- - Monday, September 29, 2014

Tom Hunt warns that he’s soft-spoken, but his conviction speaks volumes.

As D.C. United’s chief operating officer nodded toward the Buzzard Point stadium renderings, discreetly stacked in a corner of his RFK Stadium office, his tone took on a calm confidence.

“We’re going to get that done,” Hunt said. “It’s going to be a game-changer for us, and a game-changer for the District.”

At 15-9-6, United sits atop the Eastern Conference. With last year’s three-win campaign a distant memory, coach Ben Olsen has inked a long-term contract extension.

But the club remains well short of the 20,967 attendance average from 2007, the last time it finished a season in first place. With two home games remaining, United is drawing just 14,055 per MLS match at cavernous, crumbling RFK Stadium.

There are reasons for positivity, though: United’s winning ways have produced an improved 16,727 average since mid-July. TV ratings are on the rise as well, and the club’s games are back on English-language radio after a five-year hiatus.

In the big picture, United’s on-the-field performance is just a subplot. The real focus is on the D.C. Council as it considers a $300 million proposal to build a 20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer-specific stadium at Buzzard Point, a property west of Nationals Park at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

RFK is a great building, a historic building. And there’s just great history there, no question. But our fans, we can improve the experience for them,” United co-owner Jason Levien said. “I think we’re going to get more fans, we’re going to get more people in the District and the surrounding areas excited about the game of soccer, excited about MLS.”

The best-case scenario for United will see the legislation passed this fall, followed by groundbreaking next year and kickoff at Buzzard Point in 2017. Even that chain of events leaves the club with two more seasons on East Capitol Street.

As Hunt said, “There are a lot of people that really don’t like coming to RFK. We have to convince them to come back, because they’ve been here in the past.”

Global feel to local crowds

United has a fan base that skews toward families and millennials, with students and young professionals particularly comprising a large portion of the supporters’ groups. An ESPN study in 2012 found soccer was the second-most popular sport in the United States among people age 12-24, and those are fans now developing disposable income in adulthood.

The team also attracts a diverse crowd, with Barra Brava founder Oscar Zambrana saying some 35 nationalities are represented in his roughly 1,000-member fan group. The region’s globalized fandom was evident this past summer, when Washington was the United States’ top TV market for the World Cup.

Although the term “Eurosnob” has gained traction in American soccer circles as a label for those who watch games abroad while scoffing at MLS, the league has found that segmentation is less prevalent than previously thought. Now, it’s believed fans of the top European leagues are open to becoming MLS enthusiasts as well.

With United aiming to tap into these demographics, the organization has tabbed a North Carolina agency to conduct a two-month research project into what makes the team’s brand unique. Ideally, Hunt said, the findings will help mold the club’s “identity evolution.”

Yet finding a voice could prove difficult in a sports landscape filled with entities to drown it out.

The Nationals and Orioles have turned into World Series contenders. The Wizards are coming off their first playoff appearance in five years. Maryland football’s inaugural Big Ten slate produces curiosity, as do the Capitals under new coach Barry Trotz. The Redskins, of course, are still the Redskins.

“We understand who we are in this market,” said Olsen, who has been with the club as a player or coach since 1998. “We all want to be a bigger part of it and the conversations — whether it’s sport radio, whether it’s in print, whether it’s in or around the city. All these things, we need to have more exposure in it.”

From a marketing perspective, the club is looking to streamline ticket promotions by focusing on one major theme for a given match instead of several. Concessions and general ticket pricing are also being evaluated. And the team wants to better communicate its vibrant gameday atmosphere to the masses.

“We are fighting against the Skins and the Nats and the Caps and the Wizards, and movies — we’re fighting for every entertainment dollar,” Hunt said. “So if we’re going to go out into the community and speak, we need to know what we stand for and what we’re going to say to people. What’s going to resonate? How do we become relevant?”

While captain Bobby Boswell says he “realized we were insignificant” when United’s postseason runs in the mid-2000s failed to garner much mainstream attention, the club is still bullish ahead of November’s playoffs.

Even though the District won’t catch United fever the same way it embraces October baseball, a tangible uptick in interest is expected. When the team last made the postseason in 2012, it averaged 18,756 fans over a pair of home playoff games — a 35 percent increase from the regular season.

“Soccer fans, we’re smaller in number — though we’re growing in force every day —but we’re very, very devoted,” said Paul Sotoudeh, head of gameday operations for the Screaming Eagles supporters’ group. “They may be fans of other sports — most of them are in my experience — but they’re very, very passionate about soccer and they don’t miss out just because another team is playing.”

Stadium deal key to survival

Long term, a new venue figures to revitalize the 19-year-old franchise. United loses money every year while paying rent at RFK Stadium and therefore operates on a conservative player budget. While other clubs are shelling out cash for the likes Kaka, Frank Lampard and David Villa, United has neither the financial flexibility nor the amenities to attract such household names.

Until a stadium deal is passed and fans can dismiss the threat of relocation to another city, moving the needle in the local landscape will remain a challenge.

“We’re not very certain what’s going to happen to the team,” Zambrana said. “Who wants to buy a season ticket not knowing whether the team is going to stay in the nation’s capital?”

Added Sotoudeh: “People are waiting for the new stadium to be approved. I think once you see that, and there is a confidence amongst all parties that the team is still going to be in the city, you’re going to see attendance start to rise.”

When gauging the potential impact of a soccer-specific stadium on the organization, Sporting Kansas City offers the most enticing precedent. After averaging 10,830 fans per game over 15 seasons at Arrowhead Stadium and CommunityAmerica Ballpark, the MLS club has sold out 51 straight games at 18,467-seat Sporting Park, which opened in 2011.

On Tuesday, United will host an open house in Ward 6 to address community concerns about the Buzzard Point project in another step toward making the club’s proposed new home a reality.

Levien said during a Comcast SportsNet broadcast in August that he had removed “cautiously” from “cautiously optimistic” when evaluating the stadium negotiations.

A month later, Hunt is comfortable taking that assurance one step further.

“Momentum — it’s a strange and wonderful thing, and we have it right now,” Hunt said. “There is a lot of positive support around the stadium at this point. We’re extremely optimistic that this is going to get done.”

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