After a long and agonizing process for Sacramento Republic fans, their wait to join MLS is officially over – at least formally. While the USL Championship franchise is still two years from kicking its first ball in MLS, on Monday the League sealed the club’s fate by announcing Sacramento as the 29th franchise in front of a raucous crowd. The addition gives the state of California its fourth MLS team and brings with it instant intrastate rivalries between LA Galaxy, LAFC, and Sacramento’s closest opponents, the San Jose Earthquakes. Case in point, when Commissioner Don Garber made that exact point the Republic fans broke out in the classic, “Beat LA!” chant well-known in NBA circles.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) October 21, 2019
With all the excitement that comes with the announcement the bigger question is are Sacramento fans, the club’s ownership, and the city itself ready for the MLS debut?
Getting to know Sacramento Republic
In short, the answer is a resounding yes. Relatively speaking, it’s been a long road for Republic and its fans. Wait, how can five years be a long road? Although they only debuted as a USL franchise in 2014, the promise of an ascent to MLS has been a consistent narrative from the jump. Despite winning the USL championship in its first season and maintaining an average attendance through five seasons that never dipped below 10,300, the Republic has had a well-publicized case of unrequited love from MLS – until now. Five years may have felt like an eternity to those in Sacramento, but their persistence was, well… indomitable.
For any new MLS franchise there are four important things to consider: how good is the ownership group, what is their stadium situation, are sponsors interested, will the market support the team? The good news for Republic fans, and MLS, is each question has been answered.
How good is the ownership group?
The Republic’s ownership group is led by top investor Ron Burkle, but also includes the club’s Chairman & CEO Kevin Nagle and Hollywood producer Matt Alvarez. During the club’s five-year-flirt with MLS, one of the consistent questions was whether or not the club had the financial backing required for MLS. The expansion franchise fee is a healthy $200 million – up from $150 million when the Republic first kicked a ball in USL. In January of 2019, billionaire Burkle joined the ownership team and helped cement the Republic’s financial status. Burkle also owns the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins and is a managing partner of a venture capital firm.
What is the stadium situation?
When the Republic makes its MLS debut in 2022, they’ll be playing in a $252 million stadium in Sacramento’s downtown railyards. The stadium, which will seat approximately 20,000 fans, will be located in a 17-acre entertainment and shopping district and will be privately financed by Burkle and company. The stadium and entertainment district sits within the railyard’s 244 acres of undeveloped real estate. This massive infill project will be an impressive project – the largest west of the Mississippi – and will help encourage Sacramento residents, both new and old, to stay in the city’s downtown urban core.
Are sponsors interested?
In 2017, Sacramento Republic and UC Davis Health formalized a partnership that established UC Davis Health as the founding jersey partner for its future MLS team. The agreement was the first-ever binding sponsorship to be secured prior to entry into the league. When announced, it was a five-year deal to run from the expected inaugural season (2020) through the 2024 season. As part of the agreement, UC Davis Health and Republic FC are to allocate at least $300,000 toward community-based programs that focus on youth wellness, neighborhood outreach, public health clinics and youth sports clinics.
A market fit for MLS
Beyond the owners, the stadium, and the sponsors, Sacramento is a market fit for MLS. For starters, it’s the second largest city in the country that previously only has one top level sports team, the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. The ability for the Republic to be a major part of the local sports narrative is paramount. Like other expansion markets Nashville and St. Louis who have, at most, two other major sporting franchises, MLS has the potential to strike gold because the landscape isn’t as crowded as a New York City, Philadelphia, or Los Angeles.
In the latest edition of our GESM Soccer Market Rankings, we have Sacramento as the 20th best soccer market in the U.S. With high finishes among the categories of Attending and Watching, Sacramento has shown clear indications of its readiness for top level soccer. Consistently high attendance during the Republic’s time in USL supports this notion. There’s something to be said about entering MLS with a well-established fanbase. Sacramento is more Cincinnati than it is Nashville or Miami – there’s no starting from square one to establish a fanbase. For Sacramento’s entrance into MLS, they’ve already done a lot of the heavy lifting in establishing a brand that people want to support. There’s also something to be said for the ardent support Sacramento government officials have shown through this multi-year process. Darrell Steinberg, current city mayor, was all smiles during Monday’s announcement ceremony. Seeing a city so supportive of a prospective MLS franchise and what the league, and its local team, can do to help transform a city is refreshing and a sign of good things to come.
Perhaps the most important thing to point out regarding Sacramento as a market, however, is the city has become a haven for millennials – the league’s most important fan demographic. In a 2018 study, Sacramento ranked third among nationwide cities in net positive millennial population growth. While 5,600 millennials left Sacramento, a reported 10,000 moved to the city. Sacramento is a city on the rise with a younger, hipper vibe; however, it’s not just millennials. In 2018, Sacramento’s 1.43 percent overall growth was the highest among all California metros.
Sacramento fans and team officials may have waited five years for this moment, but that makes the excitement all the more special. MLS has gained a great, established soccer market and it will be exciting to see their debut in two season. The five-year-flirt may have been painful, but with Monday’s moment of nirvana for Republic fans, two more years until first kick won’t feel quite so bad.
— Republic FC (@SacRepublicFC) October 21, 2019