Sacramento and Big League Soccer DreamsCan the California capital sustain top-flight domestic soccer?
by Frankie Devai | Wednesday, August 07, 2013
It takes big ideas and an even bigger checkbook to purchase a sports team. To conjure up an entirely new franchise out of thin air demands both of those ingredients and then a little extra special sauce; pinch of crazy to taste.
With domestic professional soccer growing exponentially, Sacramento is poised to stir up some magic of its own. And quickly, too.
At the Major League Soccer All-Star game on July 31, 2013, Commissioner Don Garber let the media in on the some of the future plans for the league.
Currently the league has 19 teams, with New York City FC (offspring of the New York Yankees and Manchester City of the EPL) rounding things off at 20 by 2015. But further expansion by 4 teams was announced, and all this scheduled to happen by 2020.
Why is this important for Sacramento soccer fans? Among several other cities, Sacramento was mentioned as one of the cities vying for a chance to kick it around with the Big Boys.
A set of criteria was released intended to roughly define qualification for MLS membership.
- Committed and engaged ownership;
- A comprehensive stadium plan;
- Demonstrated fan support for professional soccer in the market;
- Support from sponsors, television partners and other constituents;
- The location of the team
- A strategic business plan for the launch and successful operation of the club;
Let’s look a little closer at these benchmarks, and in doing so we’ll quickly see why the Capital is ready to support an MLS soccer team.
Committed and engaged ownership
Poised to become one of the four new expansion teams are the Sacramento Republic FC. The franchise is positioning itself to make the leap into the MLS using the USL PRO league as a starting point and a foothold in the market.
The USL PRO is a professional men's soccer league in the United States that played its inaugural season in 2011 and is sanctioned as Division III by the USSF, placing it under MLS (Division I) and the North American Soccer League (Division II) in the American soccer pyramid.
A current Division I team is the Portland Timbers. The Timbers have also advanced from the lower ranks, and have played in MLS since ‘11. A few steps remain, but the Timbers model is one Republic FC ownership hopes to replicate. SRFC organizers have already stated their ultimate goal is to reach Division I status within the next five years. A full 2 years earlier than the 2020 deadline imposed by MLS itself.
Next season, the entirety of home games will be played at Hughes Stadium, located on campus at Sacramento City College.
The school has had renovations completed late last year on the facility, and now the 20,311 seat venue is ready for some goals to be scored on its brand new artificial field. Team organizers are hoping for plenty fans to fill those seats as well.
For a closer look at the home of SRFC next season, this local news story gives a closer look at the stadium and its recent renovation.
Fan support and future rivalries
Garber said that for a market to be considered MLS ready, it would need to demonstrate fan support for professional soccer. Already local supporter groups like the Tower Bridge Battalion are sprouting up around town in support of the team and quickly growing in membership.
Additionally, this team has a chance to draw fans from hours away. Stockton, Modesto, Chico and Davis are all California cities within a reasonable distance comprised of diverse populations eager for something to call their own. These other potential fan populations are all within an hour’s drive of Sacramento itself.
On the special promotional night held a few weeks back, 14,000 fans packed a baseball stadium to watch 2 exhibition matches. This was on a Thursday evening in a town not known for soccer. If that’s not a good indicator of interest and support I don’t know what is.
Most of the teams in the MLS are geographically far apart, however, most of the compelling stories and matches revolve around the rivalry between the Seattle Sounders and the Portland Timbers. It is a rivalry which dates back into the mid-1970s and one that produces fantastic atmosphere when the teams face off. The proximity of the San Jose Earthquakes makes the future rivalry with a Sacramento team inevitable, and exciting.
Proving the market
This area contains one of the strongest regional soccer scenes in the United States, with some of the highest youth soccer participation rates in the country.
During the 2011/2012 seasonal year, the US Youth Soccer State Association listed Northern California as having 171,267 registered players. This is higher than any another other region in the nation, with entire states not approaching even half this figure in some cases.
In another indicator of the hunger for soccer in this area, TV ratings, Sacramento has done very well. A few years back during the 2010 World Cup, Univision which carried many of the matches, had higher viewership (in Sacramento) than the ABC, CBS, NBC and FOX stations combined for the match between Mexico vs. Costa Rica.
Sacramento was also consistently in the top 10 for ESPN/ABC Nielsen ratings during the 2010 FIFA World Cup overall.
All this is to say that a hungry city is looking for quality entertainment and a team to be proud of. A thriving region full of youthful soccer players and a team is on the way in the form of the Sacramento Republic Football Club.
Things are starting to brew up nicely.