An uncommon path: Jason Levien
Editor's note: This story is revised from the print edition.
It’s a scorching afternoon in the Las Vegas desert, but Jason Levien is the picture of cool. He sips an iced tea inside a Caesars Palace restaurant, perusing his BlackBerry while taking a break between meetings and phone calls.
If he’s feeling any pressure from the deals he’s trying to close, he’s not showing it. He casually orders another tea while explaining the circuitous path that has taken him from being an idealistic young White House intern to one of sports’ busiest dealmakers, yet still a relative unknown throughout industry circles.
“I don’t know how I got to where I am,” Levien said. “When I get stuck, I pick up a machete and make my own path.”
(Levien’s trip to Miami was successful. Miller signed with the Grizzlies after spending the past three seasons with the Heat.)
Ask the married father of a 2-year-old son who also has residences in Memphis, Washington and New York where he spends most of his time, and Levien half-jokingly says, “On an airplane.” But in many ways, Levien, 41, has been laying the groundwork for his deep involvement in sports dating back to his college years, even if he didn’t know it at the time.
A political junkie
Levien began his career as a promising law clerk, then worked as a lawyer, player agent and assistant NBA general manager before becoming a team owner and operator. He did not have his sights set on the sports industry immediately after graduating from Pomona in 1993 — a school he’d transferred to from Georgetown University so he could play basketball.
Instead, the New York City native was interested mostly in do-good politics.
That interest was instilled in him by his parents, who met at a speech given by Eleanor Roosevelt. Progressive politics was a staple during dinner table conversations at the Levien’s Manhattan home, with his parents stressing the importance of public service. So after graduating from Pomona with a B.A. in politics, Levien proceeded to the University of Michigan, where he went on to earn both a master’s degree in public policy and a law degree while also serving as editor of the Michigan Law Review.
During his law school years, Levien took some time off to work as an intern in the White House communications office during the Clinton administration after one of his professors connected him with the administration. But while in Ann Arbor, Levien also met Harold Ford Jr., whose father, Harold Ford Sr., at the time was serving his 11th term as a congressman from the Memphis area.
“My dad was in Congress at the time, and Jason and I found ourselves having conversations about what should happen with the movement between the liberal and moderate wings in the [Democratic] party,” Ford Jr. said. “We’d banter about what an educational reform bill should look like and about welfare policies.”
Levien ultimately pitched in to help Ford in his effort to follow his father in getting elected to Congress. He made numerous trips to Memphis during Ford’s campaign in 1996, an election that would be the first of five Congressional elections Ford would win. In 2000, Levien helped pen the speech Ford gave at that year’s Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.
“When I had big moments happening in my political life, I reached out to get his advice or his thoughts,” said Ford, who today has a minority stake in the Grizzlies. “Jason made trips with me to Memphis, so it’s incredibly ironic that of all the places for his ownership in a team that it is in Memphis. In a lot of ways, it is like home.”
After law school, Levien looked to combine his law degree and his political interests. He clerked for a federal judge in Baltimore and went further on his way to a career in law when he joined the Williams & Connolly law firm in Washington, D.C., in 1998, working there for current Phoenix Suns President Lon Babby.
“I wanted to be making a difference, and D.C. was the place to be,” Levien said.
Sports, particularly basketball, remained an interest for Levien, but they weren’t figuring into the young attorney’s career plans at this point — until, while at Williams & Connolly, he started getting involved with some sports-related legal issues. He found himself being exposed to player-related matters and recruiting.
“I didn’t go there for sports, but Lon heard I played basketball in college and coached during my vacations,” Levien said, adding that his first assignment was filing a lawsuit on behalf of a Babby NBA client who was suing his wedding caterer.
“I was the assistant general counsel for minor matters,” Levien joked. But he also became an asset for the firm in helping recruit athletes for representation.
|Two deals for 2012: Levien at left with D.C. United co-owners Erick Thohir and Will Chang, and with Memphis Grizzlies co-owner Robert Pera (below).
“I was ready for some distance from politics and from D.C.,” he said.
Levien wasn’t a complete stranger to the agency world. His father, Jim, an attorney, had represented the legendary boxer Hector
“As a 16- and 17-year-old, I watched from the sidelines as my dad negotiated with Bob Arum and Don King,” Levien said. “I thought that while it was really interesting I would never want to do that. I loved sports but didn’t see them intertwining with business.”
Now there was an opportunity. Still, the move was a leap of faith for Levien, and an about-face from his previous ambitions.
“I figured I would work at a law firm for a few years and then go into public policy,” he said.
