Expansion is never off topic in Major League Soccer.
At just 22 years old, the league is on track to almost treble its original size by the time the 2022 season starts.
This is after some aggressive phases of growth, but the phase which really kicked it up a gear began in 2015 with five new additions joining the league over a three-year period, followed by its current expansion plan to expand to a further three markets by 2020.
This latest upgrade – taking the league to 26 clubs in total – had twelve markets contest to be part of it, with Nashville the first winner of the sweepstake, followed by Cincinnati and Miami.
The rest remain jockeyed for position to occupy the final two spots in a race with no announcement date but with expectations for the teams to begin play by 2022.
A PROCESS OF COMMITMENT
That’s the governing factor of any bid. It is what the league want to see.
Commitment from an ownership group the league believes in, and with the resource to see any bid through.
Commitment in the form of a comprehensive stadium plan.
And commitment from a fan base showing a cities appetite to be a sports town; one capable of attracting sponsors, and therefore importantly, turning a profit.
It’s these three factors which prove a bid has vision. That vision then needs to translate into community ties so that a club can become an anchor for the sport in the city. That’s the long-term play.
And those that have moved the needle on these factors for the league so far have been awarded just cause.
THE FINAL SPOTS
A few cities are making their cause heard to take the final two places.
But if the league is looking for a bid – and club – ready to play out of the gate, it’s difficult to look beyond California’s capital city, and the Sacramento Republic.
There is no denying the city has their requisite fundamentals in place – already ticking the proverbial boxes of stadium plan, local soccer demographics, participation, history and size – but where they fall down, as they did in the running last time, is their ownership, and by that, the size of their pockets.
Sacramento Republic is a club about much more than just potential. They didn’t simply establish themselves in the USL when they joined four years ago, they won the league title in their opening season and sold out every home game in the process.
Consistent, raucous turnouts are what define their supporter base – season after season – with average attendances of almost 11,500 per game ranking second all-time only to FC Cincinnati’s astonishing gate numbers.
At the same time, they led all non-MLS clubs in season ticket sales, ticket revenue, sponsorship and merchandising – exactly the sort of stuff MLS looks for.
And all this from a team that is only 6 years old.
It’s the sort of standing that has attracted clubs like Newcastle, Sunderland, West Brom and Rangers over for midseason friendlies.
But away from what they have been doing on and off the pitch, this is a city is crying out for more.
It’s per capita rate of participation ranks second in the country, with nearly 100,000 youth soccer players in the region, almost doubling that in the state of Oregon, which carries the well-established Portland Timbers.
There is also plenty of merit to Sacramento’s claim in its being the most underserved professional sports market in the country. It is the largest media market – and the only city out of the top 20 in the country – with just one major league sports franchise. Viewing this in context of other expansion franchises, they are a bigger TV market than Nashville (29th) and Cincinnati (34th in the country) while Miami sits just above them in 16th.
Finally, there is a spirit in the city for a Republic brand that has been fan-driven from the start and which would bring value to MLS. This local popularity proven with verve by its ability to formalise a theoretical 5-year front-of-shirt deal with UC Davis Health System (the city’s third-largest employer) should the club be awarded an expansion franchise.
That’s a powerful message about the strength of the brand in Sacramento.
What does all this mean? The Republic is quite simply ready to roll on account of any green light.
This is the final piece of the puzzle. And their big challenge.
They need to assemble a world-class ownership group to ensure they have the conditional financial backing they need.
While they are doing all things right to give them a leg up in the expansion race, the bigger – and more fundamental – question is, where is the financial wherewithal to pay for it all?
Major League Soccer’s top table want the financial stability a stable, secure ownership group brings. Respectively in John Ingram and Carl Lindner III, Nashville and Cincinnati arrived at the table with the deep pockets required to support their ambitions.
Sacramento needs to do the same.
In Chairman Kevin Nagle, right now, they have somebody who will contribute, but they need more to take it up a level and have a number of ownership discussions in play with several investors.
One scenario is Southern California billionaire – and Pittsburgh Penguins shareholder – Ron Burkle. While a quite different scenario is also in motion with speculation that Columbus Crew owner, Anthony Precourt could look to move Columbus Crew to Sacramento should he be unable to secure a stadium deal in Austin.
Republic represents an intriguing opportunity. For an owner who wants to build a brand or team in his own image – like Precourt, and the Crew – it may not work. But for someone who wants to get into MLS with minimal fuss, Sacramento is close to ideal.
Two very different solutions, but both with the ultimate ambition of bringing MLS to Sacramento.
A STADIUM TO FOLLOW SUIT
For most expansion efforts, a stadium is the last thing to fall into place. But for Sacramento, they have a shovel-ready stadium plan in waiting as part of the redevelopment of Sacramento’s Railyards district.
The starting point for this is securing their ownership structure and getting their $400 million franchise investment in place.
If they could theoretically secure a stadium naming rights sponsor, they up the volume on their bid even further.
WHO ELSE HAS WHAT IT TAKES?
Multiple cities are standing by to compete with Sacramento to show they’ve got the components for the final spot.
The big player amongst them is Detroit.
They have a couple of billionaires in Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and Detroit Pistons owner Tom Gores leading a well-funded bid banking on the revitalisation of Detroit’s downtown district.
But while theirs is a fairly complete bid – Detroit is also one of the three largest media markets without an MLS franchise – a couple of black marks exist on it.
Firstly the ownership group irked local soccer fans by opting not partner with existing semi-pro team, Detroit City FC. On top of this, their stadium plan is far from perfect. Early on, their bid included a $1 billion, 23,000-seat open-air stadium before that plan was abandoned, as the Ford family stepped in with a solution to retrofit Ford Field so that if games get played there. The group remains steadfast in keeping this solution, but could cost them dearly as MLS much-preferred stadiums specific to soccer.
Excluding Detroit, the Phoenix expansion bid is on the up, and features the gutsiest group amongst them – the story goes that when they weren’t satisfied with the league’s responses to their communications, they showed up at the league’s doors and got a meeting.
More key to their progress is some of the significant developments they have made in recent months, securing an investor group made up of Advantage Sports Union headed by Chinese hotel magnate Alex Zheng with soccer legend Didier Drogba along for the ride.
They not only have a 21,000-seat stadium site picked out and designed, but have secured funding from Goldman Sachs to build it.
Arizona also has a booming soccer culture in general, and with Phoenix Rising FC making the USL playoffs last season, that is only doing more to keep this growing.
Phoenix is a bid on the rise. And with the San Diego bid also active, for Sacramento, it’s a case of a rising tide lifts all boats.
SACRAMENTO’S TO LOSE
Nashville was more chic, Cincinnati was more rich and Miami was more Beckham.
Those were valid reasons going against Sacramento in recent times. But now its time for Sacramento to make their bid really matter.
And with a preferred investor and that piece of the puzzle filled, they may well have built the most perfect argument for MLS to pass over again. A soccer-loving city with everything they need.
So while there is no official timeline for the identification of the next team announcements, they could be simply too good to ignore when that time comes.