The largest stakeholder in MLS got a little smaller on Thursday, as Anschutz Entertainment Group announced its sale of D.C. United to a local investors group for a league-record purchase price.
Global Sports and Entertainment, led by current United President and CEO Kevin Payne and bankrolled by Washington-area construction magnates Willi Lauterbach and Tim Kissler, is expected to formally take ownership early next year.
The announcement was made at the National Press Club in downtown Washington by Payne and AEG President and CEO Tim Leiweke, and provided an opportunity to reflect on the league's growth since its inception a decade ago.
"There was a lot of speculation about whether this league would be successful," said Leiweke, "and what we have seen in the last 10 years is that not only has the league been successful, but we believe our future is very bright. The role model franchise for this league over the last 10 years, on and off the pitch, has been D.C. United. They have shown us the way."
Conversely, longtime United executive Payne paid tribute to the crucial contribution to U.S. soccer made by AEG and its owner Phil Anschutz.
"It's safe to say that without AEG, without the dedication of Tim, without the dedication of Phil Anschutz ... this league might not be here today," he said, before handing Leiweke his "parting gift" - a 2004 D.C. United MLS Cup championship ring.
"We look forward to not giving him a 2005 championship ring," said Payne, referring to AEG's instant new role as a league rival. But he also emphasized the seamless nature of the handover.
"The great thing about this transition is that very little will change in the way we do things," he said. "AEG allowed us to do things the way we thought fit, and we will continue to move forward."
Neither Payne nor Leiweke would disclose the purchase price or the specific financial makeup of the ownership group. But MLS Commissioner Don Garber spoke to the media during the United-Chelsea FC international friendly on Thursday night, and revealed that United will sell for more than the $25 million paid for the now-defunct expansion club Miami Fusion in 1998, and substantially more than 2005 additions Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake.
"I will tell you it's more than twice our recent expansion fee, just to give you a ballpark number," said Garber, also noting the progress the deal represented. "Four years ago, we contracted two teams, and today we have a record price for a new team sale, from a guy that is new to this sport in this country. ... This is a good day for Major League Soccer."
To this point, AEG has owned and operated five of the league's 12 teams, and is expected to pare down its involvement to Los Angeles, Chicago and the MetroStars.
"Despite what you may occasionally read about our desire to own all of the league, we actually want to go the other way," said Leiweke. "We think that the league becomes healthier with other partners, other developers, other people that have an entrepreneurial spirit, a vision and a commitment to our sport."
But Leiweke insisted that United was not unwanted baggage.
"We will miss owning and operating this team," he said. "This is one of Mr. Anschutz's favorite assets, quite frankly, and he was not very happy with me when we went down this path. ... He would have preferred to hold on to this franchise. We just happened to find really good partners." A major part of Global Sports and Entertainment's appeal was its commitment to a soccer-specific stadium for United, who presently find themselves in an awkward ground-sharing setup with Major League Baseball's Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium. "It gives us an enormous amount of credibility to have Willie, Tim, Kevin and their group step in here," said Leiweke, "and not only put the valuation that they have placed upon this franchise, but in particular make the kind of commitment they're going to make going forward to create a permanent home for soccer and a permanent home for D.C. United that will take soccer, and this league, to the next level in this particular marketplace."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval Major League Soccer or its clubs.