Adding fuel to Sacramento’s quest for a Major League Soccer team, the owners of the San Francisco 49ers have agreed to invest in Sacramento Republic FC, the city’s up-and-coming minor-league club.
Mayor Kevin Johnson disclosed the 49ers' investment Thursday night with his customary flourish at his annual State of the City speech at Memorial Auditorium. Hundreds of Sacramentans, including scores of Republic FC fans, stood and cheered as Johnson introduced 49ers chief executive Jed York, who was sitting in the front row.
The mayor, who helped facilitate the investment, said the inclusion of the 49ers' owners will make Sacramento's bid for MLS status "too good to be true." The surprise announcement came one day after the Sacramento Kings announced they were investing in Republic FC as well; several Kings executives attended the mayor's speech.
York said the investment was prompted, in part, by the importance of Sacramento to the 49ers. "We have more 49ers season ticket holders in Sacramento than we do in San Francisco," he said as he headed to the airport for a flight to Arizona for the Super Bowl.
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Citing Republic FC's lead investors, he said, "You've got a great group of people" and said he was confident Sacramento will win its bid for an MLS expansion team.
The 49ers as an organization aren't investing; it's York and six partners and family members. The 49ers group and the Kings will have roughly the same minority stake in Republic FC, said Warren Smith, president and founder of the soccer club. Financial details weren't disclosed.
Kevin Nagle, the El Dorado Hills pharmaceutical executive who stepped up as lead investor last September, remains managing partner of Republic FC. Eleven other Kings investors are also part of Republic FC’s ownership group as individuals, including developer Larry Kelley, who is buying the downtown railyard site that would become home to the team’s new stadium if Sacramento is awarded an MLS team.
Smith said MLS executives have been told about the Kings and 49ers' investments.
In an interview after the announcement, Nagle said the presence of the Kings and the 49ers has significantly fortified Sacramento's campaign for an MLS expansion team.
"We want to make it very easy for MLS to make a decision," Nagle said. "We built an extraordinary ownership group. It's going to make a very strong, compelling case."
Owners of other big-league sports teams, including the New York Yankees and New England Patriots, have bankrolled several MLS franchises. Tellingly, the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings are backing Sacramento’s chief rival in the expansion derby, Minneapolis, and would become the soccer team’s landlords at a new domed stadium they’re building.
The 49ers’ involvement has been the subject of speculation for months. Team president Paraag Marathe, who is believed to have taken the lead in negotiations with the Sacramentans, was spotted dining with Republic FC executives last September, when they hosted MLS Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott. At the time, Marathe told The Sacramento Bee he was there strictly as “a fan of the Republic.”
York told The Sacramento Bee that Johnson approached him about a Republic FC investment and introduced him to Nagle. He said the 49ers group chose the Sacramento investment, as opposed to buying into the neighboring San Jose Earthquakes, because of the opportunity to get in on the ground floor.
"We've looked at different soccer investments in the past, internationally and in the MLS," but the Sacramento opportunity looked the most promising, York said.
Executives from the 49ers could lend their stadium-building acumen to Republic FC. The 49ers last fall opened their $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. "What our expertise is, is really getting a stadium up and off the ground," York said.
He said he would help Sacramento make a formal pitch to MLS executives if necessary. Republic FC officials and the mayor have already met multiple times with MLS executives.
To gain admission to MLS, the Sacramento group will have to build a new stadium that seats at least 20,000 fans and meets other MLS specifications. The team is pulling together plans for a privately-financed, $100 million-plus stadium at the railyard. The stadium expense would come on top of an expansion fee that could top $100 million.
MLS owners are expected to decide on expansion by mid-year.
Minneapolis, which is larger and wealthier than Sacramento, is believed to be in the lead for what would be MLS’s 24th team. But Sacramento could get in as well, and its chances would be greatly enhanced if Miami, which has been tentatively awarded the 23rd franchise, is unable to come up with a stadium deal as demanded by MLS officials. The Miami group, led by soccer legend David Beckham, has so far been unable to reach agreement on a stadium, and MLS Commissioner Don Garber has publicly voiced concerns about the Beckham group’s ability to deliver.
Republic FC’s MLS effort gained considerable momentum last August, when Kings President Chris Granger accompanied Johnson and others in Portland for the MLS All-Star Game. At the time, the Kings were considering becoming majority owners in Republic FC. Instead, Nagle took the lead and the Kings backed off as an organization, until this week.
"We've been fans of the Republic since the beginning," Granger said Thursday night. "There are ways we can help each other from a marketing standpoint, from a sales standpoint."
Republic FC is basing its MLS effort largely on the team’s phenomenally successful first season in the minor league USL Pro circuit. The team consistently sold out its games at its makeshift home, Bonney Field at Cal Expo, and is adding about 3,300 seats for the upcoming season. That will bring seating capacity to 11,300.
Call The Bee’s Dale Kasler, (916) 321-1066. Follow him on Twitter @dakasler.