Of the 12 cities that formally applied to be part of the next round of MLS expansion today, Sacramento has perhaps the strongest case. Or at least they did, until its team’s owner made a bid that possibly excluded the city’s highly successful team.
Sacramento has had a stadium deal in place since last year and city leaders have behaved as if joining MLS by 2020 was a guarantee. Sacramento is one of the top 20 TV markets in the country, but it only has one professional sports team—and the NBA’s Kings wouldn’t significantly overlap or compete with an MLS team for attendees. Sacrament’s strongest aspect is its existing, popular Sacramento Republic FC—which currently plays in the second-division USL. SRFC averaged over 11,000 fans per home game and sold out all but one of them. That’s incredible in a league that averages just over 3,000 per game. The city embraced its team and it seemed that acceptance into MLS would only be a matter of time—as the top North American soccer league’s path to expansion has, of late, been to promote financially-high-performing USL clubs.
But something fishy is going on, and Sacramento Republic might be left in the lurch.
This morning, SRFC managing partner Kevin Nagle changed his Twitter handle from @srfc_kevin to @KevinNagleMLS and removed all references to the Republic from his Twitter bio. The team’s official Twitter account hasn’t tweeted all day about the bid and there’s nothing about it on their website, which is ominous given that today is perhaps the most important day in franchise history.
Sacramento mayor Darrell Steinberg congratulated Nagle for formally applying for expansion, but as you’ll note, he never mentions the name of the team in his address.
When Sacramento handed in their bid to MLS brass this morning, it wasn’t club founder/president Warren Smith or VP Joe Wagoner who handed in the bid. It was Kunal Merchant—the former PR flack of Kevin Johnson, Sacramento’s disgraced former mayor who declined to seek re-election and got pied in the face on his way out the door. The bid Merchant handed to MLS was suspiciously absent of any SRFC iconography, and as SI’s Brian Straus notes, SRFC never sent any sort of press release on the matter. For what it’s worth, Merchant also changed his Twitter bio affiliation with the team from “Sacramento Republic FC” to simply “Sacramento MLS.”
It appears that Nagle has led a coup of sorts, taking advantage of SRFC’s buildup of fans and goodwill to push a stadium deal through, only to dump the team and its other owners—including the founders, who would have stood to profit off the deal. He’s bringing in new partners, like dumbass 49ers owner Jed York, and, as of this morning, eBay billionaire and failed gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman. What Sacramento’s apparent new team lacks in connection to the city’s beloved existing team it makes up for in soulless financial heft. Local reporter Evan Ream is reporting that Nagle and the rest of the team’s owners had been drifting apart for some time, and that Sacramento Republic was not part of the bid this morning.
Nagle himself was not an original partner. He bought the team in 2014 as it started to look increasingly likely that they were headed for MLS. He helped push through a deal for a $226 million stadium that would be built with private money on land owned by the city of Sacramento (with the help of $46 million in infrastructural improvements). Much of that deal took place when Johnson was still mayor; as it happens, Nagle is one of the largest donors to Kevin Johnson’s St. Hope charter school and a former member of St. Hope’s board of directors.
MLS will announce two of the four expansion teams later this year, and there’s a good chance that Sacramento will still get a team, despite an ownership group who pushed out founders, got in bed with a notorious disgraced politician, and ignored what fans cared about.