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Update: We're hosting a live chat today at 11:45 a.m. with the owner of Sacramento's new pro soccer team. Warren Smith is one of the co-founders of the River Cats and is the leading the ownership of Sacramento's yet-to-be-named USL Pro team, which will start playing its first regular season games in the summer of 2014.
Why is he doing this and why does he think it will work? How will the name the team? What did he learn from the River Cats that could apply here? What was his experience with the Portland Timbers exactly?
Those are a few of my questions. Post your questions in the conversation below and I'll ask as many as I can.
Video stream will start here shortly after
Update: Warren is running a little bit behind but should be here in the next 10-15 minutes.
The article continues below.
Pro soccer is finally coming to Sacramento.
A press conference announcing a
lower divison league soccer team in Sacramento earlier today is below. The video picks up at the 5:46 mark:
What we know so far:
-League: The team will play in the United Soccer League’s Pro division, which is nominally the third division in U.S. soccer, with Major League Soccer being the top division. In practice, USL Pro competes with The North American Soccer League to be the top second tier league. Both NASAL and USL Pro compete with Major League Soccer teams in the US Open Cup (meaning we're likely to see MLS teams in Sacramento if the team does well) and both leagues feed players to the MLS.
- Owner: Warren Smith, one of the co-founders of the Sacramento River Cats, will operate the new team and leads the ownership group. He was instrumental in bringing the River Cats to Sacramento and will look to repeat that success with soccer.
- Venue: The team will play in Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College. I asked a local soccer booster, R.J. Cooper, who runs the Sacramento chapter of The American Outlaws, a supporters club for U.S. National soccer team, what he thought of the venue to get a fan's take. While he said it was important the stadium was centrally located and was a "decent" choice, he was concerned about the possibility of alcohol sales at games, which Hughes does not currently allow. "Supporters' culture is important to creating an atmosphere that people want to be a part of, and part of sport culture, for better or worse, is alcohol." Update: After the press conference, Warren said they are working to resolve that issue, and that alcholol should be availalbe for purchase.
Warren had a different take:
“We are very excited at the prospect of playing our USL Pro Soccer matches at Hughes Stadium," he said in a press release. "Los Rios Community College District and the people of Sacramento have done an incredible job in the stadium’s $13 million renovation and in bringing this community jewel back to the stature it once was for the people of Sacramento. We whole heartedly expect to announce a formal ‘use agreement’ in the coming weeks and would like to thank the Los Rios Community College District for their partnership to bring professional soccer to the Sacramento Region.”
- The timing: via the press release: "Sacramento’s USL PRO franchise will plan a series of exhibition matches during 2013 involving domestic and international professional soccer teams. In addition, supporter events, soccer clinics and player appearances will be scheduled leading up to the 2014 inaugural season. In early 2013, the franchise will begin the process of building a professional franchise infrastructure, including personnel and naming the team with input and engagement from soccer fans"
- Think Big played a key role in bringing the team to Sacramento and Mayor Kevin Johnson will speak at the press conference.
- The Elk Grove factor: Just a few hours before today’s press conference, Gary Davi, the Mayor-elect of Elk Grove sent out a statement saying he had met with Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber over the weekend to discuss the possibility of a team based in the Sacramento residential suburb. The statement also indicated that Elk Grove has signed an exclusivity agreement with a potential ownership team, and that these “discussions include building a soccer specific stadium in Elk Grove and are well on their way to completion."
In an interview today, Davis indicated that he was would try to bring an MLS or a NASL team to the city, a not to subtle dig at Sacrmento’s fledgling USL Pro team “Based on the groundwork that we’ve laid and the conversations that we’ve had, we’re moving down the field pretty quickly with an opportunity to bring a first rate, professional soccer team to our region, and I think it is important that we keep our eye on that prize and be smart about the moves that we make,” he said.
Shane Singh, President, Greenhaven Soccer Club, and board member of the Sacramento Soccer Alliance, is crtical of the Sacramento effort.
