Sometime in the next few days, tom Penn’s office phone will ring, his iPhone will buzz, or his inbox will ding with another email. It will be a plea from another billionaire, actor, athlete, or mogul, lobbying to join Penn’s exclusive club. He will politely decline the request, but it will remind him how fortunate he and his partners are—all 30 of them—to compose what might just be the most coveted partnership in professional sports: the ownership group behind Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club.
Since playing their inaugural match in March 2018, LAFC has sold out every game at Banc of California Stadium in Downtown L.A. The club posted the best season ever for an MLS expansion team and started 2019 off in even finer fashion, winning 17 of their first 24 games. Their quick success in the stands and on the field owes much to their flashy new stadium, and to a squad led by Mexican National Team star forward Carlos Vela. But at any given home game, much of LAFC’s star power is upstairs in the owners’ suite, which, as Penn points out with regularity, is currently at full capacity.
Will Ferrell. Magic Johnson. Peter Guber. Mia Hamm and Nomar Garciaparra. The 31 members of LAFC’s ownership group cover a cross-section of sports, entertainment, business, and pop culture. Penn, who worked in the front office for the Portland Trail Blazers before joining ESPN as an analyst, is the quarterback of the group. With him on the front line of the partnership are managing owners Larry Berg of Apollo Global Management, League of Legends co-creator Brandon Beck, and Ares Management cofounder Bennett Rosenthal. The group’s vice chairman, Vietnamese businessman Henry Nguyen, was an initial investor, and one of the first things he did was to bring in Penn. “I can remember every contact with every single person and how they came in, what they said, and how they felt,” Penn recalls.
Most significant among those people was Guber, an entertainment-industry mogul and co-owner of both the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Dodgers. “The linchpin came from Peter Guber,” Penn says. “Because the original capital investors were from Malaysia and Vietnam, we needed to have a significant local presence, and we found the dream partner in Peter. When he said yes, that opened the gate for the rest of them to follow.”
Along with Guber’s money and reputation came his relationships. “Peter had a great relationship with Magic Johnson and brought him into the group, along with Tony Robbins,” Penn says. Guber, however, wasn’t the only one landing big-name partners. Penn’s time at ESPN helped bring in the athletic power couple of Garciaparra and Hamm, and Berg made the introduction to Will Ferrell.
Today, LAFC’s many other co-owners include Mark Shapiro, co-president of WME | IMG; Rick Welts, president and COO of the Warriors; Chad Hurley, cofounder and former CEO of YouTube; Mike Mahan, CEO of Dick Clark Productions; and Lon Rosen, executive vice president of the Dodgers. “We have sports executives, we have entertainment executives, we have real estate, private equity, technology, so on and so forth,” says Penn. “For us, the idea was just to come up with a group of people that would send a signal to the marketplace: This will not fail.”
Not only has LAFC not failed, but it’s also been one of the most successful start-up teams in any professional sport. “I’m not sure any team has ever played it smarter than this group did from the outset,” says John Ireland, host of the Mason & Ireland Show and the play-by-play voice of the Los Angeles Lakers. “I started hearing about LAFC over three years ago—before they had a stadium, before they had players, before they had anything. So it was a slow, steady drumbeat of ‘this is coming’ before it was fully formed.”
Officially launched in October 2014, the team announced plans for its 22,000-seat stadium in Exposition Park the next spring. Their black-and-gold logo was revealed in January 2016, the same year in which the group broke ground on the stadium (a scene that involved Ferrell driving a bulldozer and digging a hole). The venue hosted its first game in April 2018, with LAFC defeating the Seattle Sounders 1–0.
Ireland, for one, attributes much of the club’s early success to its all-star group of owners. “They put together an ownership group that was not only diverse but from all ages and backgrounds,” he says. Of course, there are potential downsides to having a group of 31 A-list—and A-type—personalities running a team. It’s less a case of too many cooks in the kitchen than it is too many celebrity chefs in the Michelin three-star restaurant. What if one owner wanted three luxury suites for himself? Or another wanted the team to come scrimmage against his son’s club soccer team in Malibu?
The reality has been quite the opposite, as things have gone as well upstairs as they have on the field. “It’s a partnership,” Penn says. “One of our mottos from the beginning was ‘There are no passengers; we want participants.’ So this was less about financial capital from them and more about their experiential capital, their reputational capital. And, yes, we came up with a set of ground rules of the partnership as it relates to tickets, access, and things like that, and everybody’s accepted that from the beginning. It’s been a very, very high-functioning group.”
LAFC’s owners have never all been in the same room together, but many of them—including Johnson, Hamm, Garciaparra, and Ferrell—are regulars at home games. “We built a giant director’s box at center pitch that is the location for the best seats in the house,” Penn says. “Most of the owners have their tickets in the director’s box, so we hang together in one big suite.”
Ferrell has even been known to follow the team outside of Los Angeles. “For a game in Portland, Will flew up there, landed at the airport, then took the train from the airport to the hotel, where he picked up his son, then took the train to the game, spent all night with us there at the stadium, and then walked through the city to the post-party with our sponsors and employees at the hotel,” says Penn. “He literally hung out with the entire group, sat with us and the coaches until 1 in the morning. Will is really a dedicated, unbelievably cool guy and a true member of the club.”
As for the many other dedicated, cool—and incredibly wealthy—people who would like to join Penn’s club, his answer most likely remains no. For now, at least, the sports world’s most star-studded ownership group will stay at 31 members.