By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
MLS Commissioner Don Garber was in a hospitality tent outside Berlin's Olympic Stadium last July, awaiting the start of the World Cup championship game between Italy and France, when D.C. United President Kevin Payne introduced him to San Francisco real estate executive Victor MacFarlane.
Garber was aware of MacFarlane's interest in purchasing United's operating rights and investing in MLS, and was eager to finally speak to him. The 11-year-old league had spent years trying to find new backers for its most successful team and had been embarrassed by the collapse of a supposed deal involving other principals last year.
"My first words to him were, 'Victor, I want to know you care about this team and this sport,' " Garber recalled yesterday following a news conference introducing MacFarlane as the lead investor in D.C. United Holdings, which purchased the team from Anschutz Entertainment Group for $33 million.
"He said, 'Commissioner, I do a lot of different deals, and the only one I care about right now is this one right here,' " Garber said. "That is what I needed to hear."
MacFarlane, 55, has been joined by former Duke basketball player Brian Davis, a District native whose partners in his North Carolina real estate firm include former Washington Wizard Christian Laettner; and William Chang, a principal partner with the San Francisco Giants who has worked with MacFarlane on Bay Area projects.
The group is also in discussions with Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks, a pioneer in women's pro soccer who financed the Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County; Allen Warren, president of a Sacramento-based real estate company; and Carlos Watson, who created a educational counseling company and now works for Black Entertainment Television and CNN.
"It was a short conversation, but they hit if off," Payne said of the meeting between MacFarlane and Garber in Berlin. "You could tell Don was impressed and that this had a good chance of happening."
Payne, who oversaw the formation of the group and will have a financial stake in the team, will remain in charge of the club's front office. He said he first met MacFarlane last March at councilman Marion Barry's birthday party. Soon thereafter, they met to discuss the United investment.
"He's an impressive guy and a smart businessman," Payne said. "He takes a broad view and is a strategic thinker."
D.C. United Holdings will not own the team -- the league owns all 13 teams and awards operating rights to investors -- but will play a major role in whether the club is able to build a 27,000-seat stadium at Poplar Point in Anacostia in time for the 2009 season. City officials have publicly backed the project, but many hurdles, including financing, remain unresolved.
"Obviously, the team needs a new stadium and a new place to play," MacFarlane said. "We're going to be kicked out of RFK sooner or later, so that's one of the things we will be focused on immediately."
MacFarlane's arrival in MLS also strengthens the league's investor base. He joins, among others, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Colorado billionaire Philip Anschutz, whose sports and entertainment company, AEG, runs teams in Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles, and had been in charge of United for five years.
MacFarlane also becomes the first black major investor in the league.
"Soccer is the number one sport for people of color around the world but not here in the U.S. -- yet," MacFarlane said. "We want to be part of the change that is now on the horizon. We would love to help soccer become the sport that African Americans and other children of color first look to for recreation and entertainment."
Davis, who graduated from Bladensburg High and lives in Northwest, is also black. Chang has Chinese and Japanese ancestry.
MacFarlane Partners is the largest minority-owned real estate management firm in the country and has been involved in projects around the country, including the Southeast Federal Center in the District.
While MacFarlane's business prowess is vast, his soccer background is limited. He said his five children played soccer and he served as a coach one year -- "much to their dismay," he said with a laugh.
His son, Paul, was enrolled in the intensive soccer residency program at IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., and father and son traveled together to the World Cup last summer in Germany. MacFarlane is still learning about United, though; he mispronounced the names of new coach Tom Soehn and one of the players in attendance.
Through business and community endeavors, MacFarlane's ties to the Washington area have grown stronger in recent years. (In addition, one of his daughters attends the University of Virginia.)
"When D.C. United became available, it just seemed like such a logical step, and I took it," he said. "We believe our best investment was not just buying any team, but the premier team in the league and in the premier city in the league."