D.C. United investors have included powerful figures on the political left and right, real estate tycoons, investment executives and college basketball stars. One near-deal collapsed on the verge of completion and another disintegrated in the transition process. A renowned tenor was interested at one point.
Plans for a new stadium -- the pathway to profitability -- have come and gone and resurfaced again. But with Tuesday’s introduction of Erick Thohir as the new majority partner, United just might be on its strongest footing since its birth more than 16 years ago.
A twisted history of United’s backers…..
1996-2000: Washington Soccer LP launches the club with backing from API Soccer, a division of a British marketing and TV production firm and the majority shareholder for the marketing company overseeing U.S. Soccer Federation. The group also includes Soros Fund Management, founded by George Soros, one of the world’s wealthiest men with net worth exceeding $20 billion. He is a major contributor to progressive and liberal causes and has donated large sums to humanitarian efforts.
Six others invest in the club, including one who served in the Labor Department during the Reagan administration. Kevin Payne, a marketing expert who corralled the investment group, is put in charge of the front office. In 1998, marketing agency Octagon acquires API and becomes United’s managing partner. A year later, the club begins searching for buyers. A Tysons Corner real estate boss enters talks but doesn’t buy. Famed tenor Placido Domingo, based in Washington, is curious about acquiring a stake. When a potential deal with a New York investment group collapses in the fall of 2000, MLS takes stewardship.
2001-06: Anschutz Entertainment Group, headed by Colorado billionaire and conservative financier Phil Anschutz, adds United to its growing list of MLS properties. With new support, United officials begin talking of constructing a medium-sized venue to replace RFK Stadium as the club’s home. AEG essentially rescues United from possible collapse or relocation but, with several MLS teams under its wing, plans to unload the club once a new buyer is identified.
In July 2005, AEG finds one, or so it thinks: Global Development Partners, which hopes to oversee a stadium project at Poplar Point in Southeast D.C. The investment agreement is formally announced at the National Press Club, the same day United hosts English titan Chelsea FC at FedEx Field. Six months later, however, the deal with real estate executives Willi Lauterbach and Timothy Kissler crumbles amid financial uncertainty. “This probably was not ultimately going to be the right fit for anybody,” Payne says at the time. AEG steps up again.
2007: Victor MacFarlane and Will Chang, San Francisco-based businessmen, purchase United’s operating rights. MacFarlane, who leads an investment management firm, is motivated primarily by the possibility of building a stadium and expanding his property footprint in the nation’s capital. Chang’s background is in investments spanning many business sectors. He also has a stake in the San Francisco Giants baseball team.
The DCU group also includes former Duke basketball players Brian Davis and Christian Laettner, who had formed a business partnership called Blue Devil Ventures. However, MacFarlane’s hopes of building a stadium at Poplar Point or in Prince George’s County fizzle, the latter becoming another public embarrassment for the club after holding a formal news conference suggesting a deal would come to fruition.
2009: The recession takes a heavy toll on MacFarlane’s assets, so he sells his soccer interests to Chang. Davis and Laettner fail to meet a cash call and also drop out, leaving Chang to oversee D.C. United Holdings by himself. Since then, Davis and Laettner have been saddled by major legal problems (unrelated to their United investment). Chang says he won’t abandon the organization but needs additional investors to keep the club running and to pursue a stadium plan, preferably at Buzzard Point in Southwest D.C. Baltimore also becomes a viable option.
2012: In March, the Insider reports Thohir, an Indonesian media executive who owns a stake of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers, is interested in partnering with Chang. Two months later, he meets the players. Thohir reportedly brings in another 76ers part-owner, Jason Levien, a former sports agent who has worked for the Democrats as a speechwriter, strategist and campaign consultant.
On Tuesday afternoon, in a rooftop lounge atop the W Hotel a block from the White House, Chang and Payne will introduce the new partners – a deal the organization hopes will secure United’s long-term future in Washington and lead to a new stadium.