D.C. United’s quest for a new stadium has spanned a decade, upended by political obstacles, land issues and insufficient funds. But with the introduction of Erick Thohir and Jason Levien into the investment group Tuesday, the MLS club strengthened its case and financial muscle in efforts to build a facility in the city.
Thohir, an Indonesian media and entertainment magnate, has partnered with remaining investor Will Chang to provide the cash infusion needed to bankroll a medium-size stadium and mixed-use development, preferably at Buzzard Point in Southwest Washington.
Levien’s monetary stake in the club is considerably smaller, but with legal and government experience, he will play an equally critical role: navigating the turbulent political, business and real estate waters of Washington.
The group made it clear at the very start of Tuesday’s news conference that a new stadium is the top priority.
“We see a pathway and we also know we’re going to have to use our machete to get there,” said Levien, who practiced law for Williams & Connolly and served as a Democratic speechwriter, consultant and strategist before entering the sports industry.
“We know there are going to be some hurdles along the way and we’re excited and energized to take them on.”
United made its introductory pitch to an important audience. Among those packed into a lounge atop the W Hotel near the White House were city government and sports officials as well as representatives from the real estate industry.
“We are ready [financially], but of course it is business,” Thohir said. “We want a good location for the fans. If we have a stadium two hours from here, maybe it’s not D.C. United.”
United continues to rent RFK Stadium, a 51-year-old structure that is too large and antiquated for United’s needs. Most of MLS’s 19 teams play in new or renovated stadiums. United officials say playing at RFK is no longer economically feasible and a new facility is needed to keep the team in Washington.
In recent years, the club has commissioned concept plans and economic studies for a stadium seating between 20,000 and 24,000 at Buzzard Point, a largely undeveloped area near the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.
Plans also include a public and commercial development linking the soccer stadium to Nationals Park, four blocks east. A soccer venue would also help the city fulfill its vision of tying the Southwest and Southeast waterfronts from Maine Avenue to the baseball park.
United has suggested paying for the entire project, should the city agree to help pay for land acquisition, infrastructure and tax incentives. Other MLS teams have used similar formulas in striking deals with local jurisdictions. United has also explored an option in Baltimore, which has proposed constructing a stadium in the Westport neighborhood near the city’s football and baseball venues.
“I want to move quickly but I want to move thoughtfully and evaluate what those options are,” Levien said. “We don’t want to take anything off the table, but knowing our heritage,” remaining in Washington appears to be the priority.
With Thohir based in Indonesia and Chang in San Francisco, Levien and longtime club president Kevin Payne will work the local channels.
“Jason has a clear mandate from Erick and I to pursue opportunities,” said Chang, United’s lone investor since buying out Victor MacFarlane three years ago.
Said Levien: “The ball starts rolling in 15 minutes. In terms of a timeline, there is a lot to work out. . . . There can be challenges in D.C. politics, and we need to understand who are the right people to touch and who are the right people to get behind this effort.”
A breakdown of each investor’s stake in the club wasn’t released, but sources close to the situation said Thohir and Chang are about equal.
Thohir, 42, and Levien, 40, are part-owners of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers. Chang, 56, owns a piece of Major League Baseball’s San Francisco Giants.
Levien, who has homes in Washington, New York and Miami, shared a recent conversation among the group.
With the agreement, they laughed, Chang became the grandfather of United. “And then Erick chimed in,” Levien recounted, “and said, ‘Well, I am going to be the rich uncle!’”
As for daily operations, the club announced Payne and all other front office staff would continue in their positions.
With improved finances, Chang said expansion of United’s global brand is within reach.
“In order for us to be able to do that, we have to win championships,” he said. “And we have to win championships with marquee players.”
To this point, United hasn’t had the means to sign someone like Los Angeles’s David Beckham or New York’s Thierry Henry. With United tied for first place in the Eastern Conference and the investment group just beginning to settle in, a major international signing this summer does seem unlikely.
However, Chang added: “We’ve talked about [acquiring big-name players] extensively. We have to invest in the quality of the product. We want to recreate the dynasty D.C. United had in the ’90s, and we are fully committed.”