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Whale Watching

City’s soccer hopes fade without investor

By R.E. Graswich
September 2021

Sacramento is preoccupied with whales. It’s an unhealthy obsession for a city without an ocean.

Ten years ago, Chris Lehane, adviser to Mayor Kevin Johnson, introduced the concept of whales to Sacramento. Lehane wasn’t speaking about waterborne mammals, which on rare occasions have detoured from migratory routes and toured the Sacramento River. He was talking about wealthy sports investors who swim in dollars—gamblers willing to bet on Sacramento.

Lehane convinced Johnson the only way the city could keep the Kings was to find a couple of whales to serve as saviors. These whales would wrestle the basketball team from the Maloof family and invest in a Downtown arena. NBA Commissioner David Stern didn’t like Lehane, but agreed with his strategy.

With embers from the Great Recession still smoldering, the K Street Mall looked like a Latin American city the day after a military coup. Eerily quiet, danger in the shadows, not quite dead but barely alive. It desperately needed investment.

Lehane and Johnson chased and lost several potential whales before two big fish washed up near the Tower Bridge. They were Mark Mastrov and Vivek Ranadive. The whales and a few rich friends bought the Kings and built Golden 1 Center. The city helped.

Darrell Steinberg, Johnson’s replacement at City Hall, has tried to replicate the great whale hunt on behalf of Republic FC, the developmental soccer team whose enthusiastic followers deserve a higher order of cheers. But whales have steered clear. The mayor hasn’t hooked into anything worth keeping.

Steinberg thought he harpooned grocery tycoon Ron Burkle, only to watch the wily Burkle thrash, dive and drag Steinberg’s lines into the cold, murky depths. The mayor’s boat nearly capsized. He was lucky to survive.

That’s the problem with chasing whales. They are unpredictable and stubborn and big and strong and can do serious damage. Witness the Icon Venue Group, a stadium construction company that happened to be sailing behind Steinberg on the Burkle expedition.

Icon says it completed $2.3 million worth of preparation work on a new $300 million soccer stadium in the Downtown railyards before Burkle dived and disappeared. Icon sued Burkle and his presumptive partner, Matt Alvarez, in Sacramento County Superior Court this summer, claiming breach of contract and fraud.

The lawsuit won’t stop the stadium from eventually being built if Steinberg captures a whale. But it’s hardly an endorsement.

There’s another problem with whales. They can lead the hunter down an agonizing route of near misses and diminished returns. Progress reports on Steinberg’s whale chase have been upbeat, but they lead nowhere. Meantime, fear and obsession build.

One story had the mayor wooing an almost-famous kickboxer. Another mentioned various C-level entertainment personalities. Collectively, they sounded more like barking seals than whales. Nothing more was heard, like pebbles dropped in the ocean.

“All you need is one, let’s chase that one,” Steinberg said when Burkle got away.

The mayor no doubt means what he says. He probably believes the dream of landing a whale would defibrillate his political career back to life. Kevin Johnson expressed similar thoughts when his first group of Kings whales—yep, the herd included Burkle—escaped.

Ideally, Steinberg wouldn’t have to search far. He would find investors among the handful of wealthy people in Sacramento who understand the community, savor its potential and want to see their legacies create a Major League Soccer team.

That might have happened a few years ago, before MLS expansion fees broke the $200 million barrier and stadium costs pushed the project’s bottom line to a half-billion dollars. Today, that’s more money than local hearts can manage.

“We can’t give up. We didn’t give up on the Kings, nor did we give up on Major League Soccer,” the mayor says. He sails on, harpoon ready, into the fading sunlight.

R.E. Graswich can be reached at Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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