Sacramento soccer franchise has ambitious goal

Sacramento Republic FC, the city’s new lower-division soccer franchise, won’t take the field until next spring. Its home field hasn’t been built yet, there isn’t a single player signed to the roster and its staff of marketing gurus and ticketing agents are working out of a temporary office space in the rear of a crammed building.

And yet the team’s promoters are already shooting for an ambitious goal: landing a franchise in North America’s premier soccer league – Major League Soccer – in 2016. They’ve launched a campaign to convince MLS that Sacramento would be a first-rate market for the league, while at the same time courting fans with catchy theme songs and the promise of high-level talent.

“I know one thing: If you don’t get up and say you’re going to do it, you’re not,” Sacramento Republic FC President Warren Smith said last week in an interview at the team’s office. “The best time to get a team is when a league is growing, and MLS is in a high-growth mode right now.”

MLS Commissioner Don Garber has said he wants the league to expand to 24 teams by 2020; there are 19 teams in the league today. New York is getting a second team and Orlando, Fla., was awarded an expansion franchise last week after just three seasons in USL Pro, the same league in which Sacramento Republic FC will play.

Recent history is on Sacramento’s side, Smith said. Five of the past seven teams to join MLS made the leap directly from USL Pro, catapulted by strong attendance figures. If Sacramento Republic FC averages 6,750 fans a game – Smith’s goal – it will likely rank among the top two in the league next season.

Smith said his team is off to a good start. Nearly 2,500 fans have purchased season tickets – including 1,000 on the first day of a sales campaign that began in August. The team is already approaching its original goal for season tickets and has set a new target of 5,000 sold before the season begins.

Local soccer fans are showing their support for the game in other ways as well. A YouTube video of a chant produced by Republic FC has been viewed more than 24,000 times since the summer, and a sellout crowd of over 14,000 attended a July match at Raley Field between English Premier League team Norwich City and Dorados de Sinaloa of Mexico.

“The stage is set,” Mayor Kevin Johnson said. “Sacramento is a market that’s proven itself and can support more than one professional franchise. We want everyone to see what we already know, that we are a big soccer community, and if we send that strong message like we have in basketball and Triple-A baseball, then we think we’re right in line.”

Sacramento has a track record in professional soccer. The Sacramento Knights indoor team played for nine seasons at Arco Arena (now Sleep Train Arena) until getting shut down by the franchise’s owners, the Maloof family. An outdoor team by the same name played its games at Cosumnes River College and, later, Folsom High School until dissolving in 2009.

Still, there’s the looming question of whether the city – and Smith – can assemble the finances required to get into MLS. Once a floundering enterprise that saw teams fold and attendance lag, MLS is now a league with teams that are worth an average of $100 million each, playing in sold-out stadiums in most of North America’s biggest markets.

The first hurdle is a stadium.

Johnson and Smith said the conversation over whether the city can help foot the bill for a new facility, preferably downtown, won’t take place until the city has finalized its plans to provide a $258 million subsidy for a new downtown arena for the Kings. Republic FC and city officials expect a stadium seating roughly 18,000 soccer fans would cost in the neighborhood of $100 million.

“We’re going to have a long conversation and I don’t want to get in front of ourselves, but we can do more than one thing at a time,” the mayor said.

Dan Courtemanche, lead spokesman for MLS, said the league is aware of the interest being expressed by many cities that want expansion teams – including Sacramento.

“Sacramento certainly has been a strong market at all levels, and continuing that support with the USL Pro and Sacramento Republic will make a statement,” he said.

Deep pockets needed

Drew Epperley, who writes the popular soccer blog, said Sacramento is in fierce competition with several cities to land an MLS team. News reports frequently cite Miami and Atlanta as next in line to get teams, leaving Sacramento to compete with Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, San Antonio, St. Louis and Indianapolis for what might be just one remaining spot in the league by 2020.

The keys for cities aiming to land an MLS team, Epperley said, are securing a stadium project – preferably in an urban setting – and adding a deep-pocketed investor to the mix.

“If you get those two things, you’re going to leapfrog over everybody,” said Epperley, who writes often about MLS expansion.

