First the Sacramento Kings, then the owners of the San Francisco 49ers.
The quest for a Major League Soccer expansion team for Sacramento took on a bandwagon quality this week. With fresh investment from two big-time sports teams, the owners of minor-league soccer’s Sacramento Republic FC say they believe they’ve significantly bolstered their credibility with leaders of MLS.
At a Friday news conference, Republic FC managing partner Kevin Nagle said MLS executives have signaled that they have a greater comfort level with bidders who have connections to other major-league sports franchises.
“You see other sports franchises right alongside soccer,” Nagle said.
Seeking to capitalize on Republic FC’s enormously successful first season, Sacramento is locked in a close race with Minneapolis and other cities for an MLS berth, with a decision by league owners expected by midyear. Two competing groups are bidding in Minneapolis, including one backed by the owners of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.
The Vikings connection is no accident. MLS Commissioner Don Garber spent 15 years working for the NFL before taking control of the soccer league. Several existing MLS franchises, including Dallas FC and the New England Revolution, are controlled by owners of teams from other sports leagues.
“We wanted to marshal that as well,” Nagle said. “We’ve got two of the best.”
Late Thursday, Mayor Kevin Johnson announced that Jed York and other owners of the 49ers will invest in Republic FC. The announcement came a day after the Kings said they would invest in the soccer club. In both cases, the investments are for minority stakes.
“I have no doubt about it,” said Paraag Marathe, president of the 49ers, referring to Sacramento’s bid for MLS status. “They’re going to be successful.”
Johnson, who has been intimately involved in the MLS quest and helped broker the 49ers owners’ and Kings investments, said he believes Sacramento has satisfied all the league’s requirements for a team.
“We’ve checked every box necessary,” he said Friday.
Although Republic FC officials said late Thursday that the Kings and 49ers are investing at roughly the same level, Nagle said Friday that isn’t true. He said the levels of financial commitments are still being finalized and in any event won’t be disclosed publicly.
Marathe said the 49ers group has been interested in Republic FC for months. He noted that the 49ers have a strong season-ticket base in Sacramento, and he compared Sacramento to smaller NFL cities with ultra-passionate fans.
“It’s a nascent electricity that I haven’t really seen before,” he said, adding that Sacramento is on the rise.
He said the 49ers could bring their knowledge of stadium development to Republic FC, which is proposing a $100 million-plus, privately financed soccer stadium at the downtown railyard.
Republic FC staffers toured the 49ers’ new facility, Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, in December. Levi’s is “one of many stadiums we’ve toured to garner insight,” Republic FC spokeswoman Erika Bjork said. “We’ve taken the initiative to tour multiple stadiums, and Levi’s was at the top of the list.”
The Kings are building their own new arena and have said they could partner with Republic FC on marketing programs. Kings President Chris Granger said he became familiar with MLS during his 15 years with the NBA league office in New York, where he assisted NBA teams with business issues.
“I didn’t just visit NBA teams,” Granger said Friday. “My relationships across team sports, including MLS, could be helpful to the cause.”
As it is, Republic FC was a stunning success in its inaugural season in the minor league USL Pro, winning the championship and setting league attendance records. Team founder Warren Smith said the club is closing in on 8,000 season-ticket holders and added pointedly: “There are MLS teams that don’t have that.”
The club is adding roughly 3,300 seats to its temporary stadium, Bonney Field, to bring total capacity to 11,300.
At Friday’s news conference, Republic FC introduced another new investor: Dorene Dominguez, a Sacramento real estate executive. Dominguez is also a part owner of the Kings.
Her company, the Vanir Group of Companies, recently proposed building a 26-story office tower across the street from where the new Kings arena is being built at Downtown Plaza.
Dominguez, in an interview, said planning for the building remains in its early stages, but Vanir recently was contacted by an out-of-town restaurant operator interested in opening in Sacramento.