Sacramento ready to make its case for MLS expansion
The news out of New York last month injected immediacy into the race for a Major League Soccer expansion team.
The news out of Orlando last week only added more urgency to the contest, as cities stepped up their competition to land a franchise and Sacramento joined the scramble.
In May, the English Premier League’s Manchester City announced it was teaming up with the New York Yankees to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the Big Apple in 2015. The long-rumored New York City FC will become the 20th team in MLS.
Then last week, Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer told a local radio show that MLS would award his city a franchise as well — with an announcement possibly coming in the next few weeks.
“Every media interview we’re doing, the question comes up,” San Antonio Scorpions president Michael Hitchcock told The San Antonio Express-News last year.
The remaining contenders for an MLS team include Miami, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Atlanta, and North Carolina, and yes, Sacramento. The question on supporters minds in all those cities: Where will MLS expand to next and when does that expansion cease?
THE RACE IS ON
The economic growth of the 1990s helped create a teal-and-purple drenched boom in sports expansion. From 1988 to 1999, the top four leagues in this country (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL) added 21 franchises to their stable. In the 14 years since 1999, those leagues have expanded just once — when the NBA added the Charlotte Bobcats in 2004.
The saturation of markets for football, baseball, basketball and hockey made Major League Soccer the belle of the ball for cities looking to add a top-tier sports franchise.
Since the other four major sports leagues in this country last expanded, MLS has added nine franchises. The addition of New York brings the number to 11, giving MLS 21 franchises.
But just like the other leagues found out at the end of the ’90s, expansion is a finite resource. MLS’s limit looks to be 24, meaning there could only be three spots left by the end of the summer.
And as a handful of cities across the United States vie to fulfill their own top-tier soccer dreams, the soccer supporters in Sacramento anxiously await 2014 and our chance to lay claim to one of those dwindling slots.
The reason that Sacramento has entered the conversation for MLS expansion is well known: Sacramento Pro Soccer is bringing a USL Pro team to the capital city next summer (USL Pro comprises the third tier of U.S. Soccer behind MLS and the NASL).
Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver all made their jumps to MLS from USL Pro. Orlando City currently plays in USL Pro, but seems likely to join the MLS. Sacramento Pro Soccer’s stated goal from the outset is to follow that blueprint, but the front office for the yet-to-be-named team admits its sources say MLS will cap at 24 teams.
That gives Sacramento little time to find the big investment necessary to build a stadium and pay the expansion fee ($40 million for Montreal last year, but $100 million for New York’s 2015 franchise).
Most of the factors determining whether Sacramento gets an MLS team or not will happen well outside the financial or political influence of the vast majority of Sacramento’s passionate base of soccer fans. And yet, each week the Capital City’s supporters watch as competing cities attempt to showcase their MLS bonafides this summer.
So what should supporters here to do while we wait for the 2014 season to kick off in Sacramento?
You could pour over TV market numbers or scour the Internet for sports market saturation. You could even scan that list of people who wanted to buy the Kings and wonder what it would take to turn Ron Burkle into a soccer fan.
But attempting to read the MLS Tarot cards through demographics and hypothetical investments turns out to be about as productive as trying to get an honest answer out of the Maloofs.
Instead, our idle soccer passion can draw direction from the Sons of Ben, a supporters group founded in Philadelphia in 2007. Its membership grew to the hundreds even though Philadelphia didn’t have an MLS team.
Their blue-clad grassroots movement reached out to MLS officials and state politicians and collected thousands of signatures for petitions.
"All of a sudden these guys in blue started appearing in the strangest places," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said on a documentary about the Sons of Ben, which is slated for release next year.
A year later, MLS awarded Philadelphia a franchise over St. Louis, and Sons of Ben co-founder Bryan James was there to pose with Garber for the occasion
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As the race enters its final stages, Sacramento has just started its run. Waiting for March 2014 definitely is the hardest part, especially as other cities inch closer to the 24. While Sacramento is starting to appear on Top 10 lists for possible MLS expansion cities, it is not anywhere near the top three on those charts.
But a coordinated effort among supporters, soccer dreamers and general sports fanatics here could help lay a foundation to speed up the process and raise Sacramento’s profile.
The urgency created by the latest expansion announcements means we do not have time to wait for 2014.
R.J. Cooper is a co-founder of the Tower Bridge Battalion, an independent supporter group for Sacramento’s USL team, and is president of the Sacramento chapter of The American Outlaws, a local supporter group of the United States National soccer team.
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