Commentary

Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson runs full-court press well

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit

If you get the idea Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson knows what he's doing running the full-court press he's currently putting on MLS, it's because he does.

Sacramento -- with no track record of soccer success until the arrival of USL PRO's Republic FC in 2014 -- has come out of nowhere to jump to the head of the MLS expansion line. If it is awarded what could be the 24th and final slot in the 24-team league MLS envisions by 2020, it will almost be as stunning as the successful effort Johnson engineered to save the NBA Kings.

For years, the Kings were rumored to headed out of Sacramento. Anaheim and Virginia Beach were mentioned as possible destinations. But then a group headed by then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and hedge fund manager Chris Hansen came forward to buy the Kings from the Maloof family and move them to Seattle. The NBA even announced it had an agreement to sell the Kings, but the same day in January 2013 Johnson cautioned Seattle fans, "Don't celebrate too early."

Johnson, a three-time NBA all-star guard, had to come up with a Sacramento investor group that could match the Seattle offer for the equivalent of $525 million. And he had to come up with a plan to build a new arena. But most of all, he had to show NBA owners Sacramento wanted basketball.

Johnson assembled a 35-person Sacramento investor group -- his "whales" as he called them -- led by Vivek Ranadive from Silicon Valley. They paid an NBA record of over $534 million for the Kings and he got the city to agree to build a 17,500-seat arena at a cost of $477 million as part of a new entertainment district.

Think Big Sacramento, a lobbying outfit headed by Chris Lehane, famous for his p.r. work for Bill Clinton (he authored the "Vast right-wing conspiracy" espoused by Hillary Clinton in the late 1990s) and Al Gore (he described Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris as "acting in the finest tradition of a Soviet commissar" during the 2000 Florida recount), was hired to woo NBA owners.

Within four months, NBA owners voted 22-8 to keep the Kings in Sacramento. (But not before the Seattle group twice upped its bid and also offered to kick in more than $100 million in "relocation money" to be spread among the 29 other NBA owners. Ballmer has since purchased the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion.)

The cost to bring MLS to Sacramento will likely be a fraction of the $1 billion price tag to keep the Kings in town: $100 million to pay for the expansion fee and another $100 million to build a soccer stadium. But the elements of Sacramento's MLS expansion bid are the same as those of Johnson's NBA campaign.

Kevin Nagle, the largest local investor in the Kings investor group, is just one of several "whales" who've also signed on for the soccer bid. The proposed soccer stadium is located in the Sacramento railyards, just blocks away from where the Kings' arena is going up. And Johnson has brought back Lehane and Think Big Sacramento to handle the lobbying effort. (Yes, MLS expansion bids have gone, well, big-time.)

The Sacramento bid is no slam dunk, to borrow another basketball phrase. The investor group and stadium financing plan must all be fully flushed out. Right now, Sacramento's biggest competition appears to be Minnesota, where one of the two MLS bidders are the NFL Vikings. Like the successful MLS Atlanta 2017 bid, the Vikings' project has the advantage of single deep pockets (co-owners Zygi and Mark Wilf) and an NFL stadium project (to the tune of more than $1 billion) that will incorporate soccer.

But there is a lot to like about the Sacramento bid. "I leave incredibly impressed with what we've seen," said MLS president Mark Abbott -- by sheer coincidence a ball boy for the old Minnesota Kicks of the NASL -- of the reception he and his MLS staff received last week in Sacramento.

As expansion bids go, Minnesota is to Atlanta what Sacramento is to Orlando. Indeed, there are lots of similarities between Sacramento and Orlando, beginning with the USL PRO roots of Republic FC and Orlando City.

Both markets are similar in size -- Orlando is No. 18 among metropolitan markets and Sacramento is No. 20. Both cities have NBA teams, but both are top 20 markets without NFL or MLB teams. The mayors of both cities -- Buddy Dyer for Orlando and Johnson for Sacramento -- have driven their MLS bids. And they are both putting soccer at the forefront in entertainment districts as part of downtown revitalization projects.

