Is Sacramento destined for an MLS team? Handicappers like the city’s chances

Sacramento already has beaten the likes of Seattle and Anaheim in the struggle to keep its pro basketball team. Can the region score a repeat in professional soccer?

Backed by a nascent ownership group and a passionate fan base that has earned national attention, Sacramento has emerged as a front-runner in the heated competition to land what might be the last available expansion spot in Major League Soccer for years to come. MLS executives are scheduled to visit the area this week for an intense two-day assessment of the region’s viability as a landing spot for the nation’s premier soccer league.

Elk Grove is making its own separate bid for an expansion team, and also will host league officials this week. But, at least for now, league insiders say Sacramento with its plan for a downtown stadium is on stronger footing. The city that’s considered Sacramento’s strongest competition? Minneapolis, a metropolitan area of 3.5 million people with a vast corporate base and rich history in professional sports. Two competing deep-pocketed groups in that region are pushing bids for an expansion team and already have met privately with top league executives.

The competition doesn’t end there. Las Vegas has been considered a threat to land the 24th spot in MLS, although momentum in that effort slowed this month after the City Council delayed a vote to commit $82 million to a soccer stadium.

Also in the mix is San Antonio. The city’s minor-league soccer club announced plans earlier this month to double the size of its stadium, and elected officials are lining up behind the quest to join the nation’s top league.

“We’re an underdog,” said Kevin Nagle, a Sacramento Kings minority owner who is now leading the local charge for an MLS club. “But we’re going to put our best foot forward, and we’re going to win.”

A year ago, Sacramento and its burgeoning soccer club, Republic FC, didn’t register on the list of serious contenders for MLS franchises. That changed with two key developments: In its inaugural season – part of it played in a community college football stadium – Republic FC smashed attendance records in the lower-division USL Pro league. Then, earlier this month, Nagle announced his intent to become the team’s lead investor if it is granted MLS status, lending to the effort his deep pockets and connections to the Kings organization.

Close observers of pro soccer say the visit by MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott and other top executives is a clear sign that Sacramento ranks among the favorites for an expansion franchise. League officials have declined to handicap the race for that final spot, but have been very public in praising Republic FC’s success and the political support shown in Sacramento for soccer.

“We’re impressed with Sacramento, that’s why we’re coming out there,” said Dan Courtemanche, the league’s executive vice president of communications.

Drew Epperley writes the popular soccer blog and reports extensively on MLS expansion. He said Sacramento is getting a far more serious look from the league than other cities.

“The fact that they’ll be on the ground looking at stadium places and will be there with (Republic FC), that’s something that’s hard to beat,” he said. “They don’t do these things if they don’t feel it’s a very serious potential expansion site.”

Selling the ‘soccer mystique’

MLS officials have said they plan to award expansion franchises to two cities by 2020. Miami has one of those spots, but that approval is contingent upon a group led by international soccer star David Beckham securing a stadium plan. MLS officials have not provided a deadline for Beckham’s group to come up with that plan, but have expressed confidence it would happen.

The league is not expected to announce a decision this week regarding the final expansion spot and that determination – ultimately made by the owners of the existing franchises – may not even be made this year. Still, this week is being viewed as a pivotal tryout for the Sacramento contingent, which has said it wants to be awarded a team now.

Abbott, the league’s key decision-maker on expansion, and other MLS executives are scheduled to arrive in Sacramento on Thursday.

At the top of the agenda is persuading league officials that Sacramento has viable plans for building a stadium capable of seating at least 18,000 fans. Bonney Field, Republic FC’s current home, seats 8,000, and will likely be expanded this winter by at least 2,000 seats. Nagle and team President Warren Smith said they plan to show MLS drawings for a proposed stadium at the downtown railyard and will share “general ideas” and a “pathway” to how a stadium would be financed.

A stadium is expected to cost around $100 million. Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson has said public dollars will not be used to build the facility, but Smith and Nagle said they are confident they can deliver a privately financed stadium.

The league executives will be introduced to current and future corporate sponsors of Republic FC. Nagle said he also plans to unveil new local investors in the franchise, a group he indicated could include other Kings owners. The Kings ownership group, Sacramento Basketball Holdings, has looked at buying a stake in Republic FC, and those talks continue.

MLS officials will tour the railyard site and other potential stadium locations and possibly visit with Republic FC fans. The visit is scheduled to end Friday, although some officials could remain in town until next weekend to attend Republic FC’s second-round playoff match. .

“By the time MLS leaves, they’re going to have a very good idea about this soccer mystique in Sacramento,” Nagle said.

Nagle’s involvement has helped elevate Sacramento’s bid. Although he wasn’t publicly linked to Republic FC until recently, Nagle said Thursday he has been a major investor from the start.

Nagle, who turns 60 on Monday, has built a business empire in El Dorado Hills. He is co-founder and vice chairman of Envision Pharmaceutical Holdings, a $3.5 billion-a-year drug-distribution company, and is a major investor in El Dorado Town Center, a large retail and office complex.

