Last week it became clearer than ever that the future of Major League Soccer depends almost entirely on one mysterious man. Denver-based billionaire Phil Anschutz—Saint Phil to American soccer fans—bought the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, raising his stake to five of the MLS's 12 teams. MLS sources say it's possible Anschutz may someday own the entire league.
With $250 million in losses since it began in 1996, MLS needs a sugar daddy with deep pockets and a long-term view, and Anschutz (net worth: $9.6 billion) provides both. He made his fortune in oil, railroads and telecommunications and now heads AEG, a sports and entertainment empire whose interests include L.A.'s Lakers and Kings, the Staples Center and five European hockey teams. Anschutz is convinced that with careful nurturing, MLS can rival the world's best soccer leagues. Part of that vision is a soon-to-be-built $100 million complex in suburban L.A. that will include a 20,000-seat stadium for his Galaxy.
Why does Anschutz, 61, think MLS can make money? No one knows for sure. He hasn't given an interview in two decades and declines to have his photo taken. Dubbed the Billionaire Next Door by FORTUNE, he drives ordinary cars, runs marathons and prefers to sit in the stands instead of in a luxury box at games.
There is, of course, a risk for MLS in relying so heavily on Anschutz: If he pulls out, the league would almost certainly go belly-up. Says commissioner Don Garber, "We would have enormous struggles in determining our future without AEG." For now, however, Anschutz is taking responsibility for that future. He's reportedly finalizing a deal in which he'll buy the U.S. English-language TV rights for the next two World Cups, resell them to ABC/ ESPN and throw in a new MLS TV contract through the end of 2006. In essence, Anschutz (and perhaps other MLS investors) will be subsidizing the league's TV coverage, which should keep MLS afloat for at least five more years. Whether soccer in the U.S. can begin to make money by then remains to be seen, but thanks to its sugar daddy, MLS will at least get a chance to find out.