The Big Pitch

Local investors are taking a leap of faith to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento  — what comes next could define a new era in the capital region

Back Web Only Jan 20, 2016 By John Blomster

The votes have been cast, the checks have been cashed, the i’s dotted and t’s crossed: All that is left to bring a Major League Soccer team and stadium to Sacramento is for the league to give the OK.

In December, the Sacramento City Council unanimously approved a preliminary term sheet to finance and build an MLS stadium at the Sacramento Railyards, drawing the region closer than ever to bringing a major professional sport to the city since the Kings set up shop 30 years ago.

If it seems like this has happened seemingly overnight, that is because in many ways, it has:

The push for MLS has unfolded at a breakneck pace. It marks a generational shift that is redefining the region — capitalizing on a ripe market, a thriving youth sports culture and a rich history of regional professional soccer to usher in a new era for sports and civic amenities in Sacramento.

“Soccer is just a natural progress as a result of millennials, and generationally you can see people like me, who all of our kids played soccer,” says Kevin Nagle, lead investor of Sacramento Republic FC and managing partner of Sac Soccer & Entertainment Holdings. “I could just see that our demographics, backdropped against our number of academies and number of programs around the region, it would be just a natural footprint for us to bring Major League Soccer to Sacramento.”

Nagle says that his experience with the Kings — he is the largest local shareholder of the team — instilled his confidence in the region as a major, if not vastly underserved, sports market.

He has backed up that confidence with money — and lots of it: Nagle has personally invested more than $2 million in Operation Turnkey, the early 2015 initiative meant to enable Sacramento to break ground on the stadium as soon as a successful MLS bid is announced, possibly as early as fall 2016. SSEH is financing the $180 million in stadium costs, and the city is putting up $46 million in infrastructure improvements to accommodate the 28,100-seat, 450,000-square-foot stadium.

It is a huge leap of faith for investors, considering that the project ultimately hinges on outsiders’ decisions, but it is one made easier by the Republic FC’s success on and off the pitch.

“I’ve always had confidence investing in Sacramento, and that confidence really has only grown as we’ve seen the remarkable success of the team,” Nagle says.

Sacramento is no stranger to professional soccer: The Sacramento Knights played professional indoor (as part of the now-defunct Continental Indoor Soccer League) at ARCO Arena for the better part of a decade before folding in 2001. Semi-pro and amateur teams like the Sacramento Gold, Sacramento Scorpions and California Storm make up a fraction of the region’s long soccer history

Still, nothing comes close to the success of the Republic FC. In less than 24 months, the team has become a part of the cultural fabric of the city and spurred the biggest push to bring a major professional sport to the capital this century.

The team is the United Soccer League’s most popular by far, setting attendance records in 2014 and 2015 while averaging 11,323 fans per match this past season. The Republic FC sold out every home game at Bonney Field and had to cap season tickets at 9,500 to ensure open seats at the gate. Both years, the team made the playoffs, winning the USL championship its inaugural 2014 season.

Riding that wave of momentum, Operation Turnkey reached its zenith December 2015 when the city council voted 8-0 to approve the stadium. The remaining steps include everything that can be done without actually putting shovels in the ground: securing financing, partnerships with local businesses and organizations, and the crucial and time-consuming environmental impact report.

Nagle says that if the project sustains the current pace and a bid is announced this year, Republic FC could be playing Major League Soccer at the railyards as early as 2018, less than two years after the opening of the Golden 1 Center just a few blocks away.

“We’ve really put our money where our mouth is, and we’re going to put our best foot forward so that we make it easy for them in 2016 to make an announcement,” Nagle says.

The project’s financial impact has been widely touted by supporters: $13.5 million in visitor spending per year, an estimated half a million visitors annually, $1.24 billion in economic activity across the region, according to 2015 projections by Sacramento financial advisory firm Capitol PFG.

But beyond the numbers, the project indicates a tangible generational shift that shouldn’t surprise many residents in such a soccer-rich region.

California is the biggest youth soccer market in the country, and with more than 162,000 players, Northern California trailed only Massachusetts in terms of total participation in 2013-14, according to US Youth Soccer; The Sacramento Youth Soccer League alone fields 15 programs in addition to the numerous regional club teams and academies. In the past two decades, total participation in US Youth Soccer leagues has nearly doubled, totalling more than 3 million players across the country in 2014.

The kids playing on regional youth teams in the 90s and 00s now comprise the generation of consumers who are hungry for the sport.

The prevalence of social media, increased network coverage of international leagues, and the further shrinking of the global sports world have been major factors in increased American interest in the game. More than 26.5 million U.S. viewers tuned in for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Men’s Final, making it the most-watched soccer match in U.S. history. Social media played a major role, with viral sensations like #ThingsTimHowardCouldSave, which featured memes depicting U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard saving everything from the Titanic to the dinosaurs.

With all of these factors and the fast-paced development of the sport on a national level, Sacramento Republic FC came along at the crux of a perfect storm. The end result could be one of most dynamic and intriguing sports markets in the state — if the effort pays off.

“The great thing about Sacramentans is we’re open-minded, very welcoming and passionate about Sacramento… I know what it’s like living in a very, very large city like Los Angeles for much of my life and then coming to a place like Sacramento and seeing the incredible pride that we have.

“We’re going to have a significant impact.”