William (Bill) McGuire, former CEO of UnitedHealth Care, will be announced by North American Soccer League Commissioner David Downs as the new owner of the Minnesota Stars FC professional soccer team on Thursday afternoon at a press conference held at Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis, Minn. The owners of the 7 other NASL teams have been footing the bill for the Stars the last two seasons in order for the league to have the eight required teams needed to operate a league which is governed by FIFA. The two-year reprieve also gave the Stars and NASL front office time to find new owners. It’s fitting that the NASL Commissioner will introduce the team’s new owner as it was Downs himself who made the initial connection with McGuire and his son-in-law Nick Rogers.
Rogers, who is from Maryland, met McGuire’s daughter Marissa while he went to law school at the U of M and the two were married several years ago. It was Marissa who got a call from David Downs several years ago probing to see if they knew anyone in Minnesota who would have interest in the Stars. Downs’ daughter and Marissa were roommates at Amherst College which is where the commissioner got to know her.
“Forward months and months and he asked again,” said McGuire who sat down to discuss the acquisition of the team with me on Tuesday afternoon. “We decided to look at it a little closer, think about it and try to understand how it might work.”
McGuire, who used the word “community” many times in the 30 minute interview, says he still wasn’t really interested himself but was just trying to see if he could help or promote the need for an owner. But at some point he started looking at it differently and asking questions. “The fundamental issue is: I believe that this is a good asset for the community. It’s built around the notion that soccer is clearly the largest sport in the world based on participation either playing or fan involvement. It’s multicultural and diverse. It spans all economics and it’s a “people’s” game. It’s the fastest growing sport in this country where other sports are actually falling in numbers. It’s also a significant sport for the state of Minnesota, particularly in the lower levels and in high school.”
The 64-year-old McGuire said not all the paperwork is even complete yet as the league needed a decision so they could move forward with their 2013 schedule. He says the parties have agreed in principle and it’s just a matter of finalizing the details.
McGuire and his wife Nadine have given donations in the tens of millions of dollars for items like the Bill and Nadine McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center. They built and maintain Gold Medal Park next to the Guthrie Theater where he is also active. Bill McGuire often seems to look for projects that have a great sense of “community.”
“I think that fits into the whole notion that it would be something that would be good to help promote in the community. If you have something that people can relate to, in this case pro sports, it could do a lot to develop and sustain growth at all levels,” McGuire said.
The New Yorker who grew up in Texas said the long soccer legacy in Minnesota (23 consecutive years) is another reason he felt compelled to step in and acquire the Stars. “It’s almost incomprehensible for me to think that you could have a professional team that a year ago wins the national championship and this year was in the final game and loses in a shoot out for the championship, and it’s struggling. It’s certainly performing, relative to its perception and involvement in the community, much lower than it ought to.”
Both McGuire and Rogers admit to being sports fans. McGuire, who still loves basketball, played the sport at a high level at a Texas high school and was even offered a college scholarship which he turned down to focus on school. In fact McGuire met his wife Nadine after the state championship basketball game. “At the time she was dating a player from the other team,” said McGuire with a smile, admitting losing the championship game but winning the real prize.
“I’m not saying everyone should play, but I think that sports is one of the important elements of growing up and learning things. There are disciplines and characteristics that grow out of sports,” McGuire explained.
Rogers, who played multiple sports when he was young, including a little youth soccer, also loves sports. But he says it was his brother who was a very good soccer goalkeeper. It was through him that Nick was reunited with the sport in the last several years. “We were watching this Red Bulls versus Galaxy game several years ago and was a really good game,” recalls Rogers. “My brother and I looked at each other and said there is something going on with MLS right now and American soccer that we should be paying attention to. That was the beginning of my real serious interest in pro soccer.”
The 30-year-old Rogers is an attorney by trade and will have a role with the team that is yet to be determined. He resigned from the law firm he had been working for just last week.
“Nick has some interest, knowledge and capabilities,” said McGuire. “We will look for something for him to do to be engaged along with some of the really good people that are there already. People always do well when they have an opportunity to participate in something that they care deeply about. This will be another test of that premise.”
Both McGuire and Rogers said they were aware Minnesota had a pro soccer team but didn’t know a lot beyond that. They have been catching up fast and talking to lots of Stars fans, including discussions they had with supporters at the team’s end of the season party at Brit’s Pub last Tuesday evening. McGuire and Rogers surprised both the Stars front office staff and fans by showing up at the event and asking questions about the team. McGuire says he believes in empowering people and states that he realized he doesn’t have all the answers himself.
“My experience tells me that there’s a lot of smart people out there and one is best served when you try to listen and coalesce their thoughts and I would say, “what do you think”?” Which is exactly what McGuire asks me when I question if they are happy with the Stars name or if they are thinking about a change. He then throws out a whole series of variations of the current name, which tells me they have indeed been thinking about future branding. But he says that decisions about such things would not be made this year but would instead be pushed off to the future. In fact McGuire made many remarks throughout the conversation that would show his commitment to the longevity of the Stars.
