Teammates in Brooklyn, rivals in MLS

Brooklyn Nets forward Kevin Durant during a game against the Golden State Warriors in San Francisco on February 13, 2021. (Photo: NYtimes)
In the early days of Major League Soccer’s restart last summer, Jim Curtin, coach of the Philadelphia Union, told his players that he had lined up a special guest for a video conference call.اضافة اعلان

The Union players were in the league’s bubble at Walt Disney World, outside of Orlando, Florida, and because of health and safety protocols that limited large group gatherings, they had scattered to their hotel rooms for the call. A familiar figure soon appeared on their screens. Kevin Durant, one of the team’s new owners, had arrived to deliver a pep talk.

As Durant’s speech — a message about what it takes to succeed and become a champion — morphed into a nothing-is-off-limits discussion, the players asked him about his National Basketball Association (NBA) title runs with Golden State, about his decision to join the Brooklyn Nets in free agency and about his then-ongoing rehabilitation from Achilles tendon surgery.

“It hit with our players because they’ve all been injured at certain times — how lonely that can be, and getting yourself back to the top,” Curtin said. “The interesting thing is that I have guys from 15 different countries in my group, and all of them were like, ‘That was amazing.’ I think Kevin contributed to the team in a bigger way than he realized.”

When Durant agreed to purchase a 10 percent stake in the Union last June — an investment worth more than $20 million — he joined a growing but select club of basketball stars who have acquired interests in professional soccer teams. LeBron James was ahead of the curve when, in 2011, he secured a small stake in the English club Liverpool.

For a short spell, Carmelo Anthony owned Puerto Rico Football Club (FC) of the now-defunct North American Soccer League, and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) star Candace Parker recently bought a piece of Angel City FC, an expansion team in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Durant isn’t even the only soccer owner in the Nets’ locker room. He gets daily reminders of the NBA’s rapid cross-pollination with Major League Soccer (MLS): Steve Nash, the Nets’ coach, is a co-owner of the Vancouver Whitecaps; Joe Tsai, the Nets’ owner, has a stake in Los Angeles FC; and James Harden, one of Durant’s teammates, arrived in Brooklyn this season with an ownership slice of the Houston Dynamo.

“I’m sure once we play those guys, me and James will have a nice little wager on it,” Durant said in a telephone interview. “It’s cool to see guys in our sport stepping over and doing something different.”

The involvement of top basketball players in North American soccer comes at a time when athletes — particularly Black athletes — are increasingly leveraging their wealth and their public profiles to upend the traditional athlete-owner dynamic. Consider that the National Women’s Soccer League ‘s (NWSL) ownership ranks now include not only Parker but also Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, tennis stars who understand their influence and are seizing opportunities to wield it beyond the court.

“I think players are realizing now that they have the opportunity to not just play for these teams and get paid by these owners,” Parker said. “They have the opportunity to actually write the checks. This generation has a different mindset.”

Parker said she became more serious about the idea of team ownership in recent years as a player for the Los Angeles Sparks. She got to know the owners, she said, and was intrigued by what happens behind the scenes — and the profound effect of those decisions.

Durant said that he had thrown himself into the Union’s affairs. He participates in the ownership group’s weekly conference calls. He has chatted with the coaches about development and training. He has offered opinions on everything from jersey design to community outreach. He has conferred with the players about social justice issues, joining a call that helped lead to the team’s role in a voter registration drive last year. And he has shown a willingness to opine on dubious refereeing decisions, like any other good Union fan.

After the Union parted with two of their best players in the offseason — midfielder Brenden Aaronson now plays in Austria, and defender Mark McKenzie left for Belgium — Durant may be the team’s most high-profile addition in the last year.

Durant was not exactly a soccer aficionado growing up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, outside of Washington, D.C. Tall for his age and 6-foot-10 by high school, he spent most of his time working on his jump shot. But he would kick the soccer ball around with his friends, he said, and he quickly identified a parallel between the sports.

“I swear one of the things he loves about it is that it’s reliant on scoring a bucket,” said Rich Kleiman, Durant’s manager and business partner.

Early in his NBA career, Durant took a couple of promotional trips to Europe on behalf of Nike, one of his sponsors, and met some of the company’s other global pitchmen. They happened to be soccer players. Durant’s exposure continued to grow when he joined the Warriors and developed a relationship with Nash, who was then working with the team as a player development consultant. Nash, who has been a co-owner of the Whitecaps since 2008, is an avid soccer player whose brother Martin once played for Canada’s national team.

“Steve is huge into soccer,” Durant said. “We’ve talked about what it is to be an owner and how much traveling he does to stay up with the team and how often he goes over there.”

Durant recalled a formative experience in 2019, when he saw a news release announcing that Harden had joined the ownership group of the Dynamo and the Houston Dash of the NWSL. “I got more and more interested when I saw some of my peers get into this,” Durant said.

For athletes like Durant, Kleiman said, soccer franchises are “a realistic entry point” for team ownership. Current players are not allowed to acquire stakes in NBA or WNBA teams, and the valuations of NFL franchises and top European soccer clubs can reach into the billions, putting significant ownership stakes out of reach even for wealthy athletes. (There are exceptions, of course: James purchased a minor stake in the Boston Red Sox last month from the same partners who own Liverpool.)

Durant had talked with a different MLS team, D.C. United, about investing in the team before those negotiations stalled. After The Athletic reported on those discussions in October 2019, Jay Sugarman, the Union’s majority owner, reached out.

“Sort of fortuitous timing,” Sugarman said. “We were looking for different voices in our ownership group.”

By last June, the deal was official. Durant’s ownership stake includes a marketing partnership with Thirty Five Ventures, the sports, media and entertainment company that he co-founded with Kleiman. But it also has given him a championship goal in another sport.

The Union finished with the best record in MLS in last year’s shortened season but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. They, and Durant, want a better ending this year.

“We just want to keep building,” Durant said. “It’s a lot of work to be done.”