As a newly minted agent, Levien’s client list was unsurprisingly short, but he made his first major mark when he signed Kevin Martin, who starred at Western Carolina University and was a first-round pick of the Sacramento Kings in 2004.
Both unproven, Martin and Levien took a chance on each other.
“He was trying to make a name for himself as well as I was, and we grew together, and you don’t see that too often,” Martin said. “I had a choice to go with a high-profile agent, but I was a guy who started at the bottom and felt that Jason was a good fit. He worked hard no matter what time of day or year and he was a guy motivated to do something for somebody.”
Not only did Levien negotiate Martin’s rookie contract, but he also became certified to legally officiate weddings so that he could preside over Martin’s wedding at his client’s request. It’s an anecdote used by Levien to highlight his style when he worked as an agent.
“My philosophy was to take a hands-on approach and form a close relationship with my clients,” Levien said. “I was motivated to make an impact on [the clients’] lives. I had to outhustle people.”
(Levien served some additional wedding duty this past year, presiding over the nuptials of another former client, Matt Walsh, in Cancun. “That was my second wedding, so I got a little side business,” he said with a laugh.)
Other deals followed the Martin signing. Steadily, Levien built a solid agency, with five employees and a list of 27 clients from across sports. His biggest deal came in July 2008, when he represented Luol Deng in signing a six-year, $71 million deal with the Chicago Bulls.
The blockbuster was not only Levien’s largest deal, but it also was one of his last.
Into the front office
Despite his success representing players, Levien had begun to look beyond life as an agent. He wanted to get closer to the NBA game and be part of a team that was bigger than himself. He met with former Sacramento team owner Joe Maloof about joining the Kings front office in early 2008.
|When Levien joined a group buying the Grizzlies, it was his third major franchise deal.
“Jason was a student of the CBA and he knew it backward and forward,” Maloof said. “He was high-energy and very smart but not a know-it-all. We had some tough but fair negotiations with him, and he was above-board. That impressed me and my brother Gavin.”
After winding down his agency — finding new agents for his clients and new jobs for his employees — Levien joined the Kings in the fall of 2008, drawn to the team with the expectation of at some point replacing longtime Kings general manager Geoff Petrie. It didn’t work out that way, and it didn’t take long for Levien to grow disenchanted. After just 20 months, Levien resigned from the Kings in 2010.
Levien would not comment on any specific issues he had with the Kings, but his resignation was a personal blow.
“I had just given up my business and left the Kings without a job,” he said.
After considering other general manager pursuits, Levien made another new, bold plan. The man who previously moved from law to starting a sports agency now planned to assemble an ownership group and buy a franchise. “I guess I could have gone back to the agency business, but it felt like a step backwards,” Levien said. “I wanted the next challenge.”
Levien knew the Philadelphia 76ers were on the market but he needed to find deep-pocketed investors.
“I committed $10 million, but I needed to raise a lot more and I needed a controlling owner,” Levien said.
He targeted U.S. investors but he also flew to all corners of the world chasing potential partners, including taking a trip to Iran and seven trips to Indonesia. That’s where he met with Erick Thohir, co-founder of the media and entertainment company Mahaka Group and owner of two Indonesian basketball teams. Thohir and Levien had met earlier, at the 2011 NBA All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles, where Levien was courting investors for the Sixers group.
“Once Josh got involved and excited, it took off,” Levien said.
Weeks of negotiations followed, but by October 2011, a $280 million deal was completed, with Harris and Blitzer taking majority stakes in the team and Levien, Thohir and a host of other investors (including actor Will Smith)
The Sixers deal was a victory in itself for Levien — he now was part of a franchise ownership group — but it also included a fortuitous twist in that the pursuit of the deal led him to meet Robert Pera, a former engineer with Apple who in 2005 founded Ubiquiti Networks. Pera, a billionaire by his mid-30s, was introduced to Levien in New York in 2011 during Levien’s quest to find Sixers financing. Though Pera passed on investing in the Sixers because Harris was already pegged as the controlling owner, Pera and Levien struck up a friendship.
“We hit if off quickly, and when I was going to Indonesia when he was going to be there, he said to stop by, and we spent a week together playing basketball and talking about business, life and other stuff,” Levien said. “He said ‘Let’s buy another team.’ I was involved in the Sixers, but my wheels started spinning.”
At the same time, Thohir suggested to Levien that they also invest in soccer. Suddenly, Levien was looking to buy not just another NBA team, but also a Major League Soccer franchise.
In a whirlwind, two-year period, Levien was poised to go from being a well-connected but unemployed ex-NBA assistant general manager to owning stakes in two professional franchises.
