A new home for D.C. United

By

A new home for D.C. United
Aug 3, 2018

By Dan Bernstein and Juan Herrera

Beyond the decade of grunt work devoted to location selection, political negotiations and market research, it took about $250 million in private funds, plus $150 million in public contributions, for D.C. to finally get a permanent soccer venue.

Many doubted the project because of those obstacles, which emerged seemingly at every turn. But after an exhausting bureaucratic process — and 22 years at the now-decaying RFK Stadium — D.C. United can finally show off Audi Field, which it hopes can ignite on-field success while promoting economic development along the District’s waterfront. D.C. United’s first game at the facility was played July 14 against Vancouver, and the new hometeam scored a 3-1 win.

“It will be great to see all of the fans in the cathedral that D.C. United has now built and one that has been deserved,” former D.C. United striker Patrick Mullins said before the game. Mullins attended the University of Maryland and has roots in the area. “Everyone now just wants to know what it’s going to feel like and look like and just what’s the new era of D.C. United going to be. I think that it’s going to be a new era for soccer in D.C. and the DMV. “

D.C. United scrimmages at Audi Field, its new home stadium on the Anacostia waterfront, on June 27. (Photo: D.C. United)

As with any new stadium, though, there’s been pressure to satisfy every interested party at once. The club wants to achieve that by balancing its rich history with a desire to move forward, coach Ben Olson said, and put substance behind its shiny 20,000-seat complex.

Yet controversy among D.C. United fan groups has already caused some to question the club’s priorities. The transfer signing of European icon Wayne Rooney, meanwhile, has excited certain supporters while leading others to wonder question whether this is a short-term investment meant to generate a quick profit, or a genuine mission to do what it takes find of success that’s been lacking in recent seasons.

Still, most agree that escaping RFK while keeping the team in D.C. is better than the alternative.

“There was concern that we could end up as a club being moved someday,” said James Lambert, the president of the Screaming Eagles supporters group. “The stadium gives them at least the opportunity to do stuff. They’re going to have revenue streams they never had before, which if they choose to pump that back into the club in various ways would make them competitive in a way they haven’t been for probably a decade.”

***

D.C. councilmember Jack Evans sighed when asked to describe the political barriers to getting Audi Field approved and built.

“Oh my god,” Evans said. “What a process.”

It took failed initiatives at Poplar Point and in Prince George’s County before the approval of the current Buzzard Point site near the D.C. waterfront, and even that has prompted litigation. To obtain the Buzzard Point site, the District seized land from Akridge using eminent domain. The District is now appealing a Superior Court jury decision that ordered it to pay the company $32 million, as reported by Washington Business Journal.

D.C. put public funds toward purchasing land for the site and the infrastructure underneath and around the stadium, including roads, stormwater management and utilities. The actual stadium was built with private funding, according to deputy mayor Brian Kenner.

Kenner and Evans said the efforts to get the stadium done would pay dividends in the future by stimulating economic development. They pointed to Nationals Park — also by the waterfront — as proof expensive stadiums could provide a positive impact despite academic studies critical of public spending on sports facilities. Plus, they said, there are cultural benefits to successful teams.

“They’re always very controversial,” Evans said. “People march into council chambers with studies packed three feet tall of why sports stadiums do not produce economic development for a city. They never talk about [Capital One Arena] or Nats Park or any of those things because that flies in the face of everything these studies show.”

Capital One Arena hosts the Washington Wizards, Washington Mystics and Washington Capitals. Like Audi Field, the 1997 project was mostly privately financed. According to an impact study by Downtown DC completed in 2014, Capital One Arena accelerated development in the Chinatown neighborhood but didn’t independently create growth.

Nationals Park was publicly funded. Despite an influx of land development around the Washington Nationals stadium, it’s still unclear how much that project has influenced the area’s resurgence.

Even so, pairing Audi Field with Nationals Park along the waterfront has excited the political champions of the new stadium.

“Washington is really reclaiming our waterfront,” Kenner said. “The opportunity was to keep an iconic professional sports team … here in the District of Columbia, but also contemplate how that can be another catalyst or jumpstart of an economic area in the city.”

***

Transitioning to Audi Field has been a welcome process for the team, players and coaches, who hope fans will have a better home to experience games. The stands are closer to the field, Lambert said, which could make it a more intimate environment.

“It’s something they deserve,” Patrick Mullins said. “I think the D.C. United fan base has been the best in the league from the very beginning and they have a lot of loyal fans who have waited a long time to see it.”

D.C. United’s new home stadium, Audi Field, ahead of the stadium opening on July 14. (Photo: D.C. United)

Prior to the inaugural home match on July 14, D.C. United played 12 of its regular season matches on the road. The club has only played two games in the D.C. area this year, once at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown and another time at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis.

That tilted schedule influenced the team’s plummet to last place in the Eastern Conference. D.C. United defender and captain Steve Birnbaum believes Audi Field can spark a turnaround.

“Hopefully it pushes us a little bit more to make sure that we can get results in Audi Field because we want to do it not just for us but for the fans and the city,” Birnbaum said. “Having that new stadium in the middle of the city is going to be awesome.”

Less awesome for the club was a now-settled controversy engulfing its three oldest supporters groups: the Barra Brava, District Ultras and the Screaming Eagles.

Earlier this year, D.C. United announced an official partnership with the Screaming Eagles that would give the group “the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture including single game supporter tickets sales.”

According to Jay Igiel, a long-time member of the Barra Brava, that excluded all members of the Barra Brava and District Ultras from having a voice in the supporters’ group. But the dispute among the three fan groups was settled in mid-July.

Besides the opening of the new stadium, the signing of Rooney — an English soccer icon and Manchester United’s all-time leading scorer — has been a bright spot. The 32-year-old forward joined D.C. United on a three-and-a-half year contract after a short stint with Everton in the Premier League.

“I was excited by the project, the new stadium, the new training ground and the team,” Rooney said during his introductory press conference on July 2. “Obviously, it’s a young team and we need to improve, I think that’s clear to see. We have to improve and start getting better results.”

Wayne Rooney speaks at the D.C. United’s ribbon cutting ceremony for Audi Field on July 9, 2018. (Photo: D.C. United)

According to general manager Dave Kaspar, the team always intended to sign a marquee player like Rooney to go along with its new stadium. Kaspar said he met with ownership back in 2012 and determined the number one priority outside of construction would be to improve the on-field product. He hopes Rooney delivers an immediate impact.

“I think we need [Rooney’s] help on the field and that’s first and foremost and that always was number one, what we felt he could do with us on the field,” Kaspar said. “But certainly to have a guy who could elevate the profile of this club off the field with