Smith said he has local supporters who are backing the franchise financially and that he has begun “talking to MLS-type investors.” He declined to name who might be interested in providing the financial muscle to a cause that would likely involve an expansion fee of over $70 million, plus contributions to a new stadium.

“To play at that level, it’s going to need to be somebody that has some real economic interests,” he said.

As Republic FC begins its quest to elevate to MLS, team officials are looking at the success of two other cities for their blueprint: Portland, Ore., and Orlando.

When the Orlando City Soccer Club of USL Pro was founded in 2010, the team’s owners made it clear that their intention was to move up to the MLS. That goal was achieved in just three years: Orlando will begin play in MLS in 2015 in an $84 million downtown stadium.

Courtemanche, the MLS spokesman, said Orlando’s ability to draw an average of 8,000 fans per home game in USL Pro this year “was a bold statement that was felt throughout the soccer community in North America and that served as a catalyst for them to secure a Major League Soccer franchise.”

Republic FC already has links to Portland. The team will reportedly launch an affiliation with the Portland Timbers, a 2009 addition to MLS. And when the Timbers were in the USL Pro league, Smith was part of a team of River Cats executives that helped the floundering soccer franchise stave off financial ruin.

Smith and the River Cats team helped run the Timbers for three years until the team was sold to Merritt Paulson in 2007. Two years later, the Timbers were elevated to Major League Soccer.

Competition at home

Sacramento isn’t the only city in the region seeking to join the MLS ranks.

An ownership group led by former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez is in discussions with the city of Elk Grove to finance an MLS stadium about 20 miles south of downtown Sacramento. Elk Grove’s mayor, Gary Davis, said those talks are progressing, but that a plan likely won’t be revealed for a few months.

Despite concerns raised by Smith that a suburban stadium is not what MLS desires, Davis said a team in Elk Grove would serve as “a connecting point for Sacramento and the Central Valley markets.”

“We have no reason to believe that Elk Grove wouldn’t be in the running for an MLS team if we can come up with a plan to finance a stadium,” he said.

Courtemanche, the MLS spokesman, said stadium location is examined on “a case-by-case basis,” noting that Sporting Kansas City has sold out 35 straight matches in a stadium that is 15 miles from downtown Kansas City, Mo. However, he added that “stadiums located in vibrant downtown locations appeal to that younger audience” that has embraced professional soccer.

For now, Republic FC will play its matches in an 8,000-seat stadium at Cal Expo built with private financing. Construction has not begun – the Cal Expo board is expected to approve the plan next month – but Smith said the facility will be completed in time for the season to begin in April.

The team will play 14 league home games and Smith said he is trying to organize “friendly” matches against pro teams from Europe and Mexico, along with one or two matches against current MLS teams. Republic FC has not signed any players yet, but expects to begin building its roster soon.

Republic FC does have a coach in MLS legend Predrag Radosavljevic, known in the soccer world as Preki. At least two of the players on the roster will likely be from the Sacramento area and tryouts over the next few months will attract players from around the world, Smith said.

Once play begins, can the team reach its attendance goals, forcing MLS to take notice? Local soccer enthusiasts think so.

Soccer’s popularity – especially among adults – has grown steadily in Sacramento, according to Smith and those who help organize a large network of games around the region. There are roughly 700 men and women playing in organized adult leagues in the area, plus hundreds more who take part in pickup games from Folsom to Elk Grove to downtown Sacramento.

Soccer has long been a popular sport for kids, and local players said Sacramento Republic FC will need to tap into that support to be successful.

“If they can make that connection to where parents take their kids and those kids grow up as fans and stay interested, they’ll be a success,” said Gerhard Achtelik, president of the Sacramento Adult Soccer League.

Mohammed Musazay, a 42-year-old state worker, supplies the nets and handles an email list for pickup games at Roosevelt Park, a one-block patch of grass along Q Street with views of the downtown Sacramento skyline. He remembers showing up for games in the 1990s in Davis and often being joined by just two or three others.

Not anymore. A game this week at Roosevelt Park attracted more than two dozen players, all showcasing above-average skills. Musazay said the scene is the same almost every day at parks around the city.

“I think the support is here for soccer,” he said. “The popularity now, it’s amazing.”