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Soccer’s visionary: Phil Anschutz

Soccer’s visionary: Phil Anschutz

BRUCE GOLDBERG

Published

Soccer experts admire what they say is Phil Anschutz’s ability to spot business opportunities well before others. Fortunately for soccer supporters, the Denver billionaire sees big opportunities for the game in the United States.

Phil Anschutz will be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on Aug. 27, and he will receive the sport’s highest honor — the Soccer Medal of Honor. He is only the fourth recipient of the honor, following Alan Rothenberg and Lamar Hunt (both on our list), and the 1991 U.S. women’s national team.
No one understands that better than Don Garber, commissioner of Major League Soccer.

“There’s no doubt that without Phil Anschutz, there’s no MLS today,” Garber said. “And without MLS, I don’t believe the sport of soccer overall would be a growing part of the American sports culture.”

The riches that Anschutz has provided to soccer, and his efforts to raise the sport’s profile and make it a viable business, make him the top pick in SportsBusiness Journal’s ranking of the 20 Most Influential People in Soccer.

Our ranking doesn’t look at global influence, which would include such key leaders as FIFA President Sepp Blatter, but at the key people who are building the game in North America, mainly in the United States. That’s where Anschutz is betting on the future.

“People have said that Phil Anschutz is a man who sees around corners, who can unlock hidden value in future opportunities,” Garber said. “His involvement in soccer is more than just a personal passion, not just something he likes because he loves the game. I believe it’s even more so because it’s a visionary, long-term strategic investment opportunity.”

Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Anschutz Entertainment Group, said: “People think he fell in love with soccer. I’m not sure where that myth got started. The reality is there is a passion as an entrepreneur to find things, ideas and companies that others don’t see, believe in or think would be successful.”

Anschutz’s belief in the sport is manifested in many ways, but chiefly through AEG’s ownership of four MLS teams: the Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, DC United and Chicago Fire. AEG formerly owned the New York-New Jersey MetroStars and Colorado Rapids.

Also, Anschutz has pushed for soccer-specific stadiums, believing they would lead to profitability. He didn’t develop the first soccer-specific stadium in the United States — Lamar Hunt earlier built one for the Columbus Crew in Ohio — but Anschutz expanded upon the concept with the Home Depot Center outside Los Angeles. The stadium’s 2003 opening enabled the Galaxy to become the first profitable MLS team.

Anschutz sees soccer-specific stadiums, such as
the Home Depot Center he developed for
his Los Angeles Galaxy, as the key to
MLS teams becoming profitable.
The Home Depot Center also serves as team training headquarters for the U.S. Soccer Federation, USA Cycling and U.S. Track and Field, and houses the U.S. Tennis Association’s High Performance National Training Center.

More soccer stadiums are coming: The Fire will move into a soccer-specific stadium this month; plans are under way for one in Washington and for the Rapids, who Anschutz sold to Kroenke Sports Enterprises. The Rapids’ stadium in Commerce City, just north of Denver, will be ready for the 2007 season.

“He’s the one that really set the tone that the stadiums are the key to the future of the league,” said Dr. Robert Contiguglia, former U.S. Soccer Federation president. “All the owners saw it, but he took the first steps. It’s estimated that by 2010, most of the league will be profitable, thanks to these stadiums.”

Leiweke said, “when the book is written on soccer in this country — and hopefully what will be the success, not just in creating a new league, but taking that sport, making it a predominant, viable and top-four league in this country — I think we’ll look back on our decision for soccer-specific stadiums and know it’s the turning point for our league and our sport.”

Anschutz advocated for creating a sales and marketing arm, Soccer United Marketing, which handles English-language broadcast rights for the World Cup, sells sponsorships and handles broadcast agreements for the U.S. Soccer Federation, markets MLS merchandise and more.

The reclusive Anschutz doesn’t grant interviews, so what you learn about him comes from those inside the soccer industry.

Anschutz (left) is joined by U.S. men’s soccer coach Bruce Arena (center) and MLS Commissioner Don Garber at an exhibition match in Washington, D.C.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said Anschutz’s contributions have been “extraordinary, overwhelming, appreciated. Those are the first three words that come to mind. Through the last decade, his influence and involvement has been nothing short of overwhelming.”

Former Rapids defender Marcelo Balboa played for Anschutz. “He’s a smart businessman, sees potential where others don’t see it,” said Balboa, who will be part of the World Cup broadcast teams for ABC-TV and ESPN. “Others didn’t see value and the growth of soccer; Anschutz and Lamar Hunt did. Now, stadiums are being built, teams are being sold, the games are on TV.”

It’s been said that Anschutz coveted Balboa after watching him make a bicycle kick against Colombia in the 1994 World Cup. Anschutz decided he wanted Balboa to play for the Rapids, and Balboa was glad to return to Colorado, where he previously played for the Colorado Foxes in the American Professional Soccer League.

Contiguglia said “it was incredibly significant and fortunate for the sport that Phil was involved, because his involvement — particularly with the MLS — created what I call a ‘positive perfect storm.’”

Apparently, Anschutz has done all this without using a heavy hand.

“He’s a man of quiet purpose, doesn’t speak a lot,” Garber said. “But when he speaks, everyone listens, from his partners to we in the league, because Phil cares about the game and has made a significant investment in the league. His only concern is how to make the league better.

“Though he owns multiple teams, he’s never tried to influence a team through his multiteam ownership, because he’s a man of tremendous integrity and understands it would be inappropriate for the long-term health of the league.”

Bruce Goldberg is associate editor at the Denver Business Journal, an affiliated publication.

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