As D.C. United on Tuesday took a long-awaited step into a new era of ownership, investor Jason Levien saved a moment during the announcement to observe his extended family.
Levien, a former NBA executive and player agent based in New York, will be the public face of the partners. The “grandfather” is Will Chang, a United owner for five years and the team’s sole investor since 2009. And Indonesian media magnate Erick Thohir, Levien gleefully pointed out, gets to be the “rich uncle.”
Together, the three co-owners hope to accomplish two primary goals: to find a permanent home for United and cultivate a global brand.
“I talked to many, many people who were interested in D.C. United,” Chang said. “But until I came across Jason and Eric, I didn’t have the comfort and the confidence that I had partners who shared the vision with me.”
While franchises across MLS have built modestly sized, state-of-the-art venues, United have languished at 50-year-old RFK Stadium, the organization’s cavernous home since its 1996 inception. The stops and starts in the club’s attempts to construct a new facility have been many.
United, who have signed a lease agreement with Events DC through 2013 to use federally owned RFK, are one of only three MLS teams that don’t play in a soccer-specific stadium and have no definitive plans for a new venue.
“At this point, the advantage that we have is that we’re bringing a fresh perspective to this,” said Levien, who cited proximity to public transportation as a key aspect of the stadium search. “So we want to move quickly, but I also want to move thoughtfully through it.”
Chang noted the franchise continues to explore Buzzard Point, a property in Southwest D.C. near Nationals Park, as one possible destination for the club while also acknowledging the assessment of venues outside the District.
Levien brought up the possibility of moving the team to Baltimore, where city officials have proposed a 25,000-seat stadium for United, but pointed out, “We’re D.C. United. That’s our name. That’s our brand.”
A former attorney with time served in the Clinton administration, Levien said he hopes to cut through the D.C. red tape “with a machete.”
“There are certainly going to be challenges in terms of D.C. politics, and we need to understand who are the right people to get behind this effort,” Levien added. “I think we know a lot of who those folks are.”
Levien, who lives in New York and carries deep ties to the D.C. area, will provide the team with a local presence in its stadium negotiations the way Chang, a San Francisco Giants minority owner based in Northern California, never could.
And Thohir, the vice president of Indonesia’s Olympic committee, will offer deep pockets for the club, which has been unable to contend with the big-budget Los Angeles Galaxy and New York Red Bulls for the services of global stars such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry.
While Thohir seems more than willing to open his checkbook under the right circumstances, he explained he also wants to build through the MLS SuperDraft and United’s youth academy, alluding to the league’s salary cap as one reason he invested in MLS rather than a European side.
“It doesn’t mean I don’t want to spend the money,” Thohir said. “But I’m a sport man. I want to spend the money, but I want to win the championship the right way - not just buying players. … There have to be more Americans because we play in the United States. We have to also contribute to the U.S. national team.”
Added United president Kevin Payne: “We’re really not going to have any restrictions on what we do. That doesn’t mean we’re going to rush out and do silly things and throw money around.”
Levien said that he and Thohir decided to pursue interests in MLS after they attended a Galaxy exhibition in Indonesia last fall that Thohir helped facilitate. When Levien met with coach Ben Olsen and members of the D.C. front office during the team’s preseason trip to Arizona in February, “We really hit it off,” Payne said.
“I really believe when you marry, it’s only one time,” Thohir said. “When you have partners, it has to be a long-term partnership. So chemistry in the partnership is very important.”