Kevin Durant has wanted to buy a piece of a sports team for a while, and he’s had a few opportunities.

When the Union reached out to the 10-time NBA All-Star last year, he was especially intrigued. He saw a way to make an impact not just in soccer, but off the field.

On Monday, Durant officially came on board. The Brooklyn Nets forward has acquired a 5% stake in the team, with the option to acquire another 5% in the future.

“I felt like it was a chance that I could impact more than just a city that I’ve played in and been a part of," Durant told The Inquirer. “I wanted to align myself with a franchise that was impacting more than just sports."

Though the deal has been in the works for a while, its completion is nonetheless striking. The Union have rarely been one of the cool kids in MLS or in Philadelphia sports. Now they have one of the biggest names in American sports on their marquee.

Majority owner Jay Sugarman wouldn’t confirm a dollar value for Durant’s stake, but he did say it sets the team’s value “north of the most recent expansion fee.”

That sum is reportedly $325 million, paid by Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper last December for a Charlotte franchise that will kick off next year.

Charlotte’s expansion fee is one of two recent benchmarks in MLS. The other came last September when Chicago Fire co-owner Joe Mansueto, founder of investment research firm Morningstar, bought out his partner’s stake. Mansueto reportedly paid $204 million for the 51% he didn’t own, valuing the team at just over $400 million.

Figure that the Union’s value is somewhere between Charlotte’s and Chicago’s. We certainly know this: Even if it’s on the low end of that scale, it’s more than 10 times the $30 million expansion fee Sugarman paid in 2008.

These days, the Union do not stick to sports — and that includes majority owner Jay Sugarman. “We want to be part of the progress that comes out of this moment.”
Jonathan Tannenwald / Staff
These days, the Union do not stick to sports — and that includes majority owner Jay Sugarman. “We want to be part of the progress that comes out of this moment.”

The Union reached out to Durant last year after reports surfaced of his having talked with D.C. United in late 2018. Union minority owner Richard Leibovitch had a connection to Rich Kleiman, Durant’s manager, and took a shot. The sales pitch included the impact Durant could have beyond soccer in a metropolitan area with a huge Black population. There were meetings in New York and Chester, and Durant liked what he heard.

“When I found the opportunity to have a conversation with Jay and Richard, we talked about MLS as a whole, the sport as a whole, the future of the game, and where they wanted to take it,” Durant said. "Seeing how Chester and Philadelphia and that whole area can be impacted by the franchise, I wanted to be a part of it.”

Sugarman admitted Durant’s visit to Chester last December “caused a bit of a stir.” But for as much as the team tried to keep the meeting under wraps, those same viral photos of Durant walking through the lobby gave Sugarman a look at Durant’s character.

“He made time for everyone,” Sugarman said, including those whose social media posts spilled the beans. “It really made an impression on me that he was very genuine, he was very authentic.”

Not sticking to sports, or the stadium

Chester and the Union haven’t always gotten along. Early promises of a supermarket for residents and commercial development along the Delaware River never became a reality. Team president Tim McDermott has envisioned building a recreational sports complex on vacant land near Subaru Park, and it’s not clear if that’s what Chester citizens want.

And of course, there are the vast sums of state money that the Union got when they launched in 2010 — at least $85 million, The Inquirer reported last year. The Athletic reported that the team has multiple exit clauses in its deal to stay in Chester that are easy to achieve.

But the relationship has gotten better lately, headlined by the Union funding the relaunch of varsity soccer at Chester High School last year. Durant wants to help do much more.

“That’s the goal: to pour back into the city that has been so gracious to house the team and give resources to the team," he said. “I think that what we’re doing right now is doing just that, and I’m looking forward to being a part of it.”

Durant’s arrival comes at a time when the American soccer community has fortified an already-strong social and political voice. The Union have played a significant part in that, from manager Jim Curtin’s criticism of President Donald Trump to captain Alejandro Bedoya’s nationally televised call for stronger gun control laws.

They’ve been joined in recent months by 21-year-old academy product Mark McKenzie. A rising star with the Union and the U.S. national team, he has developed a passionate voice on social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests against racial injustice and police brutality.

