Dr. Bill McGuire, who built UnitedHealth Group into the colossus it is, strolled his newly finished Allianz Field on a recent Friday in his role as majority owner and managing partner of the Minnesota United Football Club. He walked with members of the Pohlad family, who are investors in the team, then took photos with season-ticket holders. Allianz, located in St. Paul, is the latest entrant in the Twin Cities stadium wars and it will surely garner rave reviews for its innovative design and intimacy. Soccer is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., and the privately financed stadium and team may one day be worth a lot more; but for the time being, McGuire owns a relatively modest sports business in a league with bigger financial aspirations than short-term returns. We spoke with McGuire from a broadcast booth overlooking the pitch, where we discussed the economics of soccer and his goals for its future.
Twin Cities Business: Tell me about the origins of your interest in soccer.
Dr. Bill McGuire: It’s a derivative of an interest in sports and an interest in the community. Soccer I knew almost nothing about, but I knew a lot about sports — not just the entertainment component, but the things you learn by competing and sharing things with other people.
We’re part of the community and have been for a long time, and our children [are] as well and I saw that continuing. … Soccer is the world’s game and represents something that should be present in this community.
TCB: What is it about this game that’s different?
BM: The team and the fans are almost integrated. It’s not artificial. There’s nobody telling you when to cheer and what to say, “Use this slogan now.”
It’s a concise game. You play for 45 minutes, take a 15-minute break, play another 45, and it’s over. [Fans] don’t get up and leave during play. There’s amazing athleticism. Players running 4, 5, 7 miles in a game. It’s a team sport, it’s not a game where one player will win it; it gives you a much greater chance than a game with one or two superstars. It has no barriers — sex, age, gender, ethnicity, beliefs. It’s open and accessible. The great players grow up picking up a soccer ball at age 2.
TCB: It’s the world’s game and very much a blue-collar sport elsewhere. But in North America it’s more of a bourgeois pastime. Why?
BM: I know where you’re coming from and that’s about the business of youth soccer. Most sports now have a business around youth sports. But I disagree — in our cities there are kids kicking around soccer balls.
TCB: How did you become part of this? Was there a key individual or event that brought that about?
BM: David Downs was commissioner of the North American Soccer League at the time and he was trying to find a buyer because they were going to shut the [Minnesota] Stars down. He had asked me through my daughter if we had interest and we said “no.” And then he came back a year later and we went to a game together in Blaine, and I must say I was taken aback by the relationship between the fans and the team and how organic it was. I went to a second game and started thinking about it — how can we have this here and let it go away? How can we, if we consider ourselves an international community and we have all these interests in acceptance and diversity?
So I said, “We’ll do it.” But that was thinking about it on a very different scale. It’s like the dog catches up to the bus and says, “Now what do I do?”
TCB: Did you feel like you were jumping on a moving train?
BM: I didn’t know enough at the time to feel that way. I didn’t do a lot of due diligence.
TCB: So the initial investment was modest?
BM: Yes. At least until you start operating the team. Like all things, if you want to do better and have something to be proud of, you have to step up and do a little more and it started creeping up. Pretty quick we were drawing [up to] 10,000 people to games, when it used to be a couple hundred. So that felt right and then Major League Soccer decided it wanted to come to town and have a place in the Twin Cities. They saw it as a big soccer market, and we had to make a decision whether we wanted to participate.
TCB: What were the criteria you weighed?
BM: Well, there were multiple cities bidding and multiple parties bidding here in the Twin Cities. Sacramento was a competitor. The Wilfs were a competitor, with the new U.S. Bank Stadium.
TCB: What was MLS looking for from Minneapolis/St. Paul?
BM: They were looking for commitment, attachment to the game itself, not just a facility.
TCB: The Twin Cities seemed like a no-brainer for MLS, given the market sizes they are in.
BM: Well, it wasn’t just market size but market vitality toward the sport. We put together a great ownership group whose commitment is evident in the things they have already done in [the] sport. We have a long history in soccer, great companies here that support sports, [and a] sizable TV market. It’s a great sports town.
