Bet on Burkle?

Billionaire is not an open goal for soccer hopes

By R.E. Graswich
April 2019

How nice it would be to write that Ron Burkle is the ultimate thumb on the scale, the billionaire whose name, reputation and bank account guarantee Sacramento a golden admission ticket into Major League Soccer.

Unfortunately, putting the words “Burkle” and “guarantee” in the same sentence turns the story backward. Burkle doesn’t give guarantees. He takes them.

Burkle obviously has the name, reputation and money to help Sacramento secure a slot on the MLS membership roster. Whether he actually pulls the required levers is a different question.

My guess? The odds of Burkle moving the Republic FC into the big league are at best a coin flip—a 50-50 proposition. And I’m being optimistic.

Giving Burkle a 50-50 shot is a significant improvement over the odds I gave Sacramento’s previous soccer savior, pharmaceutical insurance mogul Kevin Nagle. For years I’ve said the Republic needed two key items—site control and stadium financing—before MLS would consider Sacramento. Nagle had neither.

Accordingly, Sacramento was left in the cold while Miami, Nashville and Cincinnati moved up. Austin has also been promised a team.

Local soccer fans believe capacity crowds at Republic games should make MLS rush to embrace our market. In reality, MLS doesn’t care how often a team fills its grounds with cheap or discounted tickets.

The league wants rich owners and corporate sponsors (rare in Sacramento), plus a new stadium.

Which brings us to Burkle. The billionaire, who lives mostly in London, sounds more interested in Sacramento’s development potential than soccer. 

He’s buying 14 acres in the Downtown railyards, plus a few extra acres for a $300 million soccer stadium. Apparently, he wants to build an entertainment district in the railyards.

The entertainment district is a stretch, because Sacramento doesn’t need one. There are entertainment districts in Old Sacramento and Downtown Commons. There are two more in Midtown: the Sutter and Handle districts. And there’s R Street. Burkle would be No. 6.

I worked for Mayor Kevin Johnson in 2011 and was involved in discussions with Burkle to buy the Kings and build a Downtown arena. Burkle was not particularly interested in the Kings. He was very interested in buying the Downtown Plaza from Westfield at a massive discount. Westfield wanted to unload the mall in a package deal with multiple depressed properties. Johnson convinced Westfield’s owner to sell the Sacramento mall separately.

The Westfield sale was by far the greatest accomplishment of Johnson’s time at City Hall. He gets credit for Golden 1 Center, but was merely the frontman. NBA commissioner David Stern made the arena happen.

Vivek Ranadive and partners bought the Kings and the Westfield mall. They aced out Burkle. Now Burkle is back, looking at soccer and entertainment.

What does he want? Burkle is a bargain shopper. He expects guaranteed returns on investment, with no risk. He will want the city as a partner—a backstop against risk. This is where Mayor Darrell Steinberg, the City Council and taxpayers must be extremely careful and transparent. Steinberg is already promising to help pay for Burkle’s infrastructure. Watch out.

If Burkle gets guaranteed returns and zero risk, MLS might happen in Sacramento. If not, well, sorry.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at reg@graswich.com.

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