Stadium Proposal Gives DC Fans Reason for Hope

Deal with Mayor Vincent C. Gray faces hurdles, but is sign of progress
by Peter Muller   |   Thursday, July 25, 2013

United Capitol – column on DC United (DCU) & the Washington DC/DMV area soccer scene.

For 17 seasons D.C. United and its fans have made RFK Stadium their home. The 53-year-old venue, known for its bouncing supporters section and the site of United’s second MLS Cup victory, has been the imperfect but charming-in-its-own-way location of soccer celebrations and heartache in the nation’s capital.

But United’s fans and owners have longed for a modern soccer specific stadium to call their own and have despaired as various stadium proposals have fallen apart over the last 10 years.

Today, United and D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray announced the latest, and perhaps most promising, plan to build a new stadium blocks from the Washington Nationals ballpark in Southeast D.C.

Under the arrangement, United would spend $150 million to build a 20,000 to 25,000 seat stadium at Buzzard Point on land provided by the city, which will spend its own $150 million to provide the venue.

The new stadium would propel United into the modern age of Major League Soccer, with the ability to provide a first-class fan experience while controlling a revenue stream that could allow the club to be more competitive on the field and eventually become profitable.

When Erick Thohir and Jason Levien invested in United last year, the new ownership group made it clear their top priority was a new stadium and that Thohir’s money was the difference maker.

Levien, who runs the day-to-day operations of the club, said his mission was to build a new stadium and pledged to cut through D.C.’s bureaucratic red tape to make it happen.

A final deal is far from certain, however, as it will require a series of land swaps between the city and private developers that have yet to be finalized.

DC United, MLS

Even more uncertain is whether the D.C. City Council will approve the agreement. Levien will have his hands full convincing the Council – which has seen 3 of its members convicted on corruption charges in the last 18 months – that a new sports arena is in the best interest of the city.

But the announcement brings hope to a fan base that is enduring the worst season in United’s history and is eager for positive news.

A look at RFK

Over the years, RFK Stadium was the home for the Washington Redskins, Washington Senators and Washington Nationals. It also hosted musical acts from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones and from U2 to the HFStival, back when WHFS was the premier music station in town.

But the stadium was too big, too old and too lacking in amenities to be an appropriate venue for a Major League Soccer team.

DC United, MLS

Even on its best days, while hosting a United playoff game or a US Men’s National Team match, the old stadium failed to meet the standards of today’s modern arenas.

Over the years it became clear that United could not make money while playing at RFK and could not afford to invest in high-cost players to improve the squad.

And the fan experience deteriorated year after year, with falling pieces of concrete, insufficient concessions stands, uncomfortable seats and a general sense of decay deterring supporters from buying tickets.

United’s players and fans have put up with a lot over the years.

The field has generally been well-maintained. But when the Washington Nationals called RFK home the pitching mound would be submerged under the field for soccer games, leaving a round patch of uneven grass in the middle of the pitch. Clint Dempsey famously made a “home run swing” motion after scoring a goal for the New England Revolution.

The locker rooms are sub-par, the concession facilities are sub-standard and the seats are too far from the field.

The supporters have done their part to bring the stadium to life, with the Barra Brava standing and cheering throughout games and creating an atmosphere that goes a long way toward masking the tens of thousands of empty seats around them.

But for United to be successful for the long term, both on the field and as a business, a new stadium is required.

The ownership group is willing to put up the money and the Mayor is willing to provide the land. There are many hurdles ahead but for the first time this season D.C. United fans have reason to be hopeful.

NEXT UP: July 27 – DC United vs. New England Revolution, RFK Stadium, Washington, D.C., 7 p.m. EST, CSN Washington.


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Peter is a government relations professional in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles, CA. He has been a DC United season ticket holder since 1997 and has attended every MLS Cup except one – in 1998 when he was busy helping his boss get re-elected to Congress.