Two and a half years ago I sat down with Dr. Bill McGuire for the first time. We met at the Sea Change bar, which is located at the Guthrie Theater, one of his favorite philanthropic causes. Adjacent to the theater is Gold Medal Park, and next door is the memorial to those who died in the 35W bridge collapse – two other causes to which McGuire was instrumental in seeing to completion.
I was fortunate to conduct the first interview with McGuire after he decided to acquire Minnesota Stars FC from the North American Soccer League. After being NASL-owned for two seasons, and with the reality that pro soccer in Minnesota was on the verge of ending, McGuire rode in on his white horse and rescued the “team that nobody wanted.” It meant pro soccer would survive in the Twin Cities for an 18th season, and beyond.
His decision to step up and make a difference was not unusual for McGuire. Fans of the team hoped for good things in the future, but had no real idea where his ownership was leading – and for that matter, nor did McGuire.
In that first interview, I asked McGuire about the Minnesota Vikings and their desire to start an MLS team in the future. He told me, “The notional idea that the only glory out there is a MLS team, I think, is not worth spending much energy on. If this team does well and finds its fanbase, things will work out for the best. I’m just not going to spend too many minutes speculating what might happen down the road.”
Most longtime fans of the team know the story of how McGuire was contacted by David Downs, the then-commissioner of the NASL at that time. Downs believed in the Stars, who were being run on a shoestring budget, with just four employees in the entire front office. Even more, Downs believed in the local fans and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, as a soccer market with a strong soccer history and a deep corporate base. He was desperate to find an owner to help save the team.
Downs’ and McGuire’s daughters had been college roommates at Amherst College. Knowing Marissa McGuire now lived in the Twin Cities, Downs contacted her through an email. At first Dr. McGuire had no interest in the team, but tried to help by finding someone who might step up and invest. His son-in-law, Nick Rogers, eventually convinced McGuire to go to a game. It was a match against San Antonio at the National Sports Center Stadium on on August 11th, 2012.
“It was my first live game,” McGuire told me, as we sat in the conference room of Minnesota United’s offices on the day before the Major League Soccer press conference to announce Minnesota United as the league’s 23rd team. The conference room is lined with framed and signed team jerseys, including an autographed US Men’s National Team jersey of Loon player Miguel Ibarra, who now seems to be a fixture for national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann. There are also poster-size photos of players in action, and of Dark Clouds members, faces masked with supporters scarves, mugging for the camera. The setting seems almost surreal; three years ago, that small handful of Stars employees would cram into the little cinderblock office next to the training room at the National Sports Center field house. Minnesota United now has 35 full-time front office staff.
I asked McGuire if he’d seen much soccer before that first game at the NSC. “I’d seen it passingly before,” he stops himself and chuckles. “So, basically none.”
After a late-season run in 2011, the Stars had won the inaugural Soccer Bowl championship. They were aiming for another title in 2012; again, the team finished in sixth place in the standings, but were playing strong in the playoffs and were on the cusp of repeating. Two months after that first game, McGuire was back at the NSC, this time with Downs, on a cold, clear October evening, for the first leg of the 2012 Soccer Bowl final against the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The match was more dramatic, and the stakes were high – higher than most of the fans in the stadium understood.
“The atmosphere was more electric,” McGuire said. “Smoke bombs and bazookas, all sorts of things. It had a cooler atmosphere. It was an important game. It had a dramatic play and positioned the team to theoretically prevail in the 2nd leg – which they didn’t. It was great, and I remember Dark Clouds busting down the fence (dasher boards) and the fans going crazy. I said, ‘Wow. This is really something.’”
McGuire pauses for a moment and gets more serious. “But the circumstances were also bigger. I knew this was the true eleventh hour for the team. There was nobody else to do it. It was higher stakes. I had to make a decision based on what you think the right thing is. There wasn’t a lot more to think about.”
Ultimately, McGuire chose to acquire the team. Just four months later the Minnesota Stars were re-branded as Minnesota United FC – the “Loons,” after their logo.
The team held an end-of-the-year appreciation party for the players and supporters at a popular downtown Minneapolis bar called Brit’s Pub, just days after the Stars lost the second leg of that 2012 Soccer Bowl final to Tampa in St. Petersburg. Hard-core supporters were already hearing rumors that someone had agreed to purchase the team, and save professional soccer in Minnesota. But no one expected that McGuire and Rogers would show up at the event.