Envision, which distributes prescription drugs to big corporations, labor unions and other major purchasers, was sold last fall to an investor group for $935 million, Nagle said. He wouldn’t discuss how much he earned from the transaction, but said he is worth “hundreds of millions of dollars.”

To secure an MLS franchise, his group faces an expansion fee of at least $70 million, the cost of a new stadium and millions more in operational costs.

“Our group will be capable of making that investment,” he said. “We will be very well capitalized by the time this all begins.”

‘Skin in the game’

Nagle and Republic FC are facing competition in their own backyard.

The MLS visit this week will include a trip to Elk Grove, where the City Council has agreed to buy land for an MLS stadium off Highway 99. Former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, who now advocates on behalf of corporate clients, is leading the Elk Grove effort. He said the suburb’s effort can’t be ignored.

“There’s a city in Elk Grove that’s willing to put skin in the game,” he said.

Núñez and Smith said they’ve spoken about somehow joining forces. “It’s a friendly competition, but it’s really our goal to figure out how to come in as a united front,” Nagle said.

Sacramento officials contend the railyard site is a stronger lure because MLS has expressed a preference for urban stadiums – considered a draw for the league’s core demographic, fans ages 18 to 34. The mayor has said a stadium would act as a catalyst for future development of the 240-acre site.

By many accounts, Sacramento’s toughest competition is from outside the area. Minneapolis, for example, has an edge in terms of stadium development. The NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, who are backing one of the two bids from Minneapolis, are building a $975 million domed stadium that they have offered to share with an MLS team.

“We’ve got this beautiful new stadium that’s coming on line that’s designed to host MLS,” said Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley. “We’re well positioned. We know that it’s a strong market and it’s of interest to MLS.”

The Twin Cities area has 18 companies in the Fortune 500 – an important measure of potential sponsorship – and is the 15th largest television market in the nation. Sacramento is the 20th largest TV market, and has no Fortune 500 companies.

MLS likes to foster regional competition, and a team in the Minneapolis region would be a natural rival with the Chicago Fire franchise. Similarly, an MLS team in Sacramento would set up an instant rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes.

Working against Minneapolis: Its sports scene is far more crowded than Sacramento’s, with major-league baseball, football, basketball and hockey. There’s also a second soccer bid from that city, led by Minnesota United FC, which plays in the second-tier North American Soccer League. Minnesota United hasn’t yet unveiled a formal proposal for an MLS-quality stadium. Team officials declined comment on their prospects.

“Minneapolis could have the edge,” said Epperley. “The problem is, they have those two owners. That’s one thing that could end up hurting them.”

Las Vegas, one of America’s more glamorous travel destinations, also has the attention of MLS officials. But the city is untested as a major-league sports city, in part because of concerns about gambling, and has the smallest population of the cities in the running.

Las Vegas Chevrolet dealer Justin Findlay and Cordish Cos, a Maryland real estate developer, have been pressing the city’s bid for an expansion team. The proposed stadium plan would require public financing. But some council members remain opposed, and the council earlier this month postponed a vote on a nonbinding deal that calls for the city to contribute $82 million toward a $200 million downtown stadium.

A new vote is set for early October.

Like Sacramento, San Antonio is a recent wild-card entry in the MLS derby. The city is home to a North American Soccer League team, the Scorpions, and earlier this month the team unveiled drawings for a proposed $45 million expansion to its stadium, Toyota Field. The project would more than double the stadium’s seating capacity to 18,000.

Commissioner Don Garber visited San Antonio in January and said he was encouraged about the possibility of expanding Toyota Field. Several members of the San Antonio City Council have voiced support for the Scorpions’ plan, but it is not yet clear how the project would be financed.

Sports experts interviewed said Sacramento stacks up well against the competition, even with a minor-league team in its rookie season and a relative dearth of big corporate sponsors.

Tim Hinchey, a former Kings executive who is president of the MLS’ Colorado Rapids, said Sacramento’s scarcity of major-league sports teams appeals to MLS. “These kinds of markets, like Portland, Orlando and Sacramento are absolutely ideal for Major League Soccer,” he said.

What really vaulted the city into contention, several said, were the raucous crowds that packed Hughes Stadium during Republic FC’s opening games this spring. The first four home games averaged nearly 20,000 fans apiece. After moving to Bonney Field – a smaller, temporary stadium with few amenities and limited access to public transit – the team has sold out all but one match.

“Sacramento might be a smaller market (than Minneapolis), but if it has more avid fans, maybe that beats market size,” said David Carter, a sports business expert at the University of Southern California.

Smith, Republic FC’s president, said Sacramento has one decided advantage over Minneapolis or any other city in the running: It has been through this before. Nagle and Mayor Johnson helped defeat efforts last year by the Kings’ former owners, the Maloofs, to sell the team to investors from Seattle. After the NBA blocked that deal, the Kings were sold to a group led by tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadive; Nagle became the largest local investor in the new ownership group.

“We’ve had the fortune of being in a battle before, so we know the intensity that’s needed,” Smith said. “I’m not sure those other markets, with all due respect, understand that intensity because they haven’t had that battle.”

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