Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber has scheduled a visit to Sacramento in April for his first up-close tour of a planned stadium site in the downtown railyard and to meet with investors driving the city’s campaign to join the ranks of the nation’s top professional soccer league.
The visit by Garber is seen as a significant step in Sacramento’s two-year effort to jump to MLS. Garber will be joined by his top deputy, Mark Abbott, when he arrives April 14.
Sacramento Republic FC managing partner Kevin Nagle announced the visit in an email to other team investors Thursday morning.
“While precise details are still being determined, we anticipate preparing a substantive, memorable and dynamic showcase of the full extent of what Sacramento offers to the league: passionate fans; inspired corporate partners; a visionary mayor and city government; a bold and robust stadium plan; and a committed ownership group,” Nagle wrote.
Nagle said in an interview that Garber’s visit does not mean Sacramento’s ascension to MLS is imminent and said he does not expect the commissioner to approve the city’s expansion bid during his visit. Still, Nagle said the tour is a major step.
“It’s not every day an executive of this caliber visits Sacramento and we’re not going to take that lightly,” he said.
A statement from MLS said Garber “is looking forward to visiting Sacramento” to discuss “Sacramento Republic FC’s proposal to join MLS as an expansion club.” The statement confirmed Garber will meet with Nagle and tour the railyard stadium site.
Sacramento Republic FC and the city are developing plans for a $226 million privately financed soccer stadium in the northeast corner of the downtown railyard. The proposed stadium site is controlled by developer Larry Kelley, a Republic FC minority partner.
The City Council in November approved a nonbinding term sheet for the stadium project and Republic FC hired architect HNTB to develop conceptual drawings of the facility. A design team is now working on formal schematic drawings for the stadium and Republic FC is close to choosing a firm to manage its construction.
While the team has not asked for a direct city subsidy, the city plans to spend up to $100,000 on stadium consultants and could be asked by Republic FC to split revenue from a parking facility on city land nearby. The stadium price tag credits public agencies with already allocating $46 million worth of infrastructure work in the railyard.
Mayor Kevin Johnson said Garber’s visit is “Sacramento’s moment to shine.”
“Republic FC and this community have worked tirelessly to earn a position amongst the top contenders to join MLS,” the mayor said in an emailed statement. “We are humbled by the opportunity to host the Commissioner, and I have no doubt that Sacramento will rise to this very special occasion.”
Abbott and other MLS executives toured Sacramento in September 2014 and said they were impressed by the city, its plans to construct a soccer-specific stadium and its soccer fans. But since then, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area in Minnesota was awarded a franchise and MLS has remained committed to a drawn-out proposal to launch a franchise in Miami.
Then, in a surprise move, MLS announced in December that it plans to add four more teams. A total of 24 franchises are either in the league or are scheduled to begin play in the next three years.
Garber has often spoken fondly of Sacramento. In December, he said, “Sacramento will be very high on our list of next clubs to come into the league.”
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“This is our third season as an organized soccer team and we’re already competing for an MLS position,” Nagle said. “We’ve stayed very focused and felt it was going to happen, it was just a question of when.”
While the league has not provided a precise timeline for expanding to 28 teams, the league’s intention of adding four more teams is a boost to Sacramento, which is widely considered to be a front-runner for the next round of expansion. Other cities, including St. Louis and San Antonio, have been mentioned.
“Since our goal was to have 24 teams in Major League Soccer by the end of the decade, we are now evaluating our future expansion plans and expect to have more details – including process and timeline – in the coming months,” MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said in an email.
Courtemanche said the league’s expansion “is conducted very strategically.” He said the league is looking for local ownership groups “with the appropriate financial resources”; stadium plans in which ownership groups control their facilities; “an appropriate market that is attractive to sponsors, television partners and located in an appropriate geographic location”; and cities with histories of strong fan support for soccer and other sports, as well as strong television ratings for soccer matches.
Former Sacramento city councilman Steve Cohn believes an MLS franchise is inevitable and emphasis should be on constructing an events center/sports arena on the Sacramento State campus.