The commissioner of Major League Soccer all but handed Sacramento an expansion team Thursday, saying he believes Sacramento Republic FC will play in MLS by 2020.
Commissioner Don Garber, in his most definitive statement yet about Sacramento’s bid for MLS status, said the city ranks “very high” on a list of six markets vying in the league’s upcoming round of expansion. Not only that, Garber said an announcement could be made within 12 months, and possibly before Mayor Kevin Johnson leaves office at the end of November.
Given Johnson’s work on Republic FC’s behalf, “we hope to be able to make a decision while the mayor’s still in office ... so he can see his dream become a reality,” Garber told The Sacramento Bee during a visit to the city to evaluate Sacramento’s candidacy.
While the final decision will be made by the league’s board of governors, Garber said a newly formed expansion committee, composed of four existing team owners, will soon begin talking with Republic FC executives to assess stadium plans and other elements of the team’s bid. In addition, marketing representatives from MLS will assist Republic FC managing partner Kevin Nagle in securing corporate sponsorships for the team – helping Sacramento overcome what could be its last meaningful hurdle to obtaining an expansion slot.
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Garber made his comments after scouting Republic FC’s current stadium at Cal Expo and its proposed MLS stadium site at the downtown railyard. He met with business and political leaders, as well as Republic FC investors, at a high-rise on Capitol Mall.
Appearing at a midday Republic FC “block party” on L Street in downtown Sacramento, the commissioner gave hundreds of maroon-clad fans the encouragement they were seeking: Sacramento likely “will be an expansion market very, very soon.”
Garber said he was impressed with the progress Republic FC has made since its 2014 debut in the third-tier United Soccer League. The team has consistently sold out its home games at Bonney Field, built a strong ownership group and laid the groundwork for a new soccer-specific stadium at the downtown railyard if an expansion team is awarded.
“We love the brand they’ve created,” Garber said. “They’ve been able to check the boxes that are required.”
After months of deliberation, Garber said MLS has definitely decided to add four more teams, which would bring the league to a total of 28 franchises. Sacramento’s competition, he said, consists of San Diego, Detroit, St. Louis, San Antonio and Austin, Texas.
He said the extraordinary success of Republic FC, which has 9,500 season-ticket holders, gives Sacramento an edge, at least for now.
“This is a soccer city, and frankly we don’t see that very often,” Garber said, alluding to soccer’s ongoing struggle to increase its visibility among U.S. sports fans. “Sacramento is further along than any other market that we’re speaking to.”
Garber’s comments provided clarity to an expansion process that has confused and sometimes frustrated Republic FC executives. Two markets that were awarded franchises ahead of Sacramento, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Miami, are on track to begin play in 2017 and 2018, respectively, after dealing with problems in developing new stadiums. Those cities’ progress effectively clears the way for MLS to begin more serious scrutiny of Sacramento and the other candidates for the next four slots.
Republic FC has assembled an ownership roster that includes the Kings and top officials with the San Francisco 49ers, whose executive vice president Paraag Marathe accompanied Garber on his trip to Sacramento. Working with Sacramento city officials, the team is poised to build a 25,000-seat, $226 million privately financed MLS stadium at the northeast corner of the downtown railyard once the league awards a franchise. One of Republic FC’s minority investors, developer Larry Kelley, has acquired the site.
If Republic FC has a stumbling block, it’s the possibility it could struggle to gain enough corporate sponsorships to satisfy Garber.
“We really need to see the corporate support,” Garber told The Bee. But he added: “I’m actually very encouraged, having sat with some corporate leaders.”
Nagle said he’s confident Republic FC can show Garber that Sacramento’s corporate support for an MLS team is real.
“We need to demonstrate ... the level of contractual obligations and commitments,” Nagle said.
Nagle, the mayor and several Republic FC players spoke to the hundreds who attended the downtown party. Two blocks of L Street were cordoned off, and the Tower Bridge Battalion led the crowd in cheers.
Paul D’Ambrosia, sipping on a beer and wearing a Republic FC scarf, said he believes Sacramento has more than proved its case to MLS.
“I don’t think they can deny the sheer force of what we’re doing in Sacramento,” he said.