Even long-time Thunder and Stars executive Djorn Buchholz was surprised. But there the two were, creating a pattern that would be repeated time and again over the next several years. They were watching, observing and asking questions. What do you think about renaming the team?, they asked. If we built a stadium, where should it be located? What features would you build into it? What time of day should games be played? Without a formal announcement, the two were already gathering information.
The NSC Stadium has seen many professional soccer matches over the years, and has even hosted US Women’s National Team matches. It’s a clean, fine, simple stadium – but not designed for a pro team, when constructed in 1990. There are no suites or boxes. McGuire can mostly be found during games sitting out in the weather, good or bad, high up in the stands near the press box. At the half you can find him, like many other Loons fans, standing and waiting in line for a beer.
This struck me as curious. He could easily have a beer delivered to him, with a quick phone call to a staff member, or could go to the front of the line and no one would think anything of it. Instead he is standing in line – waiting – like everyone else. And sometimes those lines are long.
Assuming I might get an answer that he is observing the crowds, food service staff or fan experience, I ask him. He laughs and answers authentically. “Sometimes I do but there’s other times that I’m just like everyone else. I’m standing there thinking, am in the wrong line? Maybe I should have gone over there in that one. I don’t think I’m any better or any different. I’d never think to jump in line. We are all out there together. Some of us might be more fortunate in our circumstances than others, but everyone is the same.”
The 66-year-old McGuire continued, “I have always been someone who doesn’t go looking for something, but I do absorb circumstances. Just being there, feeling how things are and watching things creates a data point – an experience that you tuck away and cobble together with some other ones.”
But McGuire seems to constantly be looking for “data points.” He was said to have a reputation for often polling his employees for their opinions while taking UnitedHealth Group from a bankrupt company to the largest health care organization in the U.S.
After Minnesota United’s season ended in disappointment last fall, with a penalty shootout loss in the semifinal match, McGuire convened a meeting at a nice downtown Minneapolis restaurant. Asked to attend were a handful of trusted Dark Cloud members and hard-core soccer fans, who know the landscape of soccer both in Minnesota and the U.S. The rumors of the team joining MLS had been rolling through the soccer community. We didn’t know why we were called together, but we assumed it was McGuire once again gathering information before pulling the trigger to make an MLS bid – and we weren’t wrong.
Through the course of the evening he asked questions and talked soccer with the group. At one point McGuire boasted, “I probably watch more soccer than any of you.” For most, there was an awkward silence and a moment of disbelief. Here, the owner had invited some of the most die-hard soccer fans in the state to dinner, and then proclaimed he actually watched more soccer on TV than any of them. (Some who attended the dinner said later say they disagreed, but were too polite to argue.)
The subject slowly shifted and the din of conversation resumed, but I believe I heard what McGuire was really saying. Yes, he spoke of studying the game, the players, the formations and tactics – just like everyone else at the gathering. But he also spoke of how the stadiums looked on TV, what features made them special, how the fans looked in the stands, how the cameras and even microphones projected that energy through visuals and sound. He spoke of the stadiums he believed drew you in and made you want to buy a ticket – to be there in person, as well as what camera angles worked best. McGuire had clearly been studying and accumulating more data points.
Months later, McGuire reflected on that evening. “I looked at it as a chance to get a bunch of smart people together who, no matter how much in the short period of time that I’ve been watching the game, knew a hell of a lot and have seen a hell of a lot more than I have,” he said.
He went on to say he always tries to make sure that the people who are important to the organization and those that they represent, understand they are part of the process. “Anything I try to do, I try to be as knowledgeable as I can be,” said McGuire. “You do that by gathering data formed by those random conversations, never asking a specific question but assimilating information. What makes a great stadium? How important is that roof? Some people might look at it as protection from the sun. Other people will say it’s important because it echoes all that noise back. Somebody else might say it’s important because architecturally, aesthetically, it sets off a football field, and they’re the best-looking stadiums that exist. Let’s watch, let’s ask, lets get information.”
In fact, McGuire traveled to Bayern Munich shortly after taking over the team. While he didn’t see the team play, the visit and his meetings with management made a lasting impression on how a first-class soccer organization should be run. He was particularly impressed with the tremendous involvement the club had with what he calls “their community”- and if there is one word to sum up Dr. Bill McGuire, it would be “community.”
That was my biggest takeaway after his interview in November of 2012. “Community” continues to be the theme in almost every presentation he makes or interview he conducts. But in that same early interview, he said, “No entity, no matter how altruistic, can go on losing that money year after year and expect to survive. And quite frankly, it shouldn’t. If you can’t figure out how to do something that people value, then quite frankly, we should put that energy somewhere else.”
