New 8,000-seat soccer stadium at Cal Expo planned to open by March

Sacramento’s sports scene took a major step forward Thursday with the announcement that an 8,000-seat soccer stadium to be built with private funds is expected to open at Cal Expo by March.

The plans, which require final approval from the Cal Expo board at a Dec. 13 meeting, call for the stadium to be erected on a vacant, 4.5-acre parcel of the fairgrounds in time for the Sacramento Republic FC soccer club to begin league play in April.

The team, a Division III United Soccer League Pro Division club, is still being formed. Team President Warren Smith said he hopes construction of the stadium will help him achieve his ultimate goal of bringing a Major League Soccer franchise to Sacramento, something that would eventually require construction of a $100 million soccer facility seating at least 18,000 people.

“Sports is changing,” said Smith, a former executive with the Sacramento River Cats baseball team. “Traditional American sports are flat-lining or decreasing. What’s growing is soccer and rugby.”

The Cal Expo plan has been in play for a year and was proposed by Ovations Food Services, the company that has run food and drink concessions at Cal Expo and the State Fair for two decades.

Nick Nicora, vice president of business development for Ovations, said his company would foot the bill for construction of the $3 million stadium and pay a cut of the profits to Cal Expo, which is owned by the state of California. Details of the deal still are not final, but a Cal Expo subcommittee voted 4-0 Thursday to recommend that the full board approve the stadium plan at its meeting next month.

The deal would lease the land for up to nine years, allowing for construction of bleachers, buildings and concessions that would be considered temporary but could be used as long as the team wanted to play there, Nicora said.

“The timeline is pressing,” Nicora said. “We hope to have an opening day of March 15 ... and we’re looking at a possible exhibition game in the first week of April. But we’re teed up for that right now.

“If you’ve been to the California State Fair, you’ve seen a lot of locations on the grounds that come from raw material and turn into a dream. We’re going to take same mentality with this facility.”

Smith also had been discussing playing at Sacramento City College’s Hughes Stadium until recently. That effort never panned out because the football field there is not the correct size for soccer and Smith said he was concerned the field size would negatively affect his chances at luring a Major League Soccer team.

“Obviously, when I announced we were actually going to acquire a team we needed a place to play, and Hughes had just made $13 million in improvements at Sac City College,” Smith said. “It was my full intent to play there.

“I don’t have a soccer background, I have a baseball background, and as I started to talk to MLS it was, ‘Yes, it’s great that you’re playing no matter what. But if you want us to take you a little more seriously, we’d like you to play in a full pitch.’”

Smith believes his team can sell out the 8,000-seat stadium, where 14 home games and up to four exhibition games will be played between April and August. He pointed to the 14,000 people who attended a soccer exhibition game at Raley Field in July as evidence. USL Pro figures show average attendance at regular season games last year varied widely, from 8,053 for Orlando City, the league’s most popular team, to 403 for VSI Tampa Bay FC.

Sacramento Republic plans to play its games mostly at night, which could avoid adding to traffic congestion in the area, although its season would overlap with the State Fair, which runs July 11-27 next year.

The team plans to hire its first players in December and receive its home schedule that same month. It already is accepting season ticket deposits to see matches at the new facility, which will stand where the old Bill Graham Presents concert facility was, just west of the Raging Waters theme park in an empty lot used during the fair as parking for fair workers’ vehicles.

Cal Expo Chief Executive Officer Rick Pickering said that although details still are being worked out, there is no financial risk to the state because Ovations will guarantee a minimum payout to Cal Expo and the lease can be canceled by the fair board it it chooses.

Smith made it clear that his intent is to use the Republic team as a springboard to MLS, and he said he is considering eight sites – including downtown and Cal Expo – as possible homes for an MLS franchise if he acquires one.

However, he faces competition for a major-league team, not only from other cities nationwide but from an Elk Grove group led by former California Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez.

That group is working with Elk Grove officials, who hope to purchase land west of Highway 99 and north of Kaiser’s Promenade Medical Offices for a stadium of at least 18,500 seats. Elk Grove hopes to finance the stadium with municipal bonds that would be repaid with surcharges on tickets and parking, naming rights fees and other funding sources.

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