By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 17, 2020) US Soccer Players - On Monday, NBA star Kevin Durant officially became a minority investor/operator of the Philadelphia Union, purchasing 5% of the team. Per Union majority investor/operator Jay Sugarman, the Union is worth $325 million, putting Durant's stake at $16.25 million. Durant also holds an option to purchase an additional 5% of the team in the future.
"I've been a fan of the sport, and then seeing how fast the popularity of the league was growing, seeing more fans pop up in different cities around the country, and then seeing how these franchises impact the city's businesses and people individually was very intriguing," Durant told ESPN.
Durant follows fellow NBA stars LeBron James and James Harden into soccer club ownership. James owns a small piece of Liverpool Football Club in England, while Harden invested in the Houston Dynamo last year.
Like the Dynamo with Harden coming on board, the Union made sure to stress the star power joining its ownership group. League and team social media highlighted Durant's belief in the sport. As one of the best basketball players on the planet, he brings with him a cachet that MLS often lacks, especially in American sporting circles.
There's no denying Durant's star power. There's a reasonable chance that his name is better known, even in Philadelphia, than the Union brand itself. While MLS has grown leaps and bounds in recent years, it remains a niche product off-the-radar of most sports fans in America.
Durant's arrival as a Union owner helps the club and, by extension, MLS crossover into the mainstream sports conversation. For at least a day, talking heads and radio hosts paid a modicum of attention to America's top soccer league when discussing Durant's move into ownership. Even a passing mention represents value gained for Philadelphia, especially in a town that tends to treat the Union as a humorous afterthought.
Harden's purchase of a share of the Dynamo generated similar headlines last July. Harden posed with a Dynamo jersey bearing his name and number. He delivered similar quotes to those made by Durant, though he notably didn't claim to be a longtime fan of the sport. The Dynamo squeezed some internet-ready content out of Harden's investment, posting pictures of the team roster with every player sporting a Harden-style beard.
There's no hard and fast level of involvement for taking a minority stake in an MLS club. The celebrity factor increases the scrutiny, but in big picture terms it's the investment itself that matters. If Harden chooses to use his celebrity to promote soccer and the Dynamo, that represents a bonus for the club.
MLS is in a unique position as an investment opportunity for celebrities in general. Because MLS is an up-and-coming league with a strong presence in several major markets, it's an attractive opportunity for wealthy celebrities and athletes who can afford to acquire a small portion of a club. It's a change in scope from Michael Jordan buying an NBA team or Magic Johnson part of the investment group that owns the LA Dodgers.
Johnson is also a minority owner of LAFC. He's part of a group of MLS celebrity investor/operators that includes the likes of Durant, Harden, Oscar De La Hoya (another minority owner of the Dynamo), Russell Westbrook (part of the celebrity-laden group that took control of the Seattle Sounders last year), Will Ferrell (LAFC), and Matthew McConaughey (Austin FC), among others who have thrown their support behind soccer in the United States.
Soccer has cache. More popular with young people than with their elders, it's a global sport that connects MLS investors to a network that reaches around the world. MLS may not hold an elevated position in the planetary hierarchy of leagues, but that doesn't mean it sits outside of the soccer community. When it comes to the value of an MLS investment, access to the halls of that power is part of the appeal.
Durant sounds earnest about his desire to not just help soccer grow and turn the Union into a powerhouse franchise, but aid the Chester community where the Union plays. A firm he runs with sports agent Rich Kleiman, Thirty Five Ventures, will work within the community through Durant's charity foundations. There are other celebrity owners in MLS with charitable foundations, a potential source of involvement that is worth stressing.
Sports ownership is unique as an investment. Unlike most businesses, there's a public-facing participatory element available. In some cases, MLS has benefited from celebrities who bought fully into being investor-fans. There's only so much a minority investor can do in MLS, but going to the games and supporting the team is always valuable.
Considering where MLS sits in the American sports conversation, MLS and the Union likely hope for a bit more than that. Soccer may be on the rise, with MLS both fueling it and benefiting from it. Still, this is a league that needs its celebrity support.
More From Jason Davis:
- MLS is back, but it's not going to be normal
- What Alphonso Davies means to Canada
- The rest of Liverpool's title run
- Paying attention to USMNT players in the Bundesliga
Logo courtesy of the Philadelphia Union