A local group that includes D.C. United President Kevin Payne is close to a deal to purchase the Major League Soccer team's operating rights from Colorado billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, soccer officials said yesterday.
Details of the negotiations have been kept quiet as talks intensified in recent weeks. But those close to the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said plans are in place to announce the sale within the month.
Payne was traveling yesterday after attending the MLS board of governors meetings at the Anschutz ranch outside Denver and wasn't available to comment. Doug Hicks, United's vice president for communications, had no comment.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the league is not prepared to make any announcements at this time and declined to discuss United's status.
The Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) runs five of MLS's 12 clubs, including United since early 2001, but company officials have expressed interest in concentrating their efforts on fewer teams. Under MLS's business structure, investors finance the league and are given the operating rights to specific teams.
AEG agreed to take over United's operations from MLS -- which served as caretaker following the collapse of Washington Soccer L.P. in the fall of 2000 -- until an outside group could be found. At the time, Garber said, "We certainly would have preferred a [new] investor assume the role that AEG has assumed."
Michael Roth, spokesman for AEG in Los Angeles, said yesterday that his company doesn't comment on speculation.
However, according to representatives from other Anschutz-run teams, AEG officials have told them that the United deal is all but done and would be announced shortly. The price is estimated at around $20 million. Investors who operate MLS's expansion teams, Dave Checketts of Real Salt Lake and Jorge Vergara of Los Angeles-based Chivas USA, paid a $10 million fee last year.
Payne was United's president when MLS was formed in 1996, but was hired to oversee AEG's soccer interests when the company took over the team four years ago. He returned to United's front office as president and chief executive officer in early 2004. Under the new operating team, Payne would remain in charge of United's front office.
United is MLS's most successful team, having won four league championships in nine years (1996-97, 1999 and 2004) and often representing MLS in international competitions.
It's unclear how the sale would impact AEG's and United's ongoing efforts to build a medium-sized stadium at Poplar Point in Southeast Washington, but those close to the situation said they believe Anschutz would remain involved with the proposed mixed-use complex near the Anacostia Metro station.
Stephen M. Green, the District's development director, said plans for a possible soccer-only stadium at Poplar Point are still moving forward. "[AEG] made us aware they were likely to sell the team, but that doesn't diminish their interest in the complex." He said United's "prospective owner has expressed interest" in the complex, too.
AEG operates several sports and entertainment venues, including Home Depot Center (where Anschutz's Los Angeles Galaxy plays) and Staples Center in the Los Angeles area; and the Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Another AEG team in MLS, the Chicago Fire, will move into its own stadium next summer.
AEG also operates the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and San Jose Earthquakes, although the company and MLS have been aggressively seeking a new investor to run the Earthquakes, who might end up moving to another city.
Anschutz, whose wealth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $5.8 billion, also owns the Examiner, a free Washington daily, and has trademarked the name in other cities.
Staff writer Annys Shin contributed to this report.