“The most prudent approach for the community is to rally behind Elk Grove’s efforts to build a soccer-only stadium and complex,” he said in an email. “Experimenting with low level soccer leagues may hurt our region’s opportunity to land a MLS franchise”
Is the Sacramento region big enough to go from zero pro-soccer teams to two? Could this be the beginning of an epic rivalry? It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
- MLS: While Elk Grove has been pushing for an MLS team for the last year, a source involved in bringing the minor league team to Sacramento said the city saw it as the first step toward drawing an MLS team. That source spoke off the record, as they did not want to offend the USL Pro League.
- Even if the Elk Grove effort falters, a Sacramento MLS team is likely years away. As Dan Courtemanche, MLS's vice president of communications, told me via email in July, one of the primary factors the league considers when looking at locations for possible expansion is if the city has an existing pro team with a solid fan base, as has been the case with past expansion cities. The league's recommendation to fans who want an MLS team in their city is to "support your local team – follow the lead of Portland, Seattle and Montreal," he wrote. In the other words, the MLS is looking for proven markets, and the arrival of this team in Sacramento will give the city a chance to prove itself (or not).
- Beyond expansion, the MLS has a long-term goal of establishing a promotion/regulation system, common in the rest of the world, whereby at the end of the season, a bottom group of teams (typically three) of each division goes down to a lower division, while a corresponding number of the teams from the lower division go up. Theoretically, a Sacramento USL Pro team would be part of any such system should it be adopted in the U.S. However, when Commissioner Garber was asked about the possibility of the league adopting a promotion/regulation system during halftime of the MLS Cup Final on Sunday, he made clear that it's a still in the distant future. "Promotion and regulation, how great would it be?," he said. "Separate us for all the other leagues, but we need to have vibrate second divisions and we need to have a more mature market, until that happens, I don't see it happening." [Interesting to note that Garber met with Davis on the same day.]
What they said:
Tim Holt, USL President
“USL PRO is thrilled to expand into Sacramento in the 2014 season. “With the Phoenix FC Wolves joining the league in 2013 and the Los Angeles Blues having already developed a successful presence in Southern California, Sacramento represents yet another significant step towards our objective of achieving a regionalized competition approach in the West. This remains a fundamental aspect of a USL PRO business model that is resonating with prospective team owners as the most sustainable for professional soccer at levels which support MLS. Warren Smith is a widely-respected and highly-accomplished figure in the Sacramento sports community and has presented a very impressive vision for professional soccer in Sacramento. By partnering with him we know USL PRO will be successful in Sacramento for many years to come.”
Mayor Kevin Johnson, City of Sacramento
"Today is an exciting day - not only for soccer fans around our region, but also for those who believe fervently in Sacramento’s potential as a vibrant and emerging market,” said Mayor Johnson. “I welcome the USL PRO to town and am thrilled to see more jobs and civic amenities heading our way.”
Warren Smith, Sacramento Professional Soccer, LLC Founder
"Sacramento is one of the strongest soccer regions in the country. We already have numerous professional soccer players that are from Sacramento, or make their home here. It is time for the people of Sacramento to have the opportunity to watch them play on the national stage and to show the rest of the world that the Sacramento area is a great soccer region. I am grateful to Mayor Kevin Johnson, Think Big Sacramento, USL, the soccer community and the many regional leaders that have scored this goal for our city."
Kunal Merchant, Think BIG Sacramento Executive Director
"This is great news for our community. A USL PRO team will provide more jobs, more family-friendly activities and more visibility for Sacramento on a national scale. Congratulations to Warren and his team for once again proving that this is a terrific sports market.”
Steve Hammond, Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau President & CEO
“Sacramento is a community that’s demonstrated an unwavering commitment to amateur and professional sports time and time again,” said Steve Hammond. We are excited at the opportunity that professional soccer presents to this region and look forward to helping to make it a successful and long-term endeavor for this community.”
Kunal Merchant, Executive Director of Think Big:
"This is great news for our community. A USL team will provide more jobs and economic development, more visibility for our community, and further proof that Sacramento is a great market to invest in."
R.J. Cooper, president of the Sacramento chapter of The American Outlaws, a U.S. soccer supporter group:
"There is definitely a fan base, and I think that if it's run well, and if there is a decent venue, then it has a good chance of success."
"I think it’s a big step for Sacramento as long as they have real investors. Getting a real ownership group that is willing to invest will sort of announce Sacramento's intentions to be taken seriously in the soccer community and perhaps be part of a promotion/regulation system down the line."