Since Major League Soccer kicked off 16 years ago, the D.C. United franchise has provided four championships to its title-starved town while carving an inimitable niche in the Washington community - all from its colorful but crumbling home at RFK Stadium.
But the time has passed for the league staple to move on from the 50-year-old venue. As the organization treads water in its pursuit of a new stadium in the District, the possibility of the team leaving the nation’s capital grows.
“I remain concerned, and I am continually frustrated” with United’s stadium status, MLS commissioner Don Garber said during a conference call last week. “We have to aggressively figure a solution out.”
At the city of Baltimore’s request, the Maryland Stadium Authority conducted a study published late last year that explored building a 25,000-seat stadium for United at the Westport Waterfront property near Oriole Park at Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.
Earlier this month, MLS showed renewed interest in possibly moving United up Interstate 95. In an email to supporters in the Baltimore area, the league explained it is “conducting research in Baltimore to help determine the viability of the market as a potential home of an MLS Club” and asked that recipients fill out a brief questionnaire.
The survey, the results of which have not been released, included one particularly telling question: “Assume that D.C. United were to relocate to Baltimore, rebrand and begin playing in a new, soccer-specific stadium in the Westport area of Baltimore. How likely would you be to follow the team?”
United’s exploration of Baltimore remains preliminary, and no time frame has been set for a potential relocation decision as the organization continues to pursue a permanent stadium solution in the District. In the short term, the more pressing issue is the club’s attempt to negotiate an affordable lease with Events DC for another season at RFK Stadium, a matter that has Garber concerned with “where this team will be in 2012.”
The untapped Baltimore soccer market, however, does present United with an intriguing option considering the city’s track record on stadium construction. And Charm City certainly showed a thirst for the “beautiful game” in July 2009, when a sellout crowd of 71,000 took in a friendly between England’s Chelsea and Italy’s AC Milan at M&T Bank Stadium.
“Baltimore has seen high attendance numbers for top-flight games and bullish ratings for televised soccer events,” United spokesman Doug Hicks said. “This survey, though, will allow us to dig deeper into the market’s appetite for Major League Soccer and assist D.C. United in conducting thorough due diligence in determining a stadium solution that will best serve the future of the club.”
The Stadium Authority’s study estimated a venue for United on the Westport Waterfront would create 780 to 940 jobs and generate $5.4 million to $6.4 million in tax revenues. Although 62 percent of the franchise’s supporters are from Virginia and the District, “The team expects to pick up fan support in Northern and Western Baltimore and Delaware to make up for and exceed any expected fan base loss from the Hispanic population in the D.C. area, Loudoun County, Virginia and some Northern Virginia fans,” the study said.
If United and Baltimore ultimately decide relocation is in both sides’ best interests, the city would look to conduct a study to estimate the cost of a stadium on the Westport site, said Michael J. Frenz, executive director of the Maryland Stadium Authority. Upon this study’s completion, the state likely would be asked to issue bonds for the stadium’s construction.
“[The Stadium Authority’s] part in this is done,” Frenz said. “So now it’s up to the city and others to determine if they want to proceed. But assuming they do, it’s conceivable bonds could be issued as early as the summer of 2013. So they could be done in 2015.”
United are one of only three MLS teams that don’t play in a soccer-specific stadium and have no definitive plans for a new facility. But the owners of the other two organizations, the New England Revolution and Seattle Sounders, also own the NFL franchises in those markets, allowing the MLS and NFL teams to share the same stadium.
United, on the other hand, have lingered at historic RFK Stadium, the deteriorating byproduct of other sports and a different era. For a club that averaged 15,181 in attendance this past year, playing in a federally owned, 47,000-capacity venue lacking in modern amenities - including club suites - has become an unsustainable business model.
“This team has been an important asset for the community, has delivered on everything that a pro sports team should be focused on,” said Garber, who floated the idea of the club moving from the Washington-Baltimore region if necessary. “I’m shocked to say they could be paying more for their lease in RFK than any other team we have in the league, and there is no doubt in my mind that it is a stadium that is substandard to what soccer fans are able to experience in many other markets.”
United receive about $1.85 million less revenue per year than the average MLS team while coping with $1 million more in expenses, Hicks said.
In July, The Washington Post reported that D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, chairman of the Committee on Libraries, Parks, Recreation and Planning, had been actively involved in United’s efforts to build a stadium in the District. No substantial progress has been made, though, as the team struggles to gain public funding from a D.C. government that in June plugged a $322 million budget gap.
“Like most, [Wells would] like to see DC United stay in DC,” wrote Charles Allen, the council member’s chief of staff, in an email. “His involvement has been to try and get all the parties to the table to talk about the future of DC United and their relationship to our city.”
D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray has provided little reason for optimism, recently writing on Twitter that a publicly funded stadium for United is “not possible.”
The threat of relocation has sprung some loyal supporters into action. Fan group Keep D.C. United crafted a petition letter that cites the organization’s reported interest in building a stadium at the Buzzard Point development in Southwest, stressing the importance of “jobs and economic growth through construction, retail, and services for a part of town that has too often been forgotten.”
Keep D.C. United also emphasizes the club’s active involvement in the D.C. community through outreach programs such as United Builds, United Reads and United Soccer Club.
“These are tax dollars, these are fans D.C. United is on the verge of handing to someone else, and with that goes everything else that D.C. does,” said Keep D.C. United coordinator Peter Loge. “D.C. United touches so many people in this city through their charitable work, through their foundations, through supporting other nonprofits, and a lot of people are very concerned of what would happen if D.C. United left town.”
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