Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: As a sports town, Sacramento has come a long way in a short time

Life happens like this, right? Nothing happens for months and years, and then everything happens at once. The Kings move another day closer to their new digs. The River Cats sense a shifting, increasingly competitive market and switch their affiliation from the A’s to the Giants. Major League Soccer officials – intrigued by the enormous success of a third-tier soccer team – arrive to evaluate the region for a possible expansion franchise.

This just feels like the time to crawl out of bed and open your eyes.

Sacramento is not a sleepy little town anymore. The cows aren’t coming home, though they were kind enough to leave the cowbells behind for sentimental reasons. The Kings aren’t leaving. The River Cats aren’t changing their name. And in a stunningly short period of time, Republic FC has mounted a boisterous campaign to skip a few grades and play with the big boys.

“This is about the kids, and about our quality of life,” said Mike Tavares, co-founder of the Crown Downtown movement that rallied to keep the Kings and who was among the crowd of 50 or so greeting MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott at the airport Thursday. “There are soccer camps and youth teams all over the region. This (proposed downtown stadium) is going to change the look of the (railyard), which has been an eyesore as long as I’ve lived here.”

A word of caution: Don’t toss out the blinders yet. That eyesore is still an eyesore. While the Republic FC proposal, initiated by co-founder Warren Smith and headed by Kings minority owner Kevin Nagle, includes several elements that appeal to MLS, including plans for a privately financed stadium in the urban center, the two-day tour continues in Elk Grove on Friday with a competing bid by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez. Besides touting a strong youth soccer history (see U.S. national team star Megan Rapinoe), Sacramento’s southern neighbor is dangling 100 acres of land for a stadium and field complex.

As of late Thursday, a common-sense, connect-the-dots resolution was being discussed between the parties, with the stadium and practice facility targeted for downtown, and the youth academy and complex in Elk Grove.

Yet even a united front comes without guarantees. Groups in Miami, San Antonio, Las Vegas and Minnesota also are bidding for franchises, with the two Minneapolis contingents regarded as the mcost formidable opponents because of the larger population and television market, attractive and established downtown – it’s one of the great walking cities in America – and corporate clout.

Not so long ago, one former Sacramento City Council member mused that when Sacramento grew up, he envisioned it resembling Minneapolis, Indianapolis or Denver, influenced by a splash of San Diego’s downtown entertainment district.

Why not now? Gone are the days when the late Art Savage was snubbed by Sacramento’s political leaders and found a receptive audience across the river for his Triple-A baseball team. Droughts happen. Economies falter, then recover. Attitudes change.

And sometime during these past few years, the community that lost its championship WNBA team, that lost to the Lakers in 2002, that held a sobfest after losing the season finale to the same Lakers in 2011, fearing that all was lost – including the Kings to Anaheim – stopped turning the other cheek and learned how to throw a punch.

Sacramento grew a collective sports spine, so to speak.

The cowbells are ringing. The Cats are making shrewd moves. And chants for Republic FC to morph into an MLS franchise are getting louder by the hour. If not this time? If Minneapolis prevails?

Soon, then. Professional sports leagues routinely rewrite their rules, expanding and contracting at their convenience, and forever mindful of open spaces and open markets. Sports gridlock and oversaturation are factors in many of America’s premier cities, including Minneapolis. It won’t be long now. Just kick back and relax.

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