D.C. United majority owner Erick Thohir agrees to sell stake in club

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/soccer-insider/wp/2018/04/10/d-c-u
BYby Steven Goff
April 10
D.C. United midfielder Ulises Segura, right, battles Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe during an MLS game last month. D.C. majority owner Erick Thohir has agreed to sell his stake in the club. (Todd Kirkland/AP)
D.C. United midfielder Ulises Segura, right, battles Atlanta United midfielder Darlington Nagbe during an MLS game last month. D.C. majority owner Erick Thohir has agreed to sell his stake in the club. (Todd Kirkland/AP)

Erick Thohir has agreed to sell his majority stake in D.C. United to partner Jason Levien, who, in turn, has begun assembling a group to invest in the MLS organization, sources said Monday night.

Thohir, an Indonesian businessman who has been United’s general partner since July 2012, owns 78 percent of the team’s operating rights. However, he has been seeking to divest for more than a year.

Bloomberg reported that billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong — a transplant surgeon turned entrepreneur and philanthropist who in February purchased the Los Angeles Times — is buying into Levien’s group. A source close to the talks said that, while Levien and Soon-Shiong have been in regular contact, the new group is likely to have several investors and might still include Thohir.

Levien’s 22 percent stake in the team is likely to rise to a point where, in a diversified group, he might become the largest shareholder. Even if he is not, Levien is expected to maintain his active role in the team’s operations.

Reached by phone late Monday, Levien said he did not want to comment. Thohir, who lives in Jakarta, was not available. MLS Commissioner Don Garber did not reply to an email.

In a written statement, United said it has been “evaluating different strategic opportunities to add to our ownership” and did not want to comment “on any specific potential investment.”

Because of the sensitivity of the matter, people familiar with United’s situation said they would speak only if their names weren’t used.

In a notice posted Friday, the Federal Trade Commission listed an acquisition involving Soon-Shiong and Thohir that also included Black Eagle Investment Group, which is run by Levien. No other details were given. However, such listings are required by law when a potentially lucrative deal is being discussed and do not necessarily mean a transaction is imminent.

Soon-Shiong, 65, is a minority owner in the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.

Thohir has been the money man behind United while Levien has served as the face of the investment group. They have committed about $250 million to build Audi Field, a 20,000-capacity stadium near Nationals Park that will open this summer. (The city contributed $150 million.)

United is also entering a partnership with Loudoun County to build a training facility in Leesburg. The project would also include a 5,000-seat stadium for D.C.’s second-division pro team.

Over time, sources said, Thohir’s interest in United has waned and, because of the distance from home, he rarely visits the team. A year after investing in United, he acquired a controlling stake of Italian club Inter Milan. By 2016, however, he had sold his majority share.

Levien, meanwhile, spends most of his time in Washington and is a regular presence at matches and at the stadium construction site. He works closely with Tom Hunt, United’s president of business operations, and is in regular contact with General Manager Dave Kasper and Coach Ben Olsen.

Levien is “emotionally attached, loves the team and isn’t going anywhere,” one source said. He also owns a share of Swansea City, a Premier League club.

Last summer, Forbes ranked United as the 11th most-valuable organization in MLS at $230 million among the 20 teams active in 2016. (The league now has 23 teams.) The Los Angeles Galaxy was No. 1 at $315 million, followed by the Seattle Sounders ($295 million) and Toronto FC ($280 million).

With Audi Field opening soon, United’s value is expected to increase this year.

United had revenue of $25 million in 2016 but lost $1 million overall, Forbes said. Eleven other MLS teams were also in the red. One source said the team lost closer to $10 million last year.