to bring a major league top tier professional sports franchise like MLS, so you better believe that it’s a huge effort from the city, from the team, from the corporate community and the fans. And we’re excited that we have partners and are fully aligned.
Q: There is that $200 million expansion fee. Is that factoring in at all or is it just such a huge opportunity?
A: I’m not going to comment on the specifics on the expansion fee. What I would say is that there’s a huge amount of growth that’s happened in soccer, in MLS and in soccer in the United States and that has been clear. That is one thing that we all know. It gets us excited about what this can become. And we see it on our doorstep — here in Sacramento is one of the most thriving youth soccer markets in the entire country with some of the most active youth soccer market — 100,000 registered players. It’s truly unbelievable. You see it every Saturday morning out on every square inch of grass that you can find here. So I think if anything that just speaks to the growth of soccer here in the U.S. and in Sacramento and so it all fits to why MLS is so important specifically in this region.
Q: So with all that growth and support, how confident are you feeling right now in securing a bid?
A: We feel great. We feel extremely confident about where we sit right now, but we’re going to take our steps to go through the process. And again, Commissioner Garber, MLS, have been very consistent and open throughout. We’re not going to get ahead of the process. We’re going to take whatever steps we need to to make sure that we get this done and get this done quickly. Because one thing is clear: this city and this fan base certainly deserves MLS right here in this region.
Q: So what are your next steps moving forward as you continue discussions?
A: Yeah, so we’re going to talk to MLS, once again, just as we have, really, throughout this entire process on the next steps that we need to make. So we’ll be in, as we’ve been throughout this process, we’ll be in constant communication with them, understanding exactly what we need to do to finalize those steps.
Q: So there’s not really a solid timeline yet?
A: That’s correct. I mean, again, we’re not going to get ahead of the process, but we are going to make sure that we stay on top of everything we need to just as we have done throughout this entire process and we’re not waiting for anything. We’re going to make sure that we’re in communication with MLS and everyone else that we need to in order to get this done.