I ask McGuire if his effort with Minnesota United is a profit venture, or community-based philanthropic work. Laughing, he said, “It’s a little of both. The amount of capital I have and will be putting into this is a huge amount of money. I still believe you can’t just throw money at things. If people out there don’t value it enough to support it, you have to ask yourself, is this just a folly you have?
“But there is also a huge amount of community spirit behind this. The people that I’ve managed to bring in to this (ownership group), these are people that really do care about the community. And people might say, yeah, well, they have a bunch of money. But these are people that live here, they have their businesses here, they support all sorts of things in this community. These people all believe that this is a sport whose day is in front of us. It’s a sport that recognizes the changing cultures and changing nature of athletics in America. It’s not saying that everything else is going away. They also recognize that this sport is there for everybody. A lot of sports are not available to everyone. They could be too expensive to play. They might be too hard to see if they aren’t on TV and the tickets to expensive to see live. These folks (ownership group) see that, they understand that.”
Just like everyone else, when McGuire is watching a Loons match he gets caught up the the sporting experience and simply becomes a fan. The new MLS team owner does understand athletics. He grew up in Texas playing basketball – and playing it well enough to be a high school all-star and offered a college scholarship. But when watching his team play he can at times be a bit insufferable.
I shared a table with him last August, at a Dark Clouds watch party at the Nomad World Pub in Minneapolis. United had won the spring championship, and were clearly looking to be the best team in the league. Yet whenever the Loons played the New York Cosmos their confidence seemed to plummet, and this evening was no different. Playing on artificial surface on the narrow field in New York, the team came out flat and showed little of the swagger they’d displayed to opponents all season. Simply put, they looked outclassed and intimidated. Though never loud, he was vocal in his displeasure – and perhaps more negative than you’d think for a man who was the leader of one of America’s largest corporations.
“If you haven’t heard, I will tell you there are things that drive me crazy. Losing drives me crazy,” McGuire told the Dark Clouds at their supporters summit in early March. “Losing in itself isn’t a problem. The problem is always failing to fulfill your potential. For the 17 years I was with UnitedHealth Group, and we built that from bankruptcy to what it is today, it was not so much about, we have to beat the other guy. It was about us standing up for the right things and doing a better job of providing something for the constituency that we were trying to serve. Our measure should be about what we can do, what our potential is.”
In our interview, McGuire tells me, “Some people don’t really want to be around me then [during games]. I wear my emotions on my sleeves and I guess anyone around me is fair game. You are sitting there watching something, you care deeply about and you can’t make it happen yourself. I could never do what they’re doing but you want to be able to. You sit and you watch and you ask yourself, why are we doing this? What are they thinking? This is a testament to your ability to focus and commit to your teammates. That really is our obligation, to fulfill our potential. It’s true in sports, in business in life.”
Clearly, McGuire appreciates all Minnesota United fans but he has a profound appreciation for the Dark Clouds supporters who so impressed him on that cold crisp evening of October, 2012. Likewise, they have become rabid supporters of McGuire, and have showed their allegiance to him the past year when there were plenty of debates over who should receive the MLS franchise in the Twin Cities – the Wilfs and the Minnesota Vikings football team, or McGuire and his Minnesota futbol team.
Addressing those gathered at that Dark Clouds summit, McGuire said, “We believe we’ve saved you from watching soccer on football plastic. Really, as much as any art or parks or universities that we have personally dedicated money to – this (team) should be part of the community in the future. In view of this group, (Dark Clouds) and the people the couldn’t make it tonight, you’re really the ones who stood out that night. So for that I thank you – sometimes I curse you [laughter], but you truly are responsible for whatever we have this year and whatever we have into the future.”
Reflecting on some of the events of the past several years, McGuire told me, “In the end it is nice to do something in someone else’s life that than makes a difference in your life. There are a lot of times you do something and nobody ever says thank you, more often than I’d like to think about. But I’d be crazy to say that it doesn’t feel good to have some guy come up to you with his son and say, ‘Thank you for doing this.’”
On Wednesday, March 25, when Dr. Bill McGuire was officially presented the 23rd major league soccer franchise by league commissioner Don Garber, he had a moment. A moment where he choked up for just a second, then cleared his throat, adjusted his glasses and pushed through, to compose himself and deliver a polished speech like he had hundreds of times, before to men of great knowledge in the fields of medicine and finance.
After the event I was approached by numerous people, who expressed surprise that this multimillionaire, this captain of industry, had gotten choked up when accepting the honor of being awarded a sports franchise.
My response to each of them was it didn’t surprise me at all. Not one little bit.