TCB: Measured how?
BM: By history and the story you tell with data. In August of 1976, some 40,000 turned out at Met Stadium for a Kicks game.
TCB: Let’s talk about this ownership group. It’s an all-star team of local sports and business investors — Pohlad, Carlson, Taylor, and others. How did that happen?
BM: I went and asked. I told them what it’s about. They made their own decisions about what they saw. Every one of them looked into the future and said, “This is good for our community, and I want to be a part of it.” And that’s what makes this ownership group so great. There are 16 in total.
TCB: And you are the managing partner?
BM: Yes. But if we didn’t have the group, we wouldn’t have [any of] this.
TCB: When the whistle blows on the first home game in April, what will the total investment be?
BM: The franchise cost $100 million. The stadium is $250 million of our money; no public dollars. And there’s been money spent on other things — [the] training facility, operations. That’s another $50 million. Every one of us is fortunate to be in a position to participate. They did it because of the next generation and the generation after that.
TCB: This field is in its present location because Mayor Betsy Hodges basically told you to get lost. Did you expect to encounter the resistance that you did?
BM: Probably not. How often do you walk in and say, “We’d like to put $400 million of private money into the community,” and they say, “No, we don’t want it”? Especially when you understand the economic impact connected to sports franchises. We were aware of the noise from the prior stadiums that have been built and the public money involved.
TCB: So you were paying for the sins of other efforts? There was almost an irrational aspect to it.
TCB: If it had been today, the response from the city might have been different.
TCB: Was Midway always the fallback?
BM: We looked at about 30 sites. Accessibility was the big consideration — centrally located for a lot of people. Blaine is inaccessible for people without a car. Here in Midway we have LRT, the [rapid] bus line, and the freeway.
TCB: Was there another site as closely considered as the two that were more public?
BM: Bloomington near the Mall of America. Light rail is there. It’s a progressive city. There were some issues relative to the flight patterns [of nearby MSP airport] that we could not settle efficiently. Most of the others were not urban enough. We did not want to reproduce a stadium with acres of parking around it. We wanted to think forward, not backward.
TCB: What was the nature of the public investment?
BM: Here, the public investment is infrastructure around the building; the stormwater system. But we even paid extra to put in better streetlights.
TCB: How are the economics different in MLS than other pro sports?
BM: It’s a totally different animal. There are very small media rights. The things fueling the NBA, MLB, and their astronomical salaries don’t exist. It’s a basic P&L of revenue in the door. The league has been public that it’s challenging to make money. You have a modest stadium. It’s pretty easy to do the math: Ticket revenue, concessions, sponsors.
It’s a totally different animal. There are very small media rights. The things fueling the NBA, MLB, and their astronomical salaries don’t exist. It’s a basic P&L of revenue in the door. The league has been public that it’s challenging to make money. It’s pretty easy to do the math: ticket revenue, concessions, sponsors.
TCB: Where is the short-term upside for an ownership group?
BM: If you’re trying to justify it on an economic basis, you don’t want to do it. It’s not like owning a stock. It’s more of an asset appreciation and franchise value [play]. Short term, you’re stuck in an expense/revenue world.
TCB: Is this the kind of sport where you can spend your way to championships?
BM: Theoretically, but there are a lot of human variables that make it difficult in this league. We’ve seen people spend a lot of money and not do very well. But Atlanta did that last year and did do well. There have been 10 different champions in the last 12 years.
TCB: Is there an issue getting free agents to come here? I always sense in MLB and the NBA that in this market, the climate and location is an impediment. You have a lot of international players. This is an obscure city to them.
BM: At United [Health Group, where McGuire was CEO], we never had problems, and once they got here, they loved it. I don’t think there’s a general barrier. There may be some players at a certain stage of their career who don’t want to be in a Midwestern midsize market.
[Swedish footballer Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, a legendary player, a superstar, came to LA Galaxy. It’s unlikely he would have come to Minneapolis. He benefits from being in that large LA marketplace. There will always be that.
