Ailene Voisin

Sacramento a sure bet to get Major League Soccer team? How city broke from the pack.

Watch Mayor Darrell Steinberg pump up major league soccer in Sacramento

Mayor Steinberg and Republic FC owner Kevin Nagle gather at the downtown rail yards to announce the construction of a soccer field to go along with Sacramento's bid for a Major League Soccer program.
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Mayor Steinberg and Republic FC owner Kevin Nagle gather at the downtown rail yards to announce the construction of a soccer field to go along with Sacramento's bid for a Major League Soccer program.

Although professional sports leagues routinely throw last-second curveballs that ruin expansion plans, Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber appears to be sticking to his script.

Miami is within a toenail of the finish line, Sacramento is only a few feet back and breathing hard, trailed by a handful of cities scrambling to break out of the pack.

Assuming the details of David Beckham’s proposal are finalized – and Garber expressed little doubt – the attention turns immediately to the 12 cities that submitted bids last January in hopes of securing one of two expansion franchises selected in December. Two additional teams (a 27th and 28th) will be added at a future date.

Grab a lawn chair. Crack open a beverage. And don’t hold your breath. The waiting game can be excruciating, with issues of ownership, land acquisition, environmental laws, financing models, zoning and local politics dragging out the process. Just ask Beckham. It’s probably fair to say that, after all these years of stopping and starting, he probably doesn’t bend it like he used to.

In light of Garber’s comments, recent developments and the fact that almost all the bids are incomplete, here is a closer look:

Clear frontrunner

This should not be misinterpreted as a partisan hometown discount, because according to high-ranking league sources, the most recent information packet reviewed by the Board of Governors establishes Sacramento as the favorite. None of this comes as any surprise. San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York enhanced the profile of the ownership group and once the disagreement between Republic FC founder Warren Smith and lead investor Kevin Nagle was resolved, all the boxes are checked.

The arguments are similar to those that kept the Kings from relocating to Seattle in 2013: fan support, demographics, competition, downtown stadium location. Though MLS prefers large markets – join the club, right? – Sacramento is the 20th-largest media market and is the only one with fewer than two major-league sports franchises.

The region’s diversity, improving economy, and enthusiastic fan base earn additional bonus points; Republic FC broke USL attendance figures with an average of 11,200 in the inaugural 2014 season. Garber consistently mentions Sacramento prominently and on Wednesday praised Nagle for staging a “ground-making” ceremony last week at the 224-acre Railyards site. His message was simple: The advantage goes to the bid that is “shovel-ready.”

So Sac it will be. It has to be. Almost for sure.

Next in line

Detroit – Don’t sleep on Detroit. Relationships and big bucks matter. Billionaire NBA owners Tom Gores (Pistons) and Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers) are pushing hard for a $1 billion project and are aided by Arn Tellem, the former super agent who operates Gores’ sports and entertainment empire and is a friend of Garber – as the commissioner said during his news conference.

With the Pistons moving back downtown and into a new arena for the 2017-18 season, an MLS franchise is being promoted as another important piece in the urban renewal process that features plans for a riverfront entertainment district, retail shops and street cars. Other factors in Detroit’s favor: The area is home to 11 Fortune 500 companies, is the nation’s 13th-largest media market, is an enthusiastic and invested sports town, and is seeing an uptick in employment, the housing market and number of residents returning to the city.

The main problem is that the local government hasn’t signed off on the proposed stadium location. Gores and Gilbert have offered to purchase land at the site of an unfinished prison and pay all construction costs for the new facility. The area politicians, in other words, are on the clock.

Cincinnati – No one saw this coming, and now no one can look away. FC Cincinnati is shattering USL attendance records at Nippert Stadium, has a billionaire ownership group, a team president who has worked for the Reds and the Bengals and is well-versed in stadium construction. But back to those attendance figures. Though stadium plans and sites are still being evaluated, which means this is another bid that trails Sacramento, and Cincinnati is 36th in market size, it will be hard to ignore those 20,000 crazies in the stands.

Nashville – Music City is maturing. The presence of the NFL Titans and the NHL Predators’ electrifying run to the Stanley Cup Final reveals the understated power of an impassioned sports town. The MLS is openly intrigued by the youthful energy, population projection, and the city’s tourist-friendly reputation. But again, timing is everything. An ownership group headed by billionaire John Ingram isn’t investing in this alone. Ingram is seeking a private-public partnership and still studying stadium sites, and is hampered by a late start.

San Antonio – The Spurs epitomize professionalism, excellence, class and just might be the model franchise in all of pro sports. And MLS is very, very interested, for many, many reasons. San Antonio FC of the USL is owned by the Spurs, who are sole practitioners in the major pro sports market. Remember, the MLS loves a captive audience. Then there is the large Hispanic market – seventh largest in nation – which counters the city’s underwhelming media market size (31st). Toyota Field has to be expanded and a funding model has yet to be finalized, but stay tuned.

Phoenix – The sports scene is crowded with the Suns, Diamondbacks, Coyotes and Major League Baseball’s takeover of the city for spring training. Arizona State is a major player as well. But Phoenix is the largest metropolitan area and second-largest media market of the bidding cities, and the proposal does not require public money. The triple-digit summer temperatures would seem to be a disadvantage – MLS folks are not fans of domed stadiums, though that’s the plan – but with Goldman Sachs involved in the stadium financing, don’t exclude Arizona yet.

Tampa/St. Petersburg – Owner Bill Edwards has pledged $80 million of his own money, but some in the MLS doubt that he has the pockets for the $150 million expansion fee or the upgrades needed at Al Lang Stadium.

Goodbye, for now

Early energy for St. Louis dissipated when a business tax referendum failed. Charlotte was stumped when the public refused to allocate tourism taxes for a facility. Raleigh’s stadium plans are still fluid. Indianapolis’ bid effectively flatlined when legislators declined to discuss funding measures for a soccer stadium during budget discussions.

The absolute stunner, though, is San Diego. Southern California’s picturesque beach town should have emerged as the favorite the minute the Chargers bolted for Los Angeles. This is almost too easy. Moderate climate. Two Fortune 500 companies. Decent media market size (28th). Large Hispanic population and close proximity to Mexico.

Additionally, the bid was backed by former MLS star Landon Donovan and encouraged by former Chargers kicker (and one-time UC Davis soccer star) Rolf Benirschke. But then again. When it comes to professional sports, there always seems to be trouble in paradise. The Clippers fled to L.A. in 1984, recently joined by the Chargers, whose stadium plans were doomed by lack of public support and chronic feuding among political leaders. Much to the dismay of MLS officials, the San Diego City Council rejected a SoccerCity proposal by a 5-4 vote in June.

The matter will not be revisited until November. Adios, San Diego.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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