Sacramento faces 'funding gap' in Major League Soccer bid, Mayor Steinberg says

Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg held a press conference Dec. 21 to discuss Major League Soccer's decision to delay the announcement of the league's next franchise until next year.
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Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg held a press conference Dec. 21 to discuss Major League Soccer's decision to delay the announcement of the league's next franchise until next year.
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Ailene Voisin

Let’s talk about the Kings, 49ers, baseball and more

Ailene Voisin

Major League Soccer makes a minor-league move. But Sacramento has endured worse

By Ailene Voisin

avoisin@sacbee.com

December 21, 2017 04:23 PM

As league officials change deadlines, tinker with expansion criteria, send mixed messages and try the patience of soccer-loving sinners and saints, Sacramento-area fans have ample reason to be confused.

 
Opinion

Does MLS stand for Major League Soccer or Minor League Sports? Who operates like this?

If your love interest refused to commit to the relationship after three years, you would pack his or her belongings and kick them to the curb. MLS is aiming higher, striking right into the gut of a community that is waiting for a proposal, eager to hold hands for better or for worse, in good times and in bad, only to be strung along once again while MLS flirts with other suitors.

Do Sac fans have the stomach to go on? For another round, perhaps two?

Based on past experience – yes, yes, yes. Though members of the impassioned fan base have every right to be furious and frustrated, tempted to flash the middle finger and walk the other away, folks here have been through far worse. No matter how badly MLS screws up this process – and they’re doing a helluva job – the pain and suffering isn’t anything close to the excruciating, decade-long Kings relocation ordeal.

MLS can steal your heart, but promises and winks notwithstanding, it can’t poach a team that doesn’t exist.

There have never been any guarantees. Though MLS Commissioner Don Garber repeatedly has claimed that lead investor Kevin Nagle’s group has “checked all the boxes,” and stated that establishing another Northern California franchise was a matter of “when, not if,” these are merely words fit for a tantalizing soundbite. The shovel might be in the ground at the railyard, but no deal is final until the legal documents are signed and delivered. And with only Nashville selected within the initial timeline for two expansion spots, nothing is in the mail for Sacramento, Cincinnati or Detroit.

“All three submitted impressive bids which the league will take additional time to review before announcing a final decision in the new year,” MLS said Thursday in a statement.

So to be clear: This is all about the money. The other boxes – fan support and stadium plan – have long been checked. But as has been made abundantly clear in the past few weeks, the financial stakes have gotten higher. Garber and his owners have legitimate concerns about the fiscal viability of Nagle’s ownership group, certainly as it compares with the billionaire bidders in Cincinnati and Detroit.

Pro sports these days is a rich person’s game. In the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball, millionaires submit expansion applications and are promptly shown the door. MLS apparently is not far behind.

This is not good news, of course, compounded by the fact outgoing Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman is no longer involved and that 49ers CEO Jed York’s commitment is limited to the “stadium phase.”

In an eerily familiar scene outside City Hall on Thursday morning, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg sent out another booming call for the whales, otherwise known as exceedingly wealthy individuals who enjoy soccer, are amenable to partnerships, are intrigued by the ongoing downtown transformation and would be interested in saving the area’s prospects for a long-coveted seat at the MLS table.

The need for additional funding is so significant that Nagle – the front man for Republic FC’s grand plan – for the first time said he is “flexible” and would accept a lesser role if a deeper-pocketed partner is found.

But that it is today. What about tomorrow? Unfortunately for Nagle and his group, and actually for all the bidding cities, the expansion process remains a fluid, all-over-the map endeavor. The expansion fee has increased to $150 million, while costs for the downtown stadium jumped to $250 million, approximately $70 million more than the original estimate.

Then there is the timeline that is not a real timeline. Garber planned to name the new expansion cities around the holidays, only to announce Nashville as the league’s 24th team on Wednesday – apparently leaping ahead of David Beckham’s group in Miami, where stadium issues persist – and delay a decision on the second franchise until sometime in 2018.

Compare that with the NBA’s handling of the Kings’ threatened relocation to Seattle. After Steve Ballmer and Chris Hansen submitted a $525 million offer to purchase the team from the Maloofs and move it to the Pacific Northwest, then-commissioner David Stern gave Sacramento a chance to assemble an ownership group and match the sales price. Firm dates and demands were in place. Though swimwear magnate Raj Bhathal and Qualcomm’s Jacobs family were added in the frenetic final days, enabling the Vivek Ranadive-led group to sweeten the offer to $535 million, the deadline was non-negotiable.

Additionally, Stern insisted that any agreement was contingent upon an arena being completed by 2017 – a deadline the new Kings owners beat by several months.

“It does feel like the rules change every time we reach a milestone,” said Scott Rosenquist, who was part of the Sacramento contingent that stood outside MLS headquarters during the board of governors meeting last week. “There is some frustration, seeing this has been a multiple years’ process and we have been told ‘wait a little longer, wait a little longer.’ But I think, in general, most people in Sac are hopeful, and we think we have a really good bid and will end up getting the next city (franchise).”

And if Cincinnati gets the call and Sacramento is told to resubmit its bid for one of the two final expansion locations at a later date?

“If that were to happen, I think most fans would turn back to Sac Republic and the USL,” Rosenquist continued. “Of course it would be great to go to MLS, but in the end, fans are going to stick with the team. They’ve built a really great community feel. The fans have a real connection with the team.”

So now, once again, we wait on the whales.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin