- The Washington Times - Friday, September 17, 2004

Anschutz Entertainment Group, operator of D.C. United, is fielding offers to sell its rights to the club as part of an overall effort to reduce its mammoth profile in Major League Soccer.

The behind-the-scenes efforts, in development for several months, were disclosed at a recent meeting of the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission.

Board member Jack Mahoney said ongoing discussions to build a soccer-specific stadium in the city might ultimately involve “new interests that would take ownership of D.C. United.”

United president Kevin Payne, formerly head of AEG Soccer and still close to the Los Angeles-based group, confirmed the sales effort. But he added there is no target date for a deal, and no announcement of a sale is imminent.

“There have been conversations with different parties over time that have had some interest in acquiring our rights,” Payne said. “But it is something that has to happen properly and in the proper time.”

AEG executives declined to comment. But over the past year, executives for both MLS and AEG have agreed the best interests of the league lie in broadening the investor base and reducing the influence of Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, who at one point controlled six of 10 MLS clubs.

While Anschutz’s commitment to professional soccer in America is obvious, the sheer size of his holdings also has heightened criticism of MLS.

The company currently operates United, the (New York/New Jersey) MetroStars, Los Angeles Galaxy, Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes and last year sold the rights to the Colorado Rapids to Stan Kroenke, owner of the Colorado Avalanche and Denver Nuggets.

AEG also is reviewing bids for the Earthquakes. But with that team still struggling considerably to get a foothold among Bay Area fans and possibly moving to San Antonio or Houston, the effort has taken on considerably more urgency than selling United’s operating rights.

United has always enjoyed a steady if not spectacular level of fan support and this season is enjoying a resurgence at the turnstiles due to the arrival of teen phenom Freddy Adu.

“Strategically, it makes a lot of sense to have AEG not run five teams,” Payne said.

AEG acquired the operating rights to United in February 2001.

Since MLS operates in a single-entity structure, investors acquire the operating rights to individual franchises and the equity stays at the league level.

Meanwhile, Payne and AEG executives continue to a formulate a proposal for a soccer-specific stadium it will present sometime this fall to the D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission. Poplar Point in Southeast remains the focus of energies among both parties, though RFK Stadium’s parking lot No.8 is a possibility.

Both sides are aiming for a deal that would allow the new stadium, with a capacity of about 25,000, to open in time for the 2007 season.

More pressing, however, is the state of United should the Washington area land the Montreal Expos. If either the District or Northern Virginia wins the baseball relocation derby, the team would play for three seasons at RFK Stadium. The entry of baseball would take some prime seats for soccer, as well as place basepaths through the currently pristine soccer pitch.

A recent lease extension for United contains some provisions to help govern the sharing of RFK Stadium by United and a baseball team. But Payne said he is awaiting more information from the sports commission about its specific intentions about maintaining field conditions for both soccer and baseball. One option might be to put trays of sod over the basepaths for soccer games.

“This is a big issue for us,” he said. “There’s no question we will be damaged commercially by this [because of the removal of seating for soccer]. But we are very concerned about the field conditions and the safety of our players.”

Payne said he remains hopeful of a solution for the RFK situation. But he isn’t fully enthused about the prospect of baseball in greater Washington.

“I think we’ve been a lot more respectful of the sports commission than has Major League Baseball,” he said.

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