“I think the vision is, can we facilitate this sport, realizing its full potential relative to its value and what it might do in the community. It’s incomprehensible, whether it’s financial or fan base, performing as it currently is. The Stars have great loyal fans. They are wonderful. We were at that last home game and it was spectacular. But there should be ten times that amount of people there. We should be able to do better and help it. I don’t think I can necessarily do it better than someone else. But I believe in my ability to bring together people and help them look at things differently and possibly bring in some resources of different kinds because it’s a community wide opportunity.”
Here are some other comments from the interview.
Accessibility of the Stars to the average fan in a major league sports town
“I think one of the bigger challenges right now is this is a market that probably has more teams to attract than any other market in America except for New York. There is everything possible going on in every season. So I think it’s incumbent upon us to make it additive. Quite frankly, for a whole lot of people, it’s infinitely more accessible. Where else can you go and enjoy a Saturday evening for $12.00? You can’t hardly do a movie for that any more.”
On his contributions to the community
“We support the arts, we support education and we are supporting this. Soccer is arguably one of the most interesting things going on in the sports world because it’s growing so much.”
On the Vikings possibility of bringing in an MLS team
“I think the Vikings’ focus, and quite frankly as it should be, is on building the stadium. I don’t think it’s worth speculation quite frankly. I don’t look at this as a battle between potential MLS versus the Stars. I look at it as the here and now. This is a professional team that plays at a high level and has a fan base and I believe will build even a bigger fan base. The notional idea that the only glory out there is a MLS team I think is not worth spending much energy on. If this team does well and finds its fanbase things will work out for the best. I don’t think that the pot at the end of the rainbow is a different team. I think it’s a good soccer program in the state and frankly we think it already is. I’m just not going to spend too many minutes speculating what might happen down the road.”
Manny Lagos and Djorn Buchholz
“With a reasonable amount of certainty we think that Manny [Lagos] will be with the team and Djorn [Buchholz] will be with the team. They are both very talented individuals. Perhaps more importantly to me, to supplement their talent, they have a deep affection for the team, the sport and the community. To me, the way I think, those are not easily replaceable assets. It’s easier to find people who understand soccer than people that actually care about the community. I think we will endeavor to make sure they are involved and I know they want to be involved.”
Where the team will play in 2013
“I think we have a couple of venues that are obvious. We have Blaine at the National Sports Center. We certainly see ourselves continuing to participate up there and play, hopefully in front of a whole lot more people. The Metrodome has been used before and I don’t think that’s out of the question. I think we are trying to sort out venues, not just type or style but location. What would present the best opportunity to attract people. So those are the two most obvious places and I don’t think it’s out of the question to see both of them utilized. We clearly have the most glorious summers. Who wouldn’t rather play in a Minnesota summer than a Texas summer? Having grown up in Texas, I tell you that’s is not even a close contest. When you get to April that’s a different deal. It wouldn’t be sensible to jump around too many place for every game.”
Eventually moving the team to Minneapolis
“I don’t think that’s decided. We need to figure out how to make the team most accessible to the community broadly. That’s: geographic reach, demographic, ethnicity. There are just a whole lot of things to consider and we have a lot of work to do on that yet. But we want to position the team where it would be most accessible to most people. But there is no question we will be involved with the National Sports Center this year at some level.”
Fans’ financial expectations of McGuire
“I think you can expect us to support the team in ways that it needs to be supported to be successful. I’m not a believer in throwing money at things and it will all be better. For years the Twins had a reputation for developing young talent. Our opportunity is to spend our time and energy to make the business, from a business standpoint, most successful. But if we put out a good product we will certainly be more successful. But no entity, no matter how altruistic, can go on losing that money year after year and expect to survive. And quite frankly it shouldn’t. If you can’t figure out how to do something that people value, then quite frankly, we should put that energy somewhere else.”
Long term goals
“One is for the players to represent soccer to the youth players in the state. I want to get the players more engaged in the community.”
“It’s a sport where you play to compete but you also play to win and we are going to want to win.”
“Obviously we want it to be a successful enterprise. But how do you define success? This is not something you are going to get rich off of. But if we can make this a viable year-to-year growing entity — I want to see 8 to 10 thousand people at those games next year. It’s incomprehensible to me that this team performed the way it performed two years in a row and we don’t get more involvement and attention — including the media. Then San Antonio comes along and in one year is drawing 8 to 10 thousand people a game average. That’s nuts! They are doing something and we have got to figure out how to do it. I don’t think its for a lack of interest in soccer. The trends are too strong world wide. We just have to figure out to make people aware of it and the enjoyment of experience.”
The Stars press conference will take place on Thursday afternoon Nov. 8, at 3:00 p.m. at Brit’s Pub, 1110 Nicollet Mall; Minneapolis, Minn. The public is encouraged to attend and the team will also have an update about plans for the 2013 season. They will also be accepting $50 season ticket deposits at the event for those wishing to commit early for the 2013 season.