Kelvin Johnson, mayor of Sacramento, is altering the MLS landscape by bringing together some big-name backers in his pursuit of a team.
Perhaps Major League Soccer and the MLS Players Union should give Kevin Johnson a call. He might be able to help guide the collective bargaining combatants toward some common ground.
The former NBA All-Star, now the mayor of Sacramento, has become his city's patron saint of soccer. His interest in bringing an MLS team to the nation's 20th-largest media market has taken him from the sideline at minor league matches to the league's Manhattan headquarters and ultimately to a Friday news conference that altered the MLS expansion landscape.
There, a few blocks west of the California State Capitol, Johnson announced that the NBA's Kings and the NFL's 49ers have become investors in Sacramento Republic, the USL Pro champion and MLS hopeful. Kevin Nagle, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, will remain the club's majority owner. The 49ers now hold a significant minority stake and the Kings round out a suddenly formidable investor group. The deal does more than add capital to Republic's coffers: it unites potential rivals firmly behind a single bid. That's something MLS, which intends to announce its next expansion teams in June, had asked for. And it's now something Johnson has delivered.
"It just shows that this city is coming together," the mayor told reporters. "Some of the other cities that are bidding for soccer, they're trying to work out their dynamics. We don't have that issue here in Sacramento."
There are issues in the city's chief expansion rivals, thought to be Minneapolis and Miami. There is no unity in the former, where both the NASL's United and the NFL's Vikings are vying for an MLS team. United has the soccer bona fides and a wealthy and powerful investor group that includes the owners of the Twins and Timberwolves. The Vikings have a $1 billion stadium opening in 2016. And then there's South Florida, where David Beckham has been trying, in vain, so far, to find a stadium site for the franchise he was promised.
"We want the commissioner of MLS, Don Garber, to know that we're ready. We've checked every box necessary," Johnson said.
The primary unchecked box, before Friday, was the specter of competing local interests.
Questions about the community's support for soccer had dwindled. Republic set minor league attendance records last year and according to club founder and president Warren Smith, it's on pace to kick off the 2015 USL Pro campaign with around 9,000 season tickets sold. Sacramento may not be the size of Minneapolis-St. Paul or Miami-Ft. Lauderdale, but it's larger than Portland, Kansas City and Salt Lake City, which support successful MLS franchises, as well as other expansion prospects like St. Louis and San Antonio.
But was it large enough for the Kings, who only recently secured their own future there? According to MLS sources, the NBA team's owner, Vivek Ranadivé, contacted MLS executives on multiple occasions to convey his competitive concerns and his interest in controlling a potential expansion team himself.
"I think their concerns were alleviated after they really got to see how we're executing -– the management team and the investor group that we put together -– and our stadium solution. I think back then, there were a lot of unknowns and we've just continued to build our case," Smith told SI.com. "This is an opportunity for them to assist and play a role in a manner that works for the Republic and works for them."
Kings president Chris Granger, who represented the NBA franchise at Friday's event, said, "We've been focused on doing things that make Sacramento proud … that is who we try to be every single day -– try to invest and support business and causes and projects that make a difference in our city."
Smith credited the mayor for bringing Ranadivé into the fold.
"Kevin is obviously playing to win and he had heard from [Garber] that there is some comfort around organizations having some ownership and feedback with other existing leagues that are successful," Smith said. "For any sports franchise, to have a unified front is important. Just because the Kings are involved doesn't mean that locally we're not going to have some competition with them. That's just the nature of the business. But what we hope to do is have the rising tide lift all boats and if we do this right, that's what really will happen."
The 49ers see a similar dynamic emerging on a regional scale. The five-time NFL champion just opened Levi's Stadium last summer and already had a relationship with the San Jose Earthquakes under which the pair will work to stage marquee matches, MLS and otherwise, in the facility. There has been speculation recently that the Earthquakes, who are set to open their own Avaya Stadium next month, might be unhappy with any link-up between the 49ers and a potential MLS rival that might dip into the Bay Area in search of corporate support. The Earthquakes were in position to erect yet another roadblock between Sacramento and MLS.
"In terms of building a successful sports league, ultimately it's built on teams and it's built on rivalries," 49ers CEO Jed York told SI.com on Friday. "Having something that can be local is going to be nothing but good for the San Jose Earthquakes and the Sacramento Republic. I think with the relationship we have hosting games, I think it's good enough so we can start to build that rivalry at the MLS level. I have a pretty good relationship with the Earthquakes and they haven't voiced any opposition to us doing anything directly."
The Earthquakes did not respond to a request for comment.
York, a Notre Dame graduate, fell for soccer while studying abroad in London. He said the doorman at one of his university buildings was a Chelsea supporter and through conversations and subsequent exposure, "it was hard not to get swept up in it."
York said he grew to appreciate the sense of community and rivalry that surrounded English clubs and, while his family focuses primarily on the 49ers, there's been interest in investing in soccer for some time. Last year, there were talks with Leeds United that nearly led to a partnership. This year, the NFL franchise has decided to invest in its own backyard. In fact, York said, the 49ers have more season ticket holders in Sacramento than San Francisco.
"You see the magic that's being created there," he said of the Republic. "We looked at some other potentials in MLS and other places internationally and I don't think there's a market like Sacramento. We know the level of passion of their sports fans."
Both Smith and York said the clubs will work together on Republic's planned MLS stadium, A $150 million facility it intends to construct at the Sacramento Railyards on the north edge of downtown.
"It was always our intent to find a partner that could help us on the stadium, and what they've been able to create at Levi's Stadium is really something special," Smith said. "The bulk of their work is going to be focused on the stadium and making sure it's advanced both technologically and from a design standpoint and then just making sure we can get through the process, design and construction and bring it with in budget, which they were. They also bring some other skills. They've got great sales and marketing approaches. It helps us in multiple ways, not just the stadium."
Said York, "I think there's an opportunity to build an unbelievable venue in downtown Sacramento … We're not making an investment to get a return next year. That's not what this is about. This is about continuing to build and grow, and we really believe in the growth of Sacramento and soccer, and especially MLS."
That sense of the bigger picture, of local and regional links and a commitment to raise the collective tide, was absent from an expansion bid that had taken the American soccer community by storm and surprise. Republic continued the pursuit, however, and in Johnson, found a politician with a rare knack for bringing people together. In fact, Johnson introduced Nagle and Smith to the Yorks.
"The fact that we've had the Kings come on, the 49ers and the York family and organization, I want to call the commissioner and say, 'How can you say no? Just say yes,'" Johnson said. "I feel like we have a Super Bowl-level ownership team. I really do. Super Bowl level."