Stars FC find owner in former UnitedHealth Group CEO
During the last two soccer seasons, Minnesota Stars FC supporters regularly brought out the chant “The team that nobody wanted…” to the tune of “For he’s a Jolly Good Fellow” as a gesture that despite uncertainty surrounding the club’s ownership situation, the Stars were quite competitive.
That chant (hopefully) has been retired, as has the “League Owned” sign, which was on hand with a piece of red tape across the league portion, during the Nov. 8 press conference at Brit’s Pub in Minneapolis to announce the agreement in principal for a new locally-based owner to keep professional soccer in Minnesota for a 24th season.
North American Soccer League Commissioner David Downs, Stars CEO Djorn Buchholz and Stars head coach Manny Lagos introduced Minnesota businessman and philanthropist, Dr. Williams McGuire as the club’s new owner.
McGuire served as chairman and CEO of Minnetonka-based UnitedHealth Group until resigning in 2006.
Downs and McGuire have a personal connection as their daughters were roommates at Amhurst College in Massachusetts.
“I contacted Marissa [McGurie] to see if her dad knew of anyone to talk with and not him but that grew into him looking at it himself,” Downs admitted during his 10th trip to the Twin Cities over the last 18 months to help find an owner. “We’ve met with everybody and anybody who would listen to give us guidance, we met with [Minneapolis] Mayor [R.T] Rybak, friends at the NSC, potential investors and brokers and even the Vikings.”
McGuire admitted his soccer knowledge is an evolving interest but “One thing I recognize is commitment and opportunity.”
He said both are apparent from the dedicated fans and popularity of the sport which he expects to continue to grow.
McGuire pointed to images from the festive final home game, the first leg of the NASL finals.
“Certainly seeing their final game here, seeing them go up 2-0 late and the fans reaction plus the lack of fans too,” he said. “I think that crossed over with how is that we can let something like this disappear from our community?”
McGuire attended numerous games throughout the season to gather a sense of what the club was all about and recalled his first reaction sitting at the stadium in Blaine on a fantastic summer evening.
“I remember watching that first game flabbergasted thinking about this beautiful summer evening – remember seeing only a couple thousand fans. For 10 bucks you can’t go to a movie for that.”
Low turnout is on McGuire’s radar. He said, ”We need to extend the franchise into the community. Mostly we’ve called on you all to help us understand what would be better.”
Calling on fans for their opinions is an efficient way McGuire hopes to gage new ideas, similar to how the Stars have always operated.
“The good news is that we’ve had a competitive team to watch and the fans that show up create a tremendous atmosphere,” he said.
In the short term, he wants to see the team continue its recent success on the field (2011 NASL champions, 2012 NASL runner-up) and reach out to the entire soccer community from the youth levels on up to be the representative of soccer in Minnesota and be part of the continued growth of the sport. His third goal in the short term is to be financially stable while being able to fund the kind of opportunities to improve the team.
Another goal he’s aiming for is to average 10,000 fans per game starting in 2013.
As for calling the National Sports Center home into the future, that decision is up in the air.
“All of us recognize the venue has been a challenge in the past and I look at how the Met Stadium was filled with 20,000 soccer fans 30 years ago,” McGuire said. “Right now we don’t have an answer.”
Early season games might be moved inside the Metrodome, similar to the 2012 season opener.
Bridging the distance to games from a geographical or economical standpoint is something McGuire is aware of.
“How are we attractive to the broad demographics… there isn’t a spot on the map that is a sure-fire destination.”
The NSC remains an ideal place for a soccer club like the Stars.
“It’s a fantastically appropriate venue for our teams with pure grass, right width and if it was packed each night the team would make money,” Down said. “The only problem is the geographical location. If you could pick it up and drop it across the street [Peavy Plaza] we’d have a home run.”
McGuire’s talked with Vikings ownership including Mark Wilf on parallel issues within the last month, but not about an MLS franchise calling the new Vikings stadium home.
“I have no idea what Zygi or the Vikings plans are,” McGuire said. “I look at this as an independent team, it is a professional team at virtually the highest level and defeated an MLS team this year.”
TCF Bank Stadium was another high-profile venue McGuire has toured as a future option.
“We thought about it and poked around but can it accommodate soccer and would it make sense?” he said.
McGuire and his wife Nadine have donated several millions of dollars to community ventures like the Bill and Nadine McGuire Theater at the Walker Art Center and Gold Medal Park next to the Gutherie Theater among other contributions to Amhurst College and the Universities of Minnesota and Florida.
The National Sports Center jump-started the current franchise ahead of the 2010 season after the Minnesota Thunder folded, which would’ve left Minnesota without a professional soccer franchise for the first time in two decades. After that 2010 season, US Soccer Federation handed down new financial guidelines for division 2 pro soccer, which the NSC couldn’t meet. The NASL stepped in and the seven other owners agreed to take over ownership while the search continued for the next prospective owner stepped forward.