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New Houston Dash, Dynamo owner Ted Segal – The Athletic

A little more than a month after it first emerged that he was in talks to buy the organization, Ted Segal completed the purchase of the Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash on Monday, closing on a deal that, according to one source, put the value of the entire club around $400 million.

Now one of the youngest majority owners in North American professional sports, the 40-year-old Segal is the founder and president of ESJ Group, a real estate and finance company in New York City. A native of New Jersey, he went to the same high school as Tim Howard, graduating a couple of years after the former U.S. men’s national team goalkeeper. Segal’s parents emigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union three years before he was born with, as he put it, “$100 in their pocket.” His father later founded LS Power, an energy company now run by Segal’s brother Paul.

Segal has quite the job on his hands to turn around the Dynamo and Dash. Despite being located in one of the biggest markets in the country, the organization atrophied in recent years under the stewardship of previous majority owner Gabriel Brener, who is maintaining a minority interest in the club. The Dynamo, an MLS powerhouse from the moment they moved to Houston from San Jose in 2006 through 2013, won the U.S. Open Cup in 2018 but have missed the playoffs six of the last seven seasons. The Dash were surprise winners of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, but have never made the postseason since coming into the league in 2014. Fan interest in both teams has suffered. 

He’s only been in charge for a few days, but Segal has already made a few significant moves. At his introductory press conference in Houston on Tuesday, he announced that the Dynamo extended the contract of center back Tim Parker for an additional three years and signed 25-year-old Zimbabwean international Teeneage Hadebe as a designated player. He also announced the hiring of longtime former Houston Texans president and ex-Columbus Crew executive Jamey Rootes as club CEO, as well as a series of charitable donations to different organizations in and around Houston.

On Wednesday, ahead of the Dynamo’s 2-2 draw against Portland, Segal spoke with The Athletic about his plans for the organization, the process of buying the club and why he thinks Houston is a sleeping giant of a soccer market. That conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below: 

Walk me through the process of buying the team. How and when did you first get interested? How did the process unfold? 

My interest in MLS is longstanding, it goes back to 2012 when I had my first meeting in commissioner Garber’s office. We as a family have had a long-term interest in investing in sports because we are all passionate sports fans and it is, frankly, an industry that is not really correlated with any of our core businesses in the power generation space and real estate. And so, through a series of contacts, I was able to be connected with commissioner Garber. All of these sports commissioners have these types of meetings regularly, and we had very nice introductory conversation, looked at some opportunities briefly at that time and you can go back and do your chronology and see what those might have been (Note: D.C. and Columbus were sold to new, outside majority owners in 2012 and 2013, respectively).

I would say it’s been an evolution since. I think me and my family were probably not fully appreciative of what it takes to invest in assets like these at that time, were not fully up to speed about how the valuations work. Sometimes the club didn’t make sense to us and sometimes it’s just a matter of not being in the right place on a personal level. So we’ve looked at things over a number of years, but nothing made as much sense as when we caught wind of this Houston opportunity given all of the strong characteristics of Houston specifically as a city and the moment in time that we’re in in MLS vis-a-vis the coming (2026) World Cup and the moment in time with the Dash coming off the heels of a recent World Cup and the ascendance of the NWSL. All of those factors came together and it happened to be that last year we caught wind that Gabriel was considering the sale. As these processes work, we were connected with a representative of his, we started to get up to speed and then the process went from there.

And we’re so happy to arrive at this day. It was a long journey, but like I said, it’s the right moment in time for me, for us as a family and in the right place, most importantly, because I cannot be more excited about being here in Houston with what the potential is here. 

There were also at least a couple of other clubs that were up for sale at the same time as Houston in Orlando and Salt Lake, both of which — at least at one point — had NWSL teams attached to them, as well. Did you ever consider buying into either of those clubs?

I will admit that we took a look at Orlando, but I think for us, our strong preference was Houston given the many attractive characteristics of this city. And so that one stood out and we really zeroed in our focus on this opportunity. Part of looking and trying to acquire one of these is the ability to enjoy it as well as have a presence in management, and it’s just far too far away, in terms of Salt Lake, for something that we seriously considered.

