Sac Soccer announces new executive team with familiar names

Sacramento Republic FC’s ownership group Sac Soccer Holdings & Entertainment Holdings has announced a new executive team, with some names familiar in local sports business.

Kunal Merchant and Ben Gumpert will be in the respective roles of senior adviser and chief operating officer/senior adviser for Sac Soccer. Merchant played a visible role in the Sacramento Kings’ recent effort to put the team under new ownership and then build a new downtown arena, while Gumpert came from the NBA front office in 2013 to help launch new initiatives under the Kings’ new owners.

“We have the ‘A’ team, there’s no question in my mind,” said Kevin Nagle, Sac Soccer’s chairman and CEO. “I feel very good about where we are.”

In addition to Merchant and Gumpert, Sac Soccer announced Michael Thomasas financial officer/senior adviser and Jeff Koewler as chief outside counsel. All four men had worked under Nagle in an advisory and consulting capacity since the effort began in the last couple years to get Sacramento a Major League Soccer expansion team.

Gumpert said joining the Republic as it pursues MLS and builds a soccer-specific stadium in the Railyards both fits with his experience and appeals to him personally.

“To me, this is a no-brainer,” said Gumpert, a Sacramento native who played goalie on his high school soccer team. The Sac Soccer role allows him to be part of Sacramento’s upward trajectory as a city, continue involvement in bringing new life to the city core and be involved with a sport he loves. “Nothing else could check all those boxes,” he said.

Sac Soccer is vying with 11 other cities to be chosen as one of four planned MLS expansion teams, with the first two expected to be announced by year’s end. Some observers feel Sacramento is a favorite to receive a team, if not the leading contender.

Nagle, who is also a Kings minority owner, said the new executive team brings experience in taking sports organizations to the next level. He said Sac Soccer will benefit in particular from their background in dealing with adversity and being both proactive and creative.

Warren Smith, Republic FC’s founder and president, will report to Gumpert in the new structure, Nagle said. Smith, an entrepreneur, founded the team in 2013 and oversaw surprising success in both attendance and on-field performance in the team’s first couple seasons, drawing the attention of Nagle and MLS.

Earlier this year, Nagle’s group Sac Soccer formally acquired the Republic, allowing the team colors and brand to be used in the Sacramento expansion bid submitted in January.

Late last month, Republic FC and Sac Soccer had a “groundmaking” event at the site of the future soccer stadium in the Railyard’s northeast corner, with construction to begin next spring if an expansion team is awarded. Nagle said Wednesday that by starting work in July, the team can be assured of opening the stadium for the 2020 MLS season.

Though he said Sacramento’s effort can only control what’s in Sacramento, the progress toward a stadium stands in contrast to other bids. In many cases, the expansion bid hasn’t identified a site for a stadium, or still needs local approvals for the project, steps Sacramento’s bid cleared some time ago, Nagle said.

Before joining the Kings, Gumpert worked in the NBA’s Team Marketing and Business Operations group, which works with each team in the league. He has degrees from University of California Los Angeles and Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Merchant previously served as the Kings’ vice president of strategic initiatives, executive director of economic development group Think BIG Sacramento, and as former Mayor Kevin Johnson’s chief of staff. Merchant has two degrees, including a master’s from Harvard University.

Thomas has experience in finance positions in banking and energy, and received degrees from the University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Notre Dame’s graduate school of business.

Koewler is a partner at Sacramento law firm Delfino Madden O’Malley Coyle and Koewler, and has a law degree from Georgetown University Law Center and a bachelor’s degree from the University of California Berkeley.