Abbott has said one only had to look at the Orlando soccer stadium project within that city's downtown entertainment core to see how it all felt right. The same could be said for what Johnson is pushing in Sacramento.

It's said Orlando City, having just completed its third USL PRO season when it was awarded an expansion franchise last fall, came out of nowhere to become MLS's 21st team. But that is nothing like longshot Sacramento Republic FC was until recently.

Sacramento, which will conclude its first season by hosting Saturday's USL PRO final, could -- to borrow one last phrase from Kevin Johnson's former profession -- steal MLS's final expansion slot.

World Cup 2022: Zwanziger's lone dissent

Just how strongly many people feel about moving the 2022 World Cup out of Qatar was evident on Monday morning with the publication of an interview by German tabloid Bild with Theo Zwanziger, the German member of the FIFA executive committee.

It was almost immediately taken as a statement of fact that the 2022 World Cup will never take place in Qatar because Zwanziger said he believed the tournament will be moved. Problem is, Zwanziger may be the only member of the executive committee who believes what he said.

Zwanziger's concerns about Qatar 2022 are nothing new. In 2013, he termed the awarding of the 2022 World Cup a blatant mistake. Unfortunately, his opinion on the FIFA executive committee carries little weight. A year after he was picked to replace Franz Beckenbauer on the executive committee, he was ousted as German soccer federation (DFB) president, leaving him as a lame-duck member of the executive committee until his term expires next year.

Qatar is going full-steam ahead on the massive work it must undertake to get ready by 2022, and there is no reason to believe anything can stop it. Not Michael Garcia's investigation into corruption charges surrounding the 2022 bid process. Not concerns about Qatar's treatment of migrant workers. Not the life-threatening heat that, Zwanziger says, no executive committee member wants to answer for.

FIFA president Sepp Blatter met last week with the Emir of Qatar in Zurich. There was nothing concrete reported about what was discussed. But one thing is for sure. Blatter didn't begin the conversation by saying, "Hey, Emir, I've got some bad news ..."
7 comments about "Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson runs full-court press well".
  1. Dan Phillips, September 23, 2014 at 11:36 a.m.

    Qatar should never be allowed to hold the World Cup!

  2. Allan Lindh, September 23, 2014 at 1:26 p.m.

    Nor should Russia. So now it's time, Michel Platini. Step up to the plate, announce that Europe will hold an alternate world cup in 2018, and lay the groundwork for a new world soccer organization. North America will sign up, Europe plus North America is the bulk to the TV income. Others will quickly join. Adios FIFA.

  3. James Madison, September 23, 2014 at 2:40 p.m.

    Economics, i.e., tv and sponsors, should preclude (1) Russia from hosting the 2018 WCup unless Putin allows a free civil society to function and recedes from his imperialism and (2) Qatar from hosting the 2022 WCup unless it cleans up its labor act and also ceases to harbor the leading Muslim extremists.

  4. Zoe Willet, September 23, 2014 at 3:22 p.m.

    Why do we have to be limited to 24 teams? The more the merrier! And for goodness sake, let's put a muzzle on what's-his-name's mouth (Glazer?)and institute the logical promotion/relegation system. And congrats to all the work being done on academies!

  5. Christopher Tallmadge, September 23, 2014 at 9:46 p.m.

    Move that disaster Chivas USA to Sacramento. I think we will be stuck with Russia, but hold out hope that Qatar will be removed as host.

  6. Wayne Colasinski, September 24, 2014 at 6:12 p.m.

    As the Vikings are one of the top candidates for an MLS expansion slot, what will happen to the Loons? It bothers me that these NFL or MLB teams steamroll their way into the game when there's already an existing USL or NASL team in their respective cities that has already invested in the game and a fanbase. Doesn't US Soccer have anything to say about this? I think it's important to have a great soccer culture as well as a great 1st division,,, which includes healthy 2nd and 3rd divisions.

  7. Andres Yturralde, September 26, 2014 at 11:24 a.m.

    Very informative, PK. Thank you!

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