We’re still going to be based in New York, it’s where my business and my family is. But I envision being in Houston with a pretty good frequency, both with respect to home games and also I’m going to be a presence on the road. And with that, I’m looking forward to when the Dynamo and Dash can travel east of the Mississippi, hopefully I can catch some games in the Northeast in addition to being in Houston, but I want to be in Houston both for games and to really be present for my management and executive team. 

You’ve alluded to the attractive characteristics of Houston a few times. What specifically about the city stood out to you that made it a good opportunity? 

It’s a passionate sports city, they love their sports and are passionate fans. In particular, they’re passionate soccer fans. They’ve demonstrated that support for championship clubs in the Dynamo and the Dash, and they consistently show up and make this a go-to place for international friendlies. So there’s that component on the sports side. If you look at the non-sporting characteristics, it’s its size. Houston is the fourth-biggest city in the country. It’s continued growth, it’s diversity, it’s its multifaceted economy. You put that together with their passion for sports and soccer, to me it makes perfect sense. 

According to reports, you’re paying a very significant sum to buy the club. The Dynamo, from what has been reported and from what I’ve been told, are one of the lower-revenue teams in MLS. NWSL revenues lag behind those of MLS. Given that, what made you comfortable buying in at a reported valuation of $400 million? 

I believe in the future of soccer in the United States, both on the men’s and women’s side. I feel that we have the ability here to awaken a sleeping giant. And so I think that over time you will see — I think you’ve already seen since our announcement has been made — some minority sales that are at significant valuation (Note: Veteran NFL running back Mark Ingram II recently bought a minority stake in D.C. United at a reported club valuation of $710 million ). So I feel good about our entry point, though I’m not going to get into specifics about what that entry point is. And if you believe in the long-term growth of soccer in the United States, you want to be in a big market. You want to be in a big market in any of the major leagues, so to be here in Houston, we’re really happy about that. If you’re at non-capacity like Houston has been, and I see the ability to get this enterprise to full capacity, you’re going to make a big upswing in that revenue. 

I’m not sure if you’re willing to go into this, but in terms of the actual valuation itself, what was the breakdown of how much of it was for the Dynamo and how much of it was for the Dash? 

I’m not going to get into specifics around the valuation. 

Did you speak to any current MLS or NWSL owners over the course of this process and, if so, who did you speak to and what did they tell you?

I spoke to many; I would say it was a combination of both new owners and some veterans of the leagues. I don’t know if they want me to divulge who I spoke to, but it was men and women with really good perspectives and experience in both of the leagues and I appreciated it. And my question to all of them as experienced owners, was, taking the third-party view, what are your thoughts on Houston, what are your thoughts on what’s being done well and what could be improved there. And I think if you looked across the board, the “sleeping giant” phrase did come up quite a bit and I think our stadium and its location is the envy of a lot of owners. It is an extraordinarily well-located stadium. It’s a real asset to us. 

That’s undoubtedly true, but the organization — the Dynamo in particular — have struggled to fully take advantage of that location. The support hasn’t been great since the move from Robertson Stadium to BBVA Compass Stadium in 2012, although the on-field results have taken a downturn since the opening of the new facility. What do you make of that downturn? And what do you think the biggest opportunities are for the club to take advantage of moving forward?

People want to show up for a winning side. It’s not so fun to go to games and lose. And so our goal is simply to help build a winning side here so that the fans are coming out and filling those seats.

You’ve already made a few moves, announcing at your introductory press conference the signing of Teenage Hadebe to a DP deal, the extension of Tim Parker, the addition of Jamey Rootes as CEO and a series of charitable donations in the Houston area. Why was it important for you to make those your first moves, and why did you choose to announce them the way that you did? 

Well, number one, we’re ready to get to work. I mentioned that in the press conference, but there’s no time like the present. We have assumed ownership and we want to make things happen. What I announced I think is also consistent with a number of the pillars of what my intentions are. We want to help build and help provide resources to build a winning team on the pitch, and I think we have that with Tim Parker and we have that with Teenage. Then, enhance the fan experience, both with success on the pitch and in the overall memorable experiences that we can craft at the stadium. And bringing in Jamey, who has 20 years of experience doing just that in the largest league we have here in the United States, that made all the sense in the world. I think he can apply a lot of his skills, which, by the way, started out in MLS, so he’s no newcomer to professional soccer, and so he’s part of that pillar and we’re happy to have him aboard. And then, I sincerely mean what I said about the community aspect. Pro sports teams enjoy a rare position in our society. They can make an impact that organizations outside of sports can’t. You need to use these clubs as a vehicle to do good work in the community. That’s something that’s very important to me, so I wanted to get going on some of those efforts.

