The big announcement that Major League Soccer is expected to make Wednesday isn’t the one Sacramento fans are hoping for, but the dream of an expansion franchise isn’t dead, far from it.
MLS apparently has picked Nashville for one of two new teams; a press conference is scheduled in Tennessee’s capital with the league’s commissioner, the team’s owner and political leaders, The Bee’s Ryan Lillis reports.
That would leave Sacramento Republic FC competing with bids from Cincinnati and Detroit for the other slot likely to be announced this month.
Much more is at stake for Sacramento than just bragging rights from its second major league pro sports team, besides the NBA Kings.
There would be a spillover effect for the region’s economic development. And the planned 20,000-seat stadium, scheduled to open for the 2020 season, is a linchpin for the downtown railyard. The 244-acre railyard – essential to the central city’s future – is eventually supposed to be home to 20,000 residents, a retail and entertainment district, a school, a Kaiser Permanente medical complex and perhaps a new county courthouse.
The $226 million stadium is a big selling point for Sacramento because it is privately financed, other than $48 million in roads, utilities and other infrastructure already in place. That investment shows the commitment of local ownership, which was strengthened when outgoing Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman formally joined the group led by San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York, Sacramento developer Mark Friedman and Republic FC chairman Kevin Nagle.
Detroit may have bigger-name billionaires in its ownership group, including Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and the William Clay Ford family, which owns the Detroit Lions. But it proposes to play at 65,000-seat Ford Field, home of the Lions, when the MLS prefers soccer-specific stadiums.
And while Sacramento doesn’t have Fortune 500 companies, Republic FC does have local business support. UC Davis Health has already signed to be the team’s jersey sponsor if it joins the MLS.
Sacramento also boasts strong political backing, important if there are any last-minute hangups. Mayor Darrell Steinberg and former Mayor Kevin Johnson helped make the pitch earlier this month to MLS owners.
While Sacramento has about half the average attendance of Cincinnati in the United Soccer League (Detroit doesn’t have a USL team), that’s because Republic FC’s home is a smaller venue, 11,500-seat Papa Murphy’s Park at Cal Expo. MLS owners shouldn’t forget that Republic FC broke attendance records when it played before sold-out crowd at 20,000-seat Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College in 2014.
And attendance numbers don’t quite measure the intensity of support from the Tower Bridge Battalion. Republic FC says it already has commitments for 10,000 season tickets, and there’s a ready-made rivalry with the San Jose Earthquakes.
Sacramento stacks up very well against the other cities. We hope MLS owners recognize that. As important as MLS is for Sacramento, it’s equally important for the league to have a presence in the capital of California.
Republic FC fans will be sorely disappointed if there’s no expansion franchise this time around. But it’s only a matter of when MLS will be coming to Sacramento, not if.