TCB: Is the goal to bring soccer to a level that is the equal of the rest of the world, or is that not really a requirement for pro soccer to become established here?
BM: MLS can’t be the Premier League. To say that it isn’t as good as the top teams in the Premier League, well, one team is spending $500 million on payroll and the other $10 million, a league getting $6 billion in TV rights compared to one getting $100 million. People like to watch Liverpool and Manchester City because they are seeing the absolute best players. But that’s different than saying my heart or my passion is with that team. There are as many people that are passionate about Burnley or Stoke in their heart and soul. Do you not watch them because Lionel Messi is not on the field? You watch both, because you love the sport. So the aspiration is to play great soccer, to make it a great experience for the fans. What can we do to get people to care about it?
TCB: A lot of U.S. soccer fans have allegiances to teams around the world or in their home countries. Is it your sense that the bulk of MN United fans have that, or are most new to the game?
BM: I think the bulk of them are local, and we’re going to be their first love.
TCB: Let’s talk about this new stadium. It looks big from the outside but it’s quite intimate inside.
BM: One of the things that makes this a great piece of architecture is that it is aesthetically beautiful. It’s beautiful when there are no fans and it will be beautiful when it’s full. The design evokes the river, flowing water. The skin is [designed] to resemble the northern lights. It is intimate and it was built to be that way—full size, on grass, outdoors, but bring the fans in. The farthest distance anywhere is 125 feet from field of play. There are no bad sightlines. We sunk it to lower its profile; it’s only 77 feet above ground. It keeps the scale down compared to the surrounding area.
TCB: There are remnants of the grungy strip mall that previously occupied the site still in operation. To what extent is this a temporary eyesore or the permanent state?
BM: This is an urban site. The idea is to have things that enhance the area. Residences, for example.
TCB: The ownership group does not control this other land?
BM: No. I have some tie-ins, but the land is owned by a guy in New York, Rick Birdoff. He’s owned it for 30 years. His idea is to redevelop eventually, and the field is the catalyst that will push things forward. The idea is to make it a place where people want to come early, stay late.
TCB: So you don’t envision this same sort of strip mall landscape in five years?
BM: No chance. This is the busiest crossroads in the Twin Cities. It can be much, much more. It’s one of the best transit-oriented development opportunities in America.
TCB: I’ve been told you have been relatively hands-on with the design. Not the architecture, but the finishes and fixtures. True?
BM: I have [an] interest in aesthetics and design, and if we’re going to do something, I think we should do it to achieve a quality and aesthetic value we can be proud of. We want fans to be proud of it. We want them to pick up the phone and call a friend and tell them, “You’ve got to see my stadium.” It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it has to be good. This is about pride and aspiration. This is the facility people in soccer are talking about.
TCB: You have much less capacity than at TCF Bank Stadium. Any negatives to that?
BM: Sure. We’ll be sold out much of the time. But we had to balance that with how much space we had, how much money we had. A second deck would have been another $75 million. But your roofline would be different. There’s just something about this scale.
TCB: What is your sense of the importance of youth sports to the team’s success?
BM: There are so many lessons learned from sports participation and sharing values that you only learn in sports or in the military: commitment, focus, sacrifice, teamwork. Those are incredible life lessons. They make you a better person and practitioner of what you are.
TCB: You are the only team in North American men’s pro sports with an openly gay player, Collin Martin. I know you didn’t acquire him for that reason, but what does that mean to you and the franchise?
BM: Nobody cares. That’s what’s good about it. That’s what we’re proud of. That’s what our fans are proud of. It’s meaningful, but it’s meaningful in the same way as our approach to promoting women — our COO, our color broadcaster, our head trainer [are all female]. It’s great because they all got the job because they are good. That’s what it should be. It goes back to this great thing about soccer — everyone [is] welcome.
Adam Platt is TCB’s executive editor.
This article is reprinted in partnership with Twin Cities Business.