If there’s been one given in the insane world of MLS expansion, it’s been that the Sacramento bidders were promising to come up with private money to pay for the entire cost of a $245 million stadium. Except that Sacramento didn’t win a expansion franchise last month as had been anticipated, reportedly because the league was worried that the prospective owners couldn’t afford a stadium on top of a $150 million expansion fee, and you know where this is headed, right?
Sacramento city leaders and the local ownership group seeking an expansion spot in Major League Soccer are discussing public contributions to a new $250 million soccer stadium planned for the downtown railyard – conversations that eventually may include a request for a direct public subsidy to the project’s construction.
This was probably inevitable given the way MLS was running its expansion bidding: Setting expansion fees as high as possible, then picking winners based less on what’s the best soccer market than on which was offering the biggest guaranteed subsidies. (While two expansion teams were supposed to be announced last month, only Nashville got the nod, and it can’t be coincidence that Nashville was the only city among the finalists that had approved $75 million in public cash.) For a while it looked like Sacramento would sneak through on the basis of having a new stadium even if the owners were paying out of their own pockets, but MLS’s determination that “No, we want a team that can afford to pay us $150 million so we can keep funding our league by selling rights to more teams for big bucks, and yet still have lots of money left over for team profits, which isn’t going to happen if you’re on the hook for all stadium costs” put a fork in that, so now it’s back to the subsidy drawing board.
What that subsidy could look like is anyone’s guess: Mayor Darrell Steinberg mentioned reduced building fees and free land for a training facility as possibilities, which don’t sound too bad until you remember that Steinberg was formerly the California state senator who wrote a bill to fast-track the Kings arena by exempting it from environmental challenges, so he doesn’t exactly have a great track record in protecting the public interest. Steinberg also said, “I’m confident we can get Major League Soccer without a major public construction or operating subsidy,” and if you’re concerned by that qualifier “major,” you’re not the only one.
As for prospective team owner Kevin Nagle, who sold his prescription-drug-benefit company two years ago for $2 billion and estimated his net worth in the hundreds of millions, the Sacramento Bee reported this:
Asked if he would request a direct construction subsidy from the city, Republic FC CEO and Chairman Kevin Nagle said the team remains “incredibly appreciative to Mayor Steinberg and the City Council for their support and are committed to continuing to work with them to explore any and all paths that will help win this for Sacramento.”
No, you’re right, that’s not an answer at all. California’s tough laws allowing referendums to block sports stadium spending may be an obstacle to any team subsidy demands here, but it might be a good idea for Sacramento residents to put one hand on their wallets, just as a precaution.