Sacramento continues to prove it’s a pro sports town

Hughes Stadium (Photo: James Ham)

Somewhere along the fight to keep the Sacramento Kings from leaving town, an underdog mentality developed in the capital of California.  Despite 19 seasons of complete sellouts during the team’s first 29 years in town, Sacramento still had more to prove.  Despite a fanbase that has become synonymous with passion – one that rallied countless times to fend off professional sports elimination – Seattle was considered an obvious better market for the Kings.

On Saturday night, Sacramento was exposed for what it truly is.  It is not a small market.  It is not a one-pony town and it is capable of so much more than just being the home of the Kings.

With the temperature dropping to chilly, more than 20,000 sports fans showed up in force to watch the inaugural Sacramento Republic FC game at Hughes Stadium.  Not too far down the road, another 20,000-plus showed up for a AAA baseball game at Raley Field.  Two sellouts in one night for minor league sporting events.

Sacramento cannot hide from what it is.  Sacramento is a sports town.

Like the Kings, the River Cats have always been a huge draw since moving to Sac in 2000.  Listed by Forbes magazine as the most valuable team in all of minor league baseball in 2012, the Cats have won 11 division titles and four league titles in 13 years.  But Sacramento has always been considered a baseball town.

When the Republic announced that their opener was a complete sellout on Saturday morning, a message was sent to MLS soccer – the good people of Sacramento appear ready to embrace soccer as well.

“Everything that’s happened, whether it’s the Kings staying, whether it’s the changing landscape of downtown, at the end of the day, there was a statement made tonight,” said Erika Bjork, VP of marketing and communications for the Republic.  “It goes back to everything that we say – ‘we’re an indomitable city, we’re an indomitable club and the fans made a statement.’”

Bjork spent nearly 10 years with the Kings from 1994-2003 and then another six working with former NBA star Chris Webber.  Hidden within those years with the Kings was an experience with the Sacramento Knights, the professional indoor soccer team that played at Arco Arena from 1993-2001.

Unfortunately, infighting between professional indoor leagues killed the sport in the early 2000s, leaving Sacramento without an outlet for major league soccer.

The Republic are a true startup, but opening night has Sacramento abuzz.  There is no promise that the team will lead to a birth in the MLS and there is a lot of work to do on building a permanent home that could house the team long term.  But there is a start.

“All we need is a soccer-specific stadium,” Bjork said.  “We’re the most underserved city in the country for professional sports.  We have the threshold.  We have the market.  We obviously have always had the fans.”

Sacramento soccer fans are embracing their new team.  Despite a 2-1 loss in the opener, 12,000 plus are expected next weekend for the club’s second game and the “Tower Bridge Battalion,” an independent supporter group for the Republic, is already larger than some MLS teams’ fan groups.

“There’s something about this sport that is dramatic and real and authentic,” Bjork said.  “One of the reasons I’m passionate in working with soccer is that I’ve never seen a sport empower their fans the way that soccer has.”

Sacramento fans are used to being empowered.  Over the last three years, they have gone to incredible lengths to keep the Kings.  Now that a new arena is just around the corner and the team is ready to lock into a 30-year lease with the city, momentum might be building for something more.

Maybe that something more is professional soccer.

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About: James Ham

James Ham provides coverage through news analysis and in-depth interviews with Kings players and staff. James is also one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart". James graduated UC Davis with a degree in history and is happily married with two children.