Lamar Hunt, Columbus Crew owner(L), Philip Anschutz, DC United owner ( R)
Much has been written about US billionaires looking overseas for investments in soccer clubs. Across the pond, English League clubs are being eagerly sought after. Randy Lerner, the chairman of MBNA and owner of the Cleveland Browns was recently in the news with his offer to buy out financially troubled EPL team Aston Villa. And of course, we have Malcolm Glazer, the real estate merchant and owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who owns Manchester United and is the source of much angst amongst Mancs.
However, closer to home, the efforts to keep the domestic league, the MLS afloat since the league began 1996, is entirely the story of two soccer mad billionaires, Lamar Hunt, the oilman and owner of the Kansas City Chiefs and Philip Anschutz, the chairman of the Anschutz group, an oil and technology entrepreneur. These two have pumped more than $100 million of their own money to keep the MLS going.
Their efforts have paid off and now MLS is being flooded by more than a billion dollars in investments in new stadium construction, sponsorships, and new franchises. The Red Bulls are building a 25, 000 soccer only stadium, at Harrison, NJ. Seven other new MLS stadiums are being built, including the Home Depot Center, Pizza Hut Park in Dallas and the $100 million, publicly funded Bridgeview Stadium near Chicago, that are purpose-built for MLS teams. A new franchise in Toronto is in the works. By 2010, the MLS believes that there will be 16 teams up from the present 12. Adidas kicked in $150 million to become the league’s sole uniform supplier, in part to hold off Nike. MLS is close to a new television-rights deal with ABC/ESPN, one in which it will actually get money for its games, instead of having to buy the time from the networks and hope to sell it.
Lamar Hunt owns the Kansas City Wizards, Columbus Crew, and he recently bought Dallas FC. He was also one of the founders of the old North American Soccer League (NASL), and owned the Dallas Tornado. The Tornados won the NASL title in 1971. Philip Anschutz is the owner of the LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamos, Chicago Fire, and the the league leading DC United. Between the two of them, they own seven out of the 12 teams. Recently, the Anshutz Entertainment Group sold the NY Metrostars (now called the Red Bull NY) to the Red Bull group for more than $100 million. The Anschutz group also owns Swedish soccer club Hammarby. Ironically, Hammarby is often regarded as, in a historical sense, being the ‘team of the workers’ of the poorer southern parts of early 20th century Stockholm.
But the beginnings of the new MLS league were fraught with uncertainties of the future of soccer in the US. Bob Cohn in 1999, questioned Lamar Hunt’s wisdom in buying the Columbus Crew and the Kansas City Rapids. MLS games were averaging less than 15,000 fans per game. ABC, ESPN, and Univision paid just $5 million to telecast MLS games, a pittance in the tens of billions sports media market. However, Lamar Hunt was famous for taking risks, like he did when he started American Football League, a little known football league nearly 50 years ago. It changed the face of American football when it merged with the National Football League. Nowadays football franchises are worth almost a billion dollars.
Hunt invested $28 million on constructing a state of the art soccer stadium, the first of its kind, in the US. It is a 22, 500 seater, much more fan friendly than the huge 75,000 football stadiums that soccer is usually played in. It also had a million dollar jumbo scoreboard, a “Wreck Room” for kids, a 8000 sq foot video arcade, and a plaza for local bands. At that time Hunt said, ” Soccer has succeeded. What we’ve got to do now is make sure a professional league succeeds…. One stadium is not going to make a sport. But I think the result we will produce will have an impact.”
Lamar Hunt’s service to developing the sport of soccer in the US was acknowledged in 1999 when , the US Open Club competition, the oldest and most prestigious soccer competition in US soccer was renamed the Lamar Hunt US Open Club competition. The Lamar Hunt US Open competition is much like the British FA Cup, in that it is open to all clubs registered with the USSF, from amateur adult club teams to the professional MLS teams.
US Soccer is indebted to these two soccer mad businessmen and keen sports enthusiasts.