Fanatic! Sacramento Republic FC fans rally outside MLS headquarters in New York
To borrow from another sport, and the only other major-league game in town, the full-court press is on. Representatives from Sacramento and three other cities will put on their best suits, clear their throats, and try to convince Major League Soccer officials Wednesday in New York that they deserve to be one of two 2020 expansion franchises.
Nashville, Cincinnati and Detroit are the other contenders. To varying degrees, all have something to offer.
But you know where this is going. Sacramento has been at this too long for MLS to continue playing games. What has it been? Two years? Three years? No, it’s been four years since Commissioner Don Garber summarized our city’s chances of securing an expansion team with a definitive declaration – “It’s not if, but when” – and then repeatedly proclaimed Sacramento’s bid as outpacing the others.
So it’s time. It’s past time. From the moment the minor-league Republic FC took the field at Sacramento City College in 2014, breaking USL attendance records, streaking to the championship, introducing their exquisite color scheme and innovative brand, MLS was put on notice.
This was love at first kick. Fans packed the light rail en route to a brimming Hughes Stadium. Pep rallies and mini-parades of chanting, cheering, impassioned soccer partisans greeted Garber and other MLS officials during their visits here to scope out the scene. Past and present mayors threw their support behind the venture, envisioning more to come, so much more than soccer.
Don’t look now – OK, look now – because the setting for a nearly 20,000-seat stadium is almost an ideal bookend to the year-old Golden 1 Center that inspired a massive downtown makeover. The soccer facility would be within a short walk of rail service and have easy access to the freeway. Positioned as an anchor for redevelopment of the 244-acre railyard and infill developments, approved projects include construction of 10,000 residences, a 1.2 million-square-foot hospital complex, 3.8 million square feet of office space, museums, stores and 34 acres of parks.
Sacramento has other advantages to woo MLS, as well, among them the fact the shovel already struck the ground for the big dig; a media market that ranks 20th in the nation and has only one major-league team in town; a commitment from Republic FC owners to privately finance construction of the $226 million venue, with public agencies contributing $46 million in infrastructure improvements; plus unwavering civic and political support.
“It is a little reminiscent of 2013, when we came back here for the Kings, though the circumstances are different,” said Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who is in New York and will accompany Republic FC chairman and CEO Kevin Nagle and former Mayor Kevin Johnson to the formal presentation. “It’s the same kind of excitement. We have an opportunity to show what we are about. And just like with the Kings, I feel we’ve earned it.”
But is there a powerful rebuttal that could possibly derail the grand plans? The only potential hiccup in Sac’s bid appears to be lingering concern about the viability/fluidity of the ownership group that is headed by Nagle, a Kings minority owner, and includes Mark Friedman, also a Kings minority partner, and Jed York, CEO of the 49ers. The recent exit of Meg Whitman, Hewlett-Packard’s retiring CEO, from the partnership is said to have unsettled a few stomachs at MLS headquarters.
Still, in a ranking of the four contenders, with Nashville the prohibitive favorite because of a combination of young demographics, international appeal, location, an approved and financed stadium, and deep pocketed ownership (John Ingram and the Minnesota Vikings’ Wilf family), Sacramento is thought to have an advantage over Cincinnati and Detroit despite the fact both bidders boast far wealthier ownership groups.
Cincinnati, for one, set USL attendance records this season, but has stadium questions and would be the smallest TV market in the MLS. Detroit’s facility issues are even more problematic. Billionaire owners Tom Gores (Detroit Pistons) and Dan Gilbert (Cleveland Cavaliers) recently substituted plans for a new downtown stadium with a move to 15-year-old Ford Field, a renovated NFL stadium that historically holds little appeal to MLS.
The six-member expansion committee’s recommendation will be submitted to the full Board of Governors for a vote on Dec. 14, with the fate of the two unsuccessful bidders tabled until a future date.
Folks in Sacramento know all about protracted and tabled decisions. The Kings kept the masses dangling for more than a decade, moving here, moving there, before finally digging in downtown and completely altering the landscape. Who would argue that it wasn’t worth the wait? One of the nation’s most diverse cities is suddenly morphing from a sleepy little cowtown – per Phil Jackson’s critique – to a vibrant and increasingly connected community.
“I just love the moment,” Steinberg said. “We’ve got a lot of momentum going. Two weeks ago, it was Centene,” a Fortune 500 health insurer considering North Natomas for its West Coast headquarters. “All these are new beginnings. We just have to keep it going.”
Having just landed in New York, the mayor was reminded of the fateful meeting in Manhattan four years ago with the NBA’s relocation committee and then-Commissioner David Stern.
Steinberg, then the State Senate majority leader, Johnson and Kings incoming principal owner Vivek Ranadive convinced the demanding, detail-driven Stern and his owners to rebuff overtures from a Seattle investors group and keep the Kings in Sacramento.
Then, as now, the team ownership group was continuing to evolve. Then, as now, Steinberg, who was absolutely grilled by Stern about environmental issues, rolled up his sleeves and relied on his political and legal acumen.
“I’m ready to stand in front of the jury and make the argument,” he said. “You can never predict the outcome, and some things are out of your control. But I’m going in with a lot of confidence because there is no reason not to. We deserve this.”
Should Republic FC actually pull this off? That might achieve the unfathomable. That might finally kick Sacramento’s inferiority complex to the curb.