Dynamo head coach Tab Ramos and GM Matt Jordan are both in the final year of their contracts. What’s your plan for them over the next six months? 

I don’t want to get into too many specifics of what I plan to do, but there will be an evaluation period. I’m on Day 1.5 here at the organization, but, and this isn’t specific to Tab and Matt, I want everybody in the organization to have a fair shake to succeed. I’m not sure if they’ve always had that, and my intention is to give them that fair shake.

You said earlier that Houston was attractive to you in part because it is a big market. For a long time, the organization has behaved like a small-market organization. How do you specifically plan to change that? What do you want this organization to look like in one year? Three years? Five years? 

What I want the organization to look like is a club that is successful on the pitch. That is our overall goal. As I mentioned in the press conference, I’m not going to get into a specific budget or budget allocations, that’s going to be an evolving process and consultation with Tab Ramos and Matt Jordan. And through that collaborative effort we’re going to develop a budget, understand where the needs are, where the most pressing needs are and try to address those so that over time, both in the near-term and longer-term, we’re in a position to succeed. And then I should further note that resource allocation takes a lot of facets, right? It is both the acquisition of talent, the development of talent, it’s fostering the talent on the training ground and providing the appropriate resources there. What we are doing right now is an overall holistic effort to understand what the overall needs are, what the priorities are and where to allocate resources now and in the future.

That answer was obviously in context of the soccer side, but what about the business side? What about facilities? Do you plan to upgrade infrastructure, to add staff? What are your plans off the field? 

There’s a lot that can be done with respect to infrastructure both at the stadium and the training ground. There have been a number of improvements that have been identified by us. What we are trying to do is make a holistic assessment, because any change isn’t done in a vacuum. You move some seats here, you build that space there and that impacts everything else that can be done. So what we’re doing right now in tandem with the league, who has a particular consulting group that advises ownership on how to make these sorts of assessments, is doing that overall review. And we’re going to decide where our priorities are and how to approach it for near-term improvements and then things we can do over the longer run.

One area that both MLS and NWSL have a lot of room to grow is with Latino communities. Where do you think things stand in that regard with the organization? What do you want to see in that area moving forward?

Being on Day 1.5 here, I don’t have a full appreciation for the level of engagement with the Spanish-speaking audience, but my belief is that that is a fertile opportunity that is untapped. But I also will note, given the diversity beyond the Spanish-speaking members of our community in Houston, is that my main desire is to build a winning club, a club that is a club for all Houstonians. And that’s my goal is to have a diverse, joyful audience filling that stadium and supporting championship clubs. 

In the past, other owners in NWSL have made comments similar to what you said in your press conference about coming to women’s soccer in part because they’re the father of a soccer playing daughter. Fans sometimes hit back at those kinds of comments. They want to hear that owners are investing because they believe women’s soccer is a viable financial product; framing the purchase of a team as driven by having a daughter or other women in your life is seen as something that makes NWSL feel like a charity case. What do you make of that in the context of your comments? And how do you view NWSL as a financial investment?

If that was the interpretation of what I was saying, that wasn’t at all my intent. I will say that being the father of two daughters who are enthusiastic about women’s soccer, both at the NWSL level and the international level, is the cherry on top of this investment in the Dash. I fully admit that it’s going to bring me great joy to see the joy on their faces as they watch Dash games or be present at BBVA for international friendlies. But this league is standing up as an investment in its own right. If you look at the new group of investors coming into this league, I think that substantiates that. So my view on it is this is an ascending league, and the fact that I have daughters who are going to enjoy it is just an extra for me. But it’s not the main motivation. I will also note that I have fond memories going back to 1999, to that World Cup run, so my enthusiasm for the sport is high and that long preceded the time when I had daughters.

(Photo: Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images)

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