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Meet Philip Anschutz

Soccer's guardian angel might just be America's most powerful conservative -- and a man to put Hollywood on its heels.

By 5.23.02

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Soccer has long been viewed suspiciously by conservatives. Stephen Moore penned a philippic about the Beautiful Game in National Review right before the World Cup four years ago, labeling it "the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value applied to sports." A friend of mine who holds a high position at the Manhattan Institute insists the game is simply un-American. And a baseball coach of mine years back, who came from a prominent right-wing political family in Wisconsin, was adamant that soccer was being sent over by the Soviets to soften us up for the coming invasion.

There may not be a stock position held by conservatives on the sport, but it's not much of an exaggeration to suggest that such opinions are fairly common in right-wing circles. Given the Democratic pandering to Soccer Moms in recent elections and the occasional nativistic instincts on the part of the National Review crowd, a conservative antipathy or even outright hostility toward soccer is not surprising.

So what is surprising? How about the fact that the one individual most responsible for the presence of soccer in the United States at the beginning of the new millennium is a mysterious billionaire who is poised to become the most powerful conservative in America?

Major League Soccer (MLS) has struggled financially in its seven years of existence. It is probably safe to say that the league would no longer exist were it not for the support of Philip Anschutz. He has an ownership stake in seven of the league's ten teams, and his willingness to bear losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars explains why MLS continues.

Who is Philip Anschutz? He's the richest man in America most people have never heard of. And he likes it that way.

As recently as two years ago the Denver-based Anschutz was listed by Forbes as the sixth wealthiest person in America. His reported $18 billion fortune has taken a quite a hit since then. His stake in long-distance provider Qwest Communications has plummeted in value recently, but Anschutz still has enough billions left to keep comfortable.

Anschutz first made money from oil and gas in Western states and showed his investment savvy when well fires were torching his Wyoming oil fields in the 1960s. He called in legendary oil firefighter Red Adair to quell the flames … and he also called in Universal Pictures. He convinced Universal to pay him $100,000 to film the fire fighting. They used the footage to great effect in Hellfighters, a John Wayne movie about Adair.

A shrewd operator, Anschutz has dived into a number of diverse fields. He's the largest shareholder in the Union Pacific, the biggest railroad outfit in the country. Anschutz controls the right-of-way on nearly 20,000 miles of traintrack (along which he has laid thousands of miles of oil piping and fiber-optic cables). He is the third-largest shareholder in Qwest. He continues to dabble in sports. In addition to his MLS holdings, Anschutz owns the Los Angeles Kings (hockey), a 25 percent stake in the basketball Lakers, and a host of different sporting arenas and stadiums.

Soccer aside, those are profit-making ventures to be sure. His financial interest in American soccer, on the other hand, appears to be the one part of his portfolio that is done purely on a lark, a sentimental subsidy from someone who doesn't want the sport to die and is in the position to do something about it.

Soccer may not be the only area where sentiment intrudes upon -- or at least informs -- Anschutz's investment decisions. He isn't merely a successful businessman, he's a successful businessman who happens to be a committed conservative. Anschutz gives lots of money to the Republican National Committee and to GOP candidates, he's friendly with fellow oilman George W. Bush, and he's supported opponents of controversial gay rights and drug legalization referendums.

So you can imagine the sense of horror that must be spreading through the quarters of the latest industry to attract Anschutz's attention: the movie business. Hollywood is as reliably liberal and Democratic as any community in America. But recently Anschutz has been infiltrating the movie and entertainment world with an aim to change both how it operates and the fare it puts out.

Over the past few years Anschutz has quietly gone about purchasing debt in troubled movie exhibitors like United Artists, Edwards Theatres, and Regal Cinemas. Before any of them knew it, Anschutz was the largest debtor, and in bankruptcy proceedings and debt restructuring negotiations he was at the front of the line. Bottom line: Anschutz now controls one out of every five movie screens in America, more than any other company.

Anschutz hopes to make a killing by bringing a digital delivery revolution to the movie business, wiping out the high costs of things like projectors (as well as projectionists). But more importantly, perhaps, he hopes to change the content of many of Hollywood's offerings. Already his entertainment company is developing positive-message films and family fare to counter the prevailing coarseness of American entertainment.

Philip Anschutz is not your typical billionaire. He's not self-aggrandizing. He doesn't tout himself to the press. In fact, he hasn't granted a media interview in a quarter century.

For these reasons some have tried to make him out to be a weird billionaire recluse, like Howard Hughes. But unlike Hughes, Anschutz is by most trustworthy accounts a regular guy, a good family man married to the same woman for decades. He's known for his humility, his abstemiousness (doesn't drink much), and -- gasp! -- his churchgoing. This last fact was considered newsworthy enough by London's left-wing Guardian newspaper that its headline on an item about him read, "Churchgoing Billionaire Who Rises at 4:30 A.M."

These are not the values prized in left-wing enclaves like Hollywood. But Anschutz has enough savvy, money, and power to overcome this handicap. In the coming decades he will likely be a major force in La-la-land as he intensifies his foray into the movie and entertainment industry. There is a huge market for entertainment that doesn't degrade or offend, and Anschutz is positioning to be one to provide it.

But more than that, it seems, Anschutz is moving into Hollywood for reasons that suggest a sort of conservative noblesse oblige. Life isn't all about money; it's about doing the right things with it. In this respect Philip Anschutz may turn out to be one of the most important culture warriors the country has seen.

Will the shy Philip Anschutz be a household name ten years from now, the way Michael Eisner is today? Maybe, maybe not. But the betting is good that in ten years Americans will view Philip Anschutz in a way that they do not view Michael Eisner --as the new Walt Disney.

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