Tentative deal reached to build Cal Expo soccer stadium

Sacramento soccer fans can put their worries to rest: It looks like the city’s new professional franchise will have a place to play this year.


After months of talks, a tentative deal has been reached to build an 8,000-seat stadium at Cal Expo for Sacramento Republic FC, the newly formed soccer team that will begin play next month.

Cal Expo’s board of directors is expected to formally approve the deal at its Feb. 28 meeting. The agreement is with Ovations Fanfare, a food service company that is a subsidiary of national sports and entertainment giant Comcast Spectacor. Ovations has agreed to construct and finance the $3 million facility, with a financial contribution to the project from Republic FC.

Details of the agreement were not disclosed Wednesday, although Ovations executives have previously said they would pay a portion of stadium profits to Cal Expo, which is owned by the state. Sacramento Republic FC would be a tenant at the stadium.

Construction is expected to take two to three months, meaning Republic FC could wind up playing its first few home matches at Hughes Stadium on the Sacramento City College campus.

The team opens with a road match March 29 and is scheduled to debut in Sacramento on April 26 against the Harrisburg City Islanders from Pennsylvania. Republic FC has 14 home matches scheduled in the lower-division USL Pro league and is trying to schedule “friendly” matches with teams from England, Mexico and Major League Soccer. The team has received 4,326 deposits on season ticket packages.

“We’re cautiously optimistic and excited (about the Cal Expo stadium),” Republic FC President Warren Smith said. “It’s not a done deal. The (Cal Expo) board needs to deliberate and take action before we’ll be comfortable.”

Republic FC officials were hesitant to declare that the Cal Expo facility would be completed in time for the home opener. The team is meeting with stadium designers to see if the construction timeline can be shortened, but inclement weather over the next two months could delay work enough to push the project beyond the end of April.

Sacramento City College officials said Wednesday they have an arrangement in place with the team to host Republic FC’s first three home matches at the newly renovated Hughes Stadium. The soccer team would rent the stadium and could play fewer – or more – matches at Hughes, depending on the progress at Cal Expo.

Bob Martinelli, vice president for administrative services at Sacramento City College, said the school is refining traffic and crowd-control plans for the three games at Hughes Stadium, which are scheduled for April 26, May 3 and May 17. The facility can handle large crowds, he said, noting that the annual Holy Bowl football game between Jesuit and Christian Brothers high schools has drawn crowds of over 15,000.

“We’re making preparations to handle a large crowd,” Martinelli said. “We’re looking forward to hosting (Republic FC).”

Republic FC had a deal last year to play all of its games at Hughes Stadium, but later turned its focus to a soccer-specific site after receiving feedback from Major League Soccer that the field at Hughes was not optimal for the sport, Smith said.

Smith and Republic FC have set a goal of getting promoted to MLS – the nation’s top soccer league – by 2016. The Cal Expo field would serve as a temporary home for Republic FC as it explores options for a larger stadium closer to downtown Sacramento that would appeal to MLS.

In the meantime, the 120-yard by 80-yard field at Cal Expo will meet guidelines for international and MLS matches, Smith said. Hughes Stadium’s field is just 65 yards wide.

The field will be grass, the surface preferred by MLS; Hughes has an artificial turf field. And unlike Hughes Stadium, the Cal Expo facility will not feature painted lines on the field for football games.

Smith said the stadium would have several fan-friendly features, including special seating for the team’s fan club – the Tower Bridge Battalion. The franchise is in talks with Rancho Cordova-based D3 LED on the construction of a scoreboard. D3 has designed many of the digital signs at New York’s Times Square.

Kristen Thompson, a spokeswoman for Ovations, said the company would not comment on the stadium plan until after the Cal Expo board vote next week. Cal Expo executives and some board members did not return phone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Still, some Cal Expo board members expressed support for the stadium plan during a November meeting at which the proposal was first revealed.

Rex Hime, who has served on the Cal Expo board since 1995, said Wednesday that he’s “excited about the project and I believe the rest of the board ultimately shares that excitement.”

“We think it’s good for Sacramento, we think it’s good for soccer and we think it’s good for Cal Expo,” he said. “We’ve been trying to come up with plans to re-envision the new Cal Expo. We need to do some things to make it a real destination (year round).”

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