Cal Expo approves plan to build new soccer stadium

Sacramento’s new soccer franchise now has the stadium plan it thinks will catch the attention of the nation’s top professional league.

The Cal Expo board of governors on Friday unanimously approved a development agreement for a privately financed $3 million soccer stadium at the state fairgrounds for Sacramento Republic FC.

The agreement with Ovations Fanfare will lead to the construction of an 8,000-seat stadium featuring high-tech scoreboards, a cheering section for Republic FC’s fan club and a fan zone. Stadium plans also include a bike valet for cyclists arriving from the nearby American River Parkway and a small number of food trucks.

But just as important to Republic FC’s goal of earning a spot in Major League Soccer by 2016, team executives said, the stadium will feature a 120-yard by 80-yard grass field. It will be designed specifically for soccer, but will also be able to handle rugby and lacrosse matches.

Republic FC executives said MLS has told them their team needs to play on a grass, soccer-specific field in order to be taken seriously for future promotion to the big leagues. The dimensions of the new field will meet MLS size standards.

“To have this locked up is very key for us,” team President Warren Smith said following the Cal Expo vote.

In order to land an MLS franchise, Smith has said the team will eventually need to move into an 18,000-seat stadium, preferably in downtown Sacramento. Republic FC will also likely need to attract an ultra-wealthy owner – or owners – who can afford the MLS expansion fee and finance a stadium.

MLS Commissioner Don Garber last week said Sacramento was one of five cities under consideration for an expansion franchise. The league is planning to expand from 21 to 24 teams by 2020.

Drew Epperley, who writes the widely read soccer blog, said Republic FC’s future has more to do with how fans react to the team than the size of the field at Cal Expo.

“Field size is one thing, grass is another thing, but filling up the venue each week with a strong atmosphere is what will really get the attention of (MLS) and everyone else,” Epperley said. “I think MLS will want to see what this group is made of from the start. If they fill 8,000 seats each week, have some games with more than 8,000, then they’ll certainly get MLS’s attention.”

Republic FC has said it wants to average at least 6,750 fans per home match at Cal Expo to impress MLS. So far, the franchise has received deposits from just under 4,500 fans for season tickets.

Orlando City Soccer Club averaged 8,000 fans last season in the USL Pro league, the league in which Republic FC will debut this spring. Those numbers paid off: Orlando was awarded an MLS franchise last year.

Nick Nicora, Ovations vice president of business development, said construction of the Cal Expo field could begin as early as next week.

The stadium is not expected to be completed in time for Republic FC’s first home match on April 26. As a result, the franchise will play its first home match – and perhaps as many as the first three home games – at Hughes Stadium on the campus of Sacramento City College.

Nicora said the Cal Expo stadium would be completed by June, at the latest.

Hughes Stadium recently underwent a $13 million renovation, but its field is artificial turf and is 10 yards narrower than professional soccer standards.

Ovations is contributing $2.6 million to the Cal Expo stadium and Republic FC the remaining $400,000. Cal Expo will receive at least $75,000 in rent each year for the 4.86-acre stadium site; that number could increase substantially if stadium profits exceed projections.

Cal Expo will not take a hit if the stadium loses money, according to the development agreement.

Board members spoke favorably of the plan on Friday during an hourlong hearing.

“This is a very big opportunity for soccer in Sacramento and for us to expose Cal Expo to a lot of folks who have never been to the grounds,” said board member Rex Hime. “It’s been way too long that there’s been a brown field with RVs (at the planned stadium site). It’s time to replace that with something that’s producing something for our region.”