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Photograph courtesy of John Todd/San Jose Earthquakes

Delayed Depature: MLS defending champions the San Jose Earthquakes might remain in town, if Tony Amanpour has his way.

The Iranian Connection

A Mideast entrepreneur wants to save San Jose soccer—and connect to overseas youth


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A CONSORTIUM OF 20 Iranian-American entrepreneurs, along with a few dozen other investors, is inching closer to purchasing the San Jose Earthquakes this week. The Quakes' current investor/operator, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), has said it will not invest in the team after the 2004 season if a new stadium deal is not solidified soon. Its deadline: this Friday, Sept. 17.

When the whole scenario originally reached crisis level, a few lifelong San Jose Earthquakes fans decided they would not go down without a fight. They formed Soccer Silicon Valley (SSV), a collaborative effort that redefines the term grassroots. To attract investors, SSV staged a season-ticket pledge drive and raised nearly 1,000 new season-ticket holders for 2005. They met with local mayors. They infiltrated radio stations. They spearheaded an email onslaught from die- hard fans to almost every local authority in the area. Most of all, they staged a "save the Quakes" rally in downtown San Jose that made national and international press.

Their efforts apparently paid off. Enter Tony Amanpour, a 46-year-old mortgage and bank planner originally from Iran. A lifelong soccer fan, he came to the United States when he was 19, and started a one-man business in the South Bay in 1987. Over time, he grew the business into a multimillion-dollar operation. After the rally, he approached SSV, and the ball began to roll.

"My sphere of influence and the network of people I associate with—they're all soccer-passionate and very credentialed and [worthy] of making a task like this a doable task," Amanpour says. "Within the first three days, I raised enough interest within the community. There is a group of 20 individuals who are either CEOs or founders of public companies who are going to be part of this movement."

AEG's asking price for the team is reported to be $10 million, but the investor must be able to sustain losses for at least a few years and have a clear vision of how a new stadium will emerge.

"We do have an excitement level, and we don't find early challenges with the acquisition and cost and carry of the team for the next three years," Amanpour said. "We are also contributing a handsome dollar figure toward the new stadium. So we think we have enough value on our side, that it's worthy of dialogue with [South Bay cities]."

Three potential locales exist for a new stadium: China Basin San Francisco, the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds and a Santa Clara site just north of Paramount's Great America. Amanpour met with San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom on Sept. 10, and Soccer Silicon Valley is arranging meetings between Amanpour's group and the municipalities of San Jose and Santa Clara this week.

"I am confident that before the Sept. 17 deadline we'll be able to have a letter of intent to AEG and Major League Soccer," he said.

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales has held talks with another investment group. His budget policy director, Joe Guerra, said the talks involve another potential stadium site in the South Bay, but he wouldn't disclose details.

"People willing to look at this thing don't want to get blamed if it doesn't happen," he said, adding that investors didn't want rabid Quakes fans asking them why they didn't do enough to save the team.

Guerra said San Jose officials do not think a stadium in Santa Clara would cause tension between cities. "That site would still be good for our residents," he said. "If it does end up going that direction, we might be able to help. We've already done some feasibility studies. We might be able to provide some expertise when it comes to the financing."

He also added that AEG CEO Tim Leiwicke met with Gonzales last week in Southern California, and the two will most likely meet again in the next few weeks.

Amanpour, however, has his sights set much higher than saving the San Jose soccer team.

"Our goal is to buy this team and give back to the community that has been good to us, but also to be a channel for us to do our part as a team player toward [the USA] winning the World Cup in 2010," he said. "We would like to see the USA become a premier leader in the soccer world, and that path is through MLS."

Amanpour also said that in his native Iran, the USA team is the second most popular national squad, after Iran, of course. He said we shouldn't confuse the Iranian government with the Iranian people. "We love Americans, and there's no grudges being held at all," he said. "And if there is a way for dialogues [between the two countries] to open up, it's hopefully through the game of soccer—that's how the youth in Iran will see the American feel for their people. Because that's exactly the message we're going to take to [the Iranian people]—and take to the American public—that we really want to be an ambassador for that love of the American people."

The first collaborator Amanpour called upon was Pejman Nozad, a founding general partner of Amidzad, a venture capitalist group in Palo Alto. Nozad, 36, came to the United States from Iran 12 years ago. He played on the Iranian youth team when it won the championship, and he is an adviser to Global Sports Group.

"He's a professional soccer player by trade and he's very savvy business person," Amanpour explained.

The final target: the soccer-crazed youth of Iran. "They will be following this news very clearly, very openly," Amanpour said. "We will find a channel to communicate with the youth in Iran, in the direction of their development and their dreams, through the language of soccer."

Amanpour remains thoroughly optimistic: "We haven't had a setback yet. All the meetings and the investor groups are coming together nicely. All the conversations with San Francisco were very optimistic. We are looking forward to the same dialogue with the city of San Jose, to accept our invitation in a partnership to keep the team in this area."

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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