While the U.K.’s Premier League prepares to start its season, North America’s top soccer league is already past the halfway point this year. Lawyers on both sides of the pond, however, are busy finalizing deals that will reshuffle the ownership of two top soccer teams.
The American Lawyer reported this week on three Global 100 firms advising on the sale of Arsenal F.C. to U.S. billionaire E. Stanley Kroenke, a transaction that values the historic franchise at roughly $2.3 billion. Now Jason Levien, formerly of Greenberg Traurig and Williams & Connolly, has finalized a separate deal that will see him take control of Major League Soccer’s D.C. United.
The team has flopped on the field this year—D.C. United is currently in last place in MLS’ Eastern Conference—but it also remains one of the most valuable franchises in MLS. Forbes.com valued the club last summer at $230 million, up from a $155 million valuation the year prior. A little more than a decade ago, a group advised by Paul Hastings bought D.C. United for a mere $33 million. In mid-July, the team moved into Audi Field, a new 20,000-seat, soccer-specific stadium near the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C.
Herrick Feinstein, a firm known for its ties to professional soccer, is advising an investment group led by Levien on their acquisition of full control of D.C. United. The ownership change announced on Aug. 7 will see Levien remain in his role as co-chairman and CEO of the franchise. The sale, which has been approved by MLS’ board of governors, will see Indonesian business magnate Erick Thohir relinquish his 83 percent ownership stake in the team.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Bloomberg reported in April that a sale could value D.C. United at some $500 million. At the time, U.S. billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong was considered the likely candidate to acquire the franchise, but his bid reportedly ended in July. In the end it was a group formed by Levien, a University of Michigan Law School graduate who was an associate at Williams & Connolly from 1998 to 2003 before serving as of counsel at Greenberg Traurig from 2003 to 2006, that emerged victorious.
Daniel Etna, co-chair of Herrick’s sports law practice in New York, advised Levien’s group on the deal, along with corporate associate Liliana Chang. Etna recently counseled D.C. United on its transfer of Wayne Rooney from Premier League club Everton F.C. Etna, Chang and Herrick associate Briana Rose Meginniss also advised on the financing for Audi Field. In 2013, Etna was part of a Herrick team that represented Major League Baseball’s New York Yankees on a deal that brought a second top-tier soccer team to New York. (The Yankees own a 20 percent stake in New York City F.C., an MLS team that plays in Yankee Stadium.)
Taking the lead for Thohir and his Trinugraha Thohir Sports Pte. Ltd. on the sale of their majority stake in D.C. United were a team of lawyers from Latham & Watkins led by counsel Michael Kuh in New York. Latham finance partner Timothy Hia in Singapore; sports, media and entertainment partner Adam Sullins in Century City, California; and tax partner Cheryl Coe in Washington, D.C., are also working on the matter, along with antitrust partner Jason Cruise and counsel Sydney Smith, as well as associates Eric Kaufman, Gaston Soler and Dolynn Yap.
Latham has its own long-standing ties to MLS—the league’s championship trophy used to be named after retired partner Alan Rothenberg—and in June the firm counseled the U.S. Soccer Federation on its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup with Canada and Mexico. Latham also recently advised Andrew Hauptman, a controlling owner and chairman of MLS’ Chicago Fire, on his sale of a 49 percent stake in the team to Morningstar Inc. founder Joe Mansueto.
As for Levien, who since 2016 has also been a co-owner of Welsh soccer team Swansea City A.F.C., his D.C. United ownership group includes new club co-chairman Stephen Kaplan, a former Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner who went on to become a co-founder of investment giant Oaktree Capital Management. Kaplan and Levien own 68 percent of Swansea City and both took part in the 2012 sale of the National Basketball Association’s Memphis Grizzlies. Kaplan remains a minority owner of the NBA team, while Levien once served as its CEO and managing partner before parting ways with the Grizzlies in 2014.
Adam Klein, head of the sports practice at Katten Muchin Rosenman, advised Kaplan on the D.C. United deal, along with debt finance partner Andrew Lillis and associates Daniel Render and Mitchel Garnett. Lillis, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner, joined Katten Muchin in March. Kaplan and Levien are now controlling shareholders in the team.
Other members of the new ownership group at D.C. United include hedge fund executive Edward Shapiro, businessman Robert Hernreich and real estate investors Albert Tylis, Daniel Gilbert and Romie Chaudhari. (Tylis, who worked with Gilbert at Northstar Inc., was once a senior attorney at Bryan Cave, now known as Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.)
Levien, who still has an active registration with The District of Columbia Bar, did not return a request for comment by the time of this story. While working in Big Law a decade ago, Levien also ran his own sports agency, an endeavor that involved him signing up new clients in various far-flung corners of the globe. A year before getting involved with the Grizzlies, Levien was part of another ownership group that acquired the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers for $280 million.
In 2013, the SportsBusiness Journal profiled Levien and his switch from player representation to management. Samuel Porter, a fellow lawyer and former sports agent, now works closely with Levien in his role as a senior vice president for business and legal affairs at D.C. United and Swansea City. Levien himself is not the only lawyer to own part of an MLS team.
The American Lawyer reported in May on O’Melveny & Myers sports industry co-chair Irwin Raij’s ownership stake in Los Angeles F.C., an expansion franchise that took the field this year. Boston lawyer Steven Gans and Ropes & Gray counsel Michael Winograd were also candidates in a race that ended in February to elect a new leader of the U.S. Soccer Federation, a nonprofit that recent federal tax filings show paid $3.5 million to Latham and $174,240 to Covington & Burling for legal services in 2016-17.