Friday, December 3 2021

The Wilf family recently closed on their purchase of Orlando City SC (MLS), the Orlando Pride (NWSL) and the teams’ venue, Exploria Stadium. The Minnesota Vikings owners are reported to have paid between $400-$450 million for the assets.

Considering MLS teams are trading at tech-like multiples and that some soccer clubs worldwide are dire need of capital, it is reasonable to wonder why the Wilfs chose to buy Orlando SC. Chairman Mark Wilf cited several factors in his investment thesis, including confidence that MLS is headed in the right direction, soccer’s promising growth trajectory within North America, and his familiarity with the rapidly growing Orlando market (the 2020 Census revealed the Orlando metropolitan area was the second fastest growing large metro in the county).

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Our Take: The Wilf family is not new to MLS. The collective (which includes Vikings principal owner and chairman Zygi Wilf, Vikings vice-chairman and co-owner Lenny Wilf, as well as Mark Wilf, the Vikings president and co-owner) has been a part of John Ingram’s ownership group in Nashville since 2017. Prior to buying into Nashville SC, the Wilfs tried to bring an expansion club to Minneapolis. The league ultimately awarded the team to a group led by Bill McGuire.

Serving in a limited partnership capacity for the last four years has given the Wilf family the chance to take a close look under MLS’ hood and reaffirmed their desire to be controlling owners within the league. “We have been at ownership meetings, we have gotten to know Don Garber and others, and we have been very impressed with how the league has been growing step by step; how the talent level is improving step by step. [We have] also been very impressed with the ownership around the table, the facilities that are being constructed and the strength of the franchises,” Mark Wilf said.

Being around the league also helped to solidify the Wilfs’ belief that soccer in North America remains on an upward trajectory. The game’s popularity “continues to increase,” Wilf said. “The 2026 World Cup will enhance [excitement around the sport] and bring on a whole new generation of passionate fans. Of course, it has a very high participation rate amongst youth in America. That is a great recipe to keep this [arc] moving forward.” The Wilf family is actively working with the Greater Orlando Sports Commission to try to bring World Cup games to Central Florida.

The Wilfs have looked at many team ownership opportunities over the years. They pulled the trigger on this one in part because of the family’s familiarity with the market, as well as “a great stadium situation and a great fan base,” Wilf said. “It is the overall picture that makes us believe [there is a lot of runway for growth].”

The family has done real estate business in the area “for many, many years,” Wilf said. For what it’s worth, there is a small amount of property around the stadium that could be developed. But Wilf indicated this investment was primarily driven by the sports ownership opportunity, which includes the women’s game. “The Orlando Pride being part of this purchase was something exciting to us.”

U.S. sports fans have heard about soccer being next for more than a quarter century already. So, there is certainly some skepticism that the sport will ever reach the heights that warrant today’s double-digit revenue multiples. But as Wilf noted, none of the big four sports were on top overnight. “Real stable investment in infrastructure, great venues, great fan affinity; that is how it grows,” he said.

The cost certainty afforded by MLS, along with the closed nature of the league, was “certainly a part of how [the family] looked at the purchase,” Wilf said. (It greatly reduces risk while the league grows). So, naturally he doesn’t believe MLS clubs should be trying to outspend European clubs for players at this point. Instead, he supports the league taking a longer-term approach to improving its on-field product. “As revenues incrementally grow, player development grows, the quality of play grows; that all lifts [the game],” he said.

The new owners view youth development as a means to “grow the game, grow engagement and also be a viable part of the business as these players become successful on the U.S. and global stages,” Wilf said.

They intend to invest heavily in the club’s academy platform. “It is something we are going to emphasize,” he said. “Right now, we have a U-17 and a U-15 club. We’re going to grow that [on the men’s side] and potentially on the women’s side, as well.”

But while it could take time to realize returns from an investment in player development, the new ownership group believes there are opportunities for shorter-term revenue growth in ticket and sponsorship sales. Wilf also noted that MLS’ national media rights deal is coming up for renewal following the 2022 season (though a 200% increase would represent an increase of less than $4 million/year per club).

The family believes their experience operating Minnesota’s pro football franchise and what Wilf calls a “great sports management team” will help to make their first foray into the soccer business as controlling owners a success. The Orlando SC chairman suggested relationships developed over the last 17 years have already proven to be beneficial as the group works through the process of hiring a new CEO.

It remains to be seen if sponsors will value synergies between the Wilf family’s two pro sports franchises, which are in two distinctly different markets.

The Wilfs paid ~10x revenue for Orlando City–less than the league average (12.2x), but still a significantly greater multiple than the average within any of the other big four leagues. One prominent sports banker suggested the multiple corresponds with the perceived growth opportunity.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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