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My name is Mark McKenzie. I’m a black man and proud of it to the core. I’m a human and deserve every bit of respect as my counterparts. I’m a son. I’m a brother. I’m an athlete. I’m a student. I’m a contributing member of society. And there is no reason why the pigment of my skin justifies whether or not my life is of equal value to another. I love who I am, I love my culture, and I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Too many of my brothers and sisters have perished from unjustifiable acts of violence against them, with many of these acts committed by the very people supposed to be protecting us. History has repeated itself yet again, as it has been for centuries. But when is enough ever going to be enough? When will the bigots and ignorant finally acknowledge that this country has a problem? When is a hard line drawn and we can come TOGETHER to abolish an issue that has plagued not only this country, but society as a whole for hundreds of years? How do we call the United States the “land of the free and home of the brave” but continuously turn a blind eye to modern day slavery and institutional racism? Ask yourself these questions, take a look in the mirror, and truly figure out where you stand in the midst of all of this. My voice WILL be heard and you WILL feel my presence. Like my mother taught me, “they don’t have to like you or love you, but they WILL respect you.” And I WILL NOT settle for anything less. I understand we are in the midst of a pandemic and I am sensitive to that issue. I pray for healing and peace for each and everyone that has been affected and continues to be affected by COVID-19. But there has also been a pandemic against my people far before this virus, and at the rate we are going, this issue may continue into the distant future. I pray this is not the case and that God allows his peace, wisdom, and discernment to fall over ALL his children. I also pray for listening ears so that we may hear one another on a deeper level, tough minds to stand up against that which is evil and unjust and hate- filled, and a tender heart to empathize and LOVE one another for the people and humans we are. Let’s be part of the CHANGE.

A post shared by Mark McKenzie (@markmckenzie4) on

The team hasn’t always been so public about politics, either collectively or individually. You might have found it behind the scenes, but the outside world saw the team market to a fan base that’s mostly suburban and mostly white.

These days, the Union do not stick to sports — and that includes Sugarman.

“We want to be part of the progress that comes out of this moment,” he said. “My first instinct is always to analyze and ask questions, but I think this moment really called for just listening and trying to understand. And to hear different voices, and try to simply understand what has gone on — not always in our daily experience, but in the daily experience of way too many people.”

Sugarman said he’s “pleased that our players are willing to do the right thing,” and said Durant’s “perspective and advocacy will be really important guides for us as we work to be part of the solution."

Durant hopes to join in.

“I think at this time, with a lot of light that's being shined on the topic, I think it’s great that people are talking now and really voicing their opinions and using their platforms for change,” Durant said. “I look forward to helping as much as I can in that area, especially now, and combining with the Union and seeing guys that are aligning with the same mentality that I have.”

As for the fan base, it’s not nearly as diverse as it could and should be. This is, after all, the team that plays the world’s game in America’s sixth-largest population center. Durant can help with that, and not just by sitting in the owner’s box at games. His company, Thirty Five Ventures, will consult with the Union on marketing and community outreach.

“We can’t have an impact if we’re not part of the conversation,” Sugarman said. “Our players, our fans, they deserve to have people see what they’ve helped create … There’s no question this gives us an entrée with sponsors and media.”

Kevin Durant giving out holiday gifts to families in Oakland, California last December.
Courtesy of Thirty Five Ventures
Kevin Durant giving out holiday gifts to families in Oakland, California last December.

The soccer-basketball crossover

Durant admitted he’s not “a connoisseur” of soccer, but he has gotten to know the sport.

“Watching over the years and learning more about the sport and learning more about its players, seeing it come to the U.S., I just got excited about it [and] wanted to learn more and be a part of it,” he said. “You obviously know how big the sport is around the world, but it felt like MLS was still waiting for that push to compete with the other leagues. I feel like it’s on the way up and I’m excited about it.”

Durant has experienced the increasing crossover between European soccer and the NBA. Some big names abroad are big basketball fans, and many NBA stars are big soccer fans. Barcelona’s Antoine Griezmann is a friend of 76ers guard Josh Richardson. Paris Saint-Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo are mutual admirers.

Joel Embiid famously supports Spain’s Real Madrid. LeBron James owns a piece of England’s Liverpool. Richardson and Embiid have also attended a few Union games over the years.

“We run into these players and you know who they are, you know there’s mutual respect both ways,” Durant said. “It’s a huge thing [and] a lot more guys in the league are starting to get involved with it.”

Durant is the second NBA star to become an MLS owner. James Harden became the first last July, buying a piece of the company that runs the Houston Dynamo and NWSL’s Houston Dash.

Though Durant didn’t talk to his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate about that, he said NBA players have long talked about joining sports’ most exclusive club. There aren’t many Black owners of teams in the major U.S. leagues, and now Durant is one of them.

“No matter what my skin color is, no matter how I came up in this world, there’s nothing that’s going to stop us from achieving our dreams," Durant said. “You see so many guys in this league [the NBA] who’ve been put in a box on what we should do as athletes, and you see more and more guys starting to use their platforms to speak out about social justice, systemic oppression, racism. And now you’re starting to see more of these guys start to speak out on generational wealth, creating things for themselves after they’re done playing.”

Durant is certainly not done playing. Far from it, in fact, even though he’s currently sidelined by a torn Achilles tendon. But he can see his future. It’s clearly going to involve much more than basketball.