Soccer

Here’s how Major League Soccer will change Sacramento (mostly for the better)

Sacramento has a reputation for its farm to fork cuisine, its unique coffee and cocktail scene, its affordability (at least by coastal California standards), and its vibrant downtown in the new Golden 1 Center era.

But Major League Soccer – with its 20,000-seat capacity downtown stadium – may do more to change Sacramento than any of the above.

Local leaders and MLS experts say the arrival of the country’s fastest-growing major league sport would mean a serious boost of economic development at a key moment. But more than that, it will bring entertainment with international flavor to the capital city, along with year-round major league sports.

Here is a baker’s dozen of significant changes we can expect should Sacramento win a Major League Soccer franchise:

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Sac International

As big as the National Basketball Association is, soccer is bigger. Soccer lovers like to call the sport the planet’s universal language. International teams and fans will fly in for “friendlies” as Sacramentans debate promotion and relegation, banter about Bundesliga, and grapple with the global conflict known as Ronaldo versus Messi.

FC Dallas official Gina Miller, whose club has players from 13 countries, travels to MLS stadiums around the league and loves the mix of people in the stands. “You just see a diverse range of fans. It’s one of the reasons soccer is called the beautiful game.”

Millennial draw

The capital city has been on a push to attract young workers and entrepreneurs, tech companies, and small businesses. Soccer, which counts a higher percentage of millennials as its fans than other major league sports, should make the city more of a magnet. That’s a mixed blessing: More Bay Area migration generally means higher home prices.

Affordable and versatile

Major League Soccer tickets are cheaper than seats at NBA games. That makes the sport a bit more family friendly. And the proposed stadium would be at least as versatile. It could be an outdoor concert site, music or other festival venue, or a rugby or lacrosse field. Could it also be the future home of the annual Causeway Classic football game between Sac State and UC Davis?

Outside investors

If Sacramento scores an MLS franchise, one reason will be because a billionaire investor from Beverly Hills, Ron Burkle, decided Sacramento has come of age. Burkle and his group will sink a half-billion dollars into Sacramento. That includes building housing, retail or offices on 17 acres in the downtown railyard near the stadium.

The Downtown Sacramento Partnership’s Michael Ault says his group is getting calls from real estate brokers asking about available properties downtown, notably between the basketball arena and soccer stadium site.

Incubating the next Google

But Sacramento cannot become the city it should be if it relies on outside investors like Burkle or Kings managing partner Vivek Ranadive to be downtown’s biggest innovators. Sacramento needs home-grown businesses. The city has an investment fund to help encourage that, and the current railyard ownership group, LDK Ventures, is promoting the soccer stadium neighborhood as a great place for new tech start-up or growing companies to locate, and for their employees to live.

Railyard development

The Golden 1 Center arena revitalized the faded Westfield Downtown Plaza site and surrounding area. The soccer stadium will catalyze an even bigger opportunity site, the largely empty 240-acre railyard. The city has been waiting to develop there for three decades. Mayor Darrell Steinberg half-joked last week: “Not one decade more!”

West Coast rivalries

Sacramento will have instant MLS intra-state soccer rivals in Los Angeles and San Jose. But there are some who think the bigger rivalries will be with Portland and Seattle. Remember when Seattle tried to steal the Kings, then Sac yanked them right back? Seattle remembers too.

Youth soccer surge

There already is more demand for soccer fields here than supply. Republic FC officials have agreed to invest $22 million over the next 35 years to grow the sport here, and that means more fields and an expanded youth soccer academy. The team also plans to provide millions of dollars worth of uniforms and equipment to Sacramento youth.

Natomas Regional Park or ...?

The MLS team will build a major practice facility and sports complex somewhere in Sacramento. There is a push to locate it in the long-unfinished Natomas Regional Park or perhaps in south Sacramento. Mike Testa of Visit Sacramento says he sees a bonanza: A new soccer complex of 16 or more fields would allow the city to attract major amateur tournaments that bring thousands of players and families to town many weekends, boosting local hotels and businesses.

Doubling downtown

In order to build the stadium, crews will knock down the earthen railroad berm between the railyard and the River District to the north. That will allow new streets to extend from downtown through the railyard into the River District, an underdeveloped industrial area that has been historically cut off from downtown.

The value: As Sacramento and California attempt to build their way out of a housing crisis, the railyard and River District provide a solid option for smart, environmentally friendly growth, where residents don’t have to commute long distances in cars to work.

Boosting light rail

It was an eye-opening moment in Sacramento transit history: In 2014, when the newly arrived Sacramento FC team played a couple games in Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College, an estimated 4,000 fans showed up on light rail.

The lesson: Soccer fans are far more inclined than NBA fans or commuters to use alternative transportation. The proposed stadium site will include a new light rail station a block away, a bonus for those who don’t want the hassle of paid parking.

Your name here

Some company gets the promotional opportunity for several million dollars a year to have the stadium named after it.

Sports fanatic trifecta

There is the real possibility that on one or two spring Saturdays, three professional teams will be playing their respective sports within two miles of the each other, allowing the city’s craziest fans the chance for a spectator trifecta – attending a River Cats game in West Sacramento, a Kings game at Golden 1 and a Republic FC match at the new stadium. Maybe with a Brew Bike tour between.

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