MLS expansion: Sacramento Republic projected trapped in doldums

Everyone has some bad news related to this pandemic. Yet MLS-expansion team Sacramento Republic FC has several wagonloads of disappointing developments.

At first Sacramento Republic FC had its MLS debut season shifted back a year to 2023 because of the pandemic. Everything else was still in place. But now lead investor, billionaire Ron Burkle, has pulled out of his commitment.

MLS still has Sacramento penciled in as an expansion team opening play in coming years. But necessary agreements are left incomplete, including payment of the $200 million fee to join the league and kickoff of stadium construction.

In a statement last week, MLS said they would first contact Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg to figure out the next steps to revive the Sacramento Republic program.

Burkle said he abandoned Sacramento Republic because of COVID-19, but didn’t state specifically how the pandemic damaged his involvement.

SAN JOSE, CA – JUNE 12: Owner Ron Burkle of the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

It’s possible that when team officials asked Burkle to ante up his portion of the franchise fee, his accountants ran the numbers and informed them he couldn’t part with the cash at the moment.

They were also seeking money for the stadium project that has increased to a projected $400 million from the original estimate that was $100 million lower. Limited partners have chipped in money totaling $60 million lower what the team had expected.

Burkle spread his wealth throughout businesses supporting the food trade and some app-based enterprises, including Airbnb, Uber, and Foursquare. He’s co-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.

Last December he purchased Michael Jackson’s former home, Neverland Ranch, for $22 million. Burkle had once served as a financial adviser to the entertainer. He described the purchase as a land bank opportunity. That means Burkle intends to group the parcel with nearby or similar holdings for management. He has his eye on at least one adjacent property.

Other than missing a lead investor at this time and cleaning up the stadium project, Sacramento Republic FC still has everything else in place to build their MLS team. For their NWSL side, Jill Ellis is in the front office to oversee that entire effort, plus advise on the MLS side. She is the former head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team.

MLS expansion sides usually get nothing but celebration once the franchise is announced. But massive problems have erupted for teams.

Early last year, Nashville SC’s MLS stadium project got derailed by a newly elected mayor. The revised project cost had hiked by $50 million. Unlike the Sacramento problem, a group also filed a legal action that would muddy up the development.

After further negotiations, involving MLS commissioner Don Garber at a couple of points, everything got back on a revised schedule.

The Sacramento Republic FC expansion project will get back on track, also. But someone will have to assemble $200 million. Then architects and building contractors will have to find a big table and pick over the stadium blueprint, maybe resketching part of it and rethinking materials.

Lastly, the mayor and club representatives need to shake hands with some other multi-billionaires. That group may have to include some new billionaires who haven’t leveraged themselves out yet.

After all, isn’t Sacramento Republic FC a hot land bank opportunity, too?