When Orlando City SC joins MLS in December, Sacramento will become the only top-20 TV market with only one major sports team. However, residents are fighting to change that by trying to get Sacramento Republic FC promoted up two levels to MLS. The team is finishing up its first season in the third-division USL Pro this year, where they set league attendance records. Owners and city officials are attempting to capitalize on that momentum and compete for one of the last two MLS expansion slots.
MLS commissioner Don Garber announced a year ago that MLS would expand from 19 to 24 teams by 2020. Orlando City SC and New York City FC are two of those five incoming teams next year, with Atlanta joining in 2017. David Beckham's collaboration with Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure to bring a team to Miami has MLS approval, but hinges on an elusive okay from an uncooperative city. As it stands, two of Sacramento, Miami, Las Vegas, Minneapolis, and San Antonio will end up with teams within six years. MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott and other league brass are in the midst of a visit to the California capital this weekend to speak with politicians and survey the site of the proposed arena.
When Abbott and co. arrived on Thursday afternoon, they were met at the airport by a group of more than 50 singing and chanting fans. Sacramento has a history of fans showing up at the airport to greet sports heroes, like when Kevin Johnson returned at midnight from New York, after securing the future of the Kings, to find a mob of delirious fans. Most people I spoke to were part of the ultras group, the Tower Bridge Brigade. Many were there on lunch break. One member, Mark, estimated their group averaged over 300 at home games. When Abbott came down the escalator to baggage claim, the singing built to a fierce crescendo. He was coy about revealing anything, and hardly intelligible over the din, but the moment felt weighty and important.
Sacramento's circumstances should indeed give the Tower Brigade hope. Most third-division teams have stadiums half the size of Sacramento's 8,000 person Bonney Field, which they rushed to expand after they sold out the 23,000-person Hughes Stadium a few times to start the year. Mark and others insisted the ascension to maybe-frontrunner for entry into MLS was inevitable given Sacramento's sporting credentials, but I spoke with team co-founder Tim Stallings and he gave a different impression about Republic FC's initial projections.
"Honestly, we never expected the fan support we have," he said. We were at a downtown block party the team threw to celebrate the team's upcoming semi-final appearance, as well as impress MLS. For Stallings and other Republic FC braintrust, making MLS has been, "Entirely the goal from Day 1. We're feeling really good about our chances." He cited Sacramento's active soccer culture as a reason the city is perfect for MLS.
Dave Anderson, a Republic supporter, told me "Growing up in Sacramento, I didn't know one kid who didn't play youth soccer." His friend, Javi added, "I'm actually on my way right now to a soccer game with my entire family." Youth soccer in Sacramento is popular in most every neighborhood, but the game is also highly organized at the top. The downtown Republic FC front office has 26 employees, which Stallings told me is equivalent to an MLS franchise. The internal infrastructure is in place and other power players are on board as well.
Kevin Johnson, at this point still on his Kings-induced victory lap, showed up at the block party with Kevin Nagle. Nagle is a minority owner of the Kings who purchased Sacramento Republic two weeks ago and is leading their efforts to break into MLS. It will cost about a sixth of a billion dollars, $70 million for the expansion fee and an estimated $100 million for a new stadium near the new Kings arena downtown (Nagle's group purchased the land this week). Remarkably, the city will not commit any public money to the project, but owners feel confident in their ability to go it alone with all private funding. This is a big step for Sacramento, whose main weakness with regards to their competition is a lack of Fortune 500 companies. Funding a stadium without dipping into the city fund differentiates Sacramento. The timing is also ideal.
"The fans have accelerated our business plan," admitted Stallings. "Our goals were smaller, longer term." Republic FC were able to pivot and ride the wave of good press that the city and the Kings got after they beat the odds to stay in town. Getting behind Nagle associates Republic FC with a wildly successful collaborative project between the city and a major sports league. Combine the Nagle-Johnson factor with an average attendance that wouldn't be out of place in MLS and Sacramento becomes the likely top candidate right now. MLS hasn't visited any sites in San Antonio, Las Vegas, or Minneapolis. In the time it takes to construct the Kings arena, Republic FC could go all the way from startup to MLS franchise.
There's something comforting about how surprised Stallings and his partners are about the track Republic FC are on. They are a group of singularly minded businesspeople and sports staff who went all in on making MLS and even they didn't expect to get to the cusp so rapidly. But that's the spark of Sacramento's MLS effort. Republic FC started as an idea, a long-term business proposal, but it tapped the well of Sacramento's pre-existing soccer culture and found out that Sacramento already has more of an identity than people could have imagined. Sacramento doesn't have to do anything else to be made into an MLS City. All it needs is the MLS.