“I was staying on as a limited partner in the Sixers and thinking about pursuing other opportunities,” Levien said. “Thohir said that soccer is the future and that maybe we could do soccer. I started looking at the growth opportunities, and I liked the MLS single-entity structure.”
In July 2012, Levien and Thohir bought a majority, 60 percent interest of D.C. United from Will Chang, chairman of the San Francisco-based Westlake International Group and who also owns a minority stake in the San Francisco Giants. (Chang holds the 40 percent balance of the MLS club’s ownership.)
Levien was drawn to the franchise by his familiarity with the team during his days living in Washington, D.C., and he convinced Thohir to do the deal.
“I always believed when you have investments in other countries, you have local partners, and with Jason, he has been in the [sports] business not only as an owner but as an agent, and it gives him a complete view in managing the business,” Thohir said.
No price was announced in the deal and Levien would not disclose how the majority interest in the team is split between himself and Thohir, but published reports put the team’s value at at least $50 million.
“It was clear to me the first time I met him that Jason was a very focused guy and we had a lot of confidence that he could make a lot of progress,” said MLS President and Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbott, who had his first meeting with Levien as part of the D.C. United acquisition process. “As a negotiator, he is very practical. He is not a guy who chooses to fight over everything. The immediate things you notice about Jason are his energy and his optimism about everything he takes on.”
While Levien knows the NBA game inside and out, he makes no such claims about his soccer expertise.
“I am still a rookie in terms of my knowledge,” he said. “I don’t try to evaluate talent, but I am the most hands-on of the [three partners]. I enjoy the sport, and the growth trajectory is unreal.”
On the field this year, D.C. United has struggled: Its 3-21-6 record through Sept. 29 was the worst in the league. But off the pitch, the team — largely through Levien’s doing — scored a huge victory this summer. Levien was a key player in negotiating an agreement with District of Columbia officials for a $300 million stadium for the franchise, a deal that previously had failed numerous times. Levien was able to bring the deal together despite the differing public and private interests surrounding the stadium’s Buzzard Point location, a mostly industrial area in the District seen as ripe for redevelopment.
The first thing Levien had to do was win the trust of local politicians, most importantly that of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. The politics were difficult given that there was a 10-year history of failed stadium attempts, but Levien skillfully made Gray an ally in the deal while also making sure that D.C. City Council members also were given credit in getting an agreement done.
“I had to build a relationship with [Gray],” said Levien, who noted that Buzzard Point was the team’s clear choice in location. “You also had the looming potential departure of the team out of the District, and I said up front that it was our second and third choices [too], so let’s figure out a deal. What I have learned is that if people have a real trust, then you can figure out where you are aligned and try to accomplish something.”
The Memphis move
At the same time Levien last year was getting acclimated to his D.C. United ownership and starting work on that stadium deal, he and Pera were continuing to push to buy an NBA team. The Memphis Grizzlies were an obvious target. The Grizzlies had been shopped for years by former owner Michael Heisley, and Pera was a deep-pocketed owner who was eager to buy into the league.
|As one of their moves with the Grizzlies, Pera and Levien brought Mike Miller back to Memphis from Miami.
“Our styles are similar,” Pera said. “I believe in efficiencies and rolling up your sleeves to solve problems, and that is what Jason does. He is very creative and resourceful. He’s probably the best person I have seen at getting things done.”
“Jason never seems to be rushing through anything,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, who sat at the negotiating table with Levien over the sale of the Grizzlies. “There is never any sense of desperation. He just stays at it, and as a result, he has become a very effective dealmaker in the industry. It has been fun to watch him morph from a dealmaker into a first-class operator.”
It was the third major franchise deal for Levien, and it was, admittedly, a lot of business in a very short time. “I felt like I was drinking from a fire hose,” Levien said of 2012.
“Jason is one of the most tenacious sports executives I have encountered,” said sports industry veteran Jeffrey Pollack, who worked with Levien in assembling the Grizzlies ownership group. “His commitment in getting the Grizzlies’ deal done was remarkable; he was in the process of the D.C. United deal. He is taking a portfolio approach to his sports interests and he has put the portfolio together very quickly. He is a master at bringing together constituencies to get a job done.”
So given Levien’s history of wheeling and dealing, can another deal for another franchise be far behind?
Levien said he has, in fact, already been approached to do other deals since the Grizzlies’ purchase. But those pursuits aren’t taking his focus at this point. Instead, he said, he is committed to the Grizzlies and to D.C. United.
“I wasn’t looking to be a professional dealmaker,” he said, noting his focus now is on making his two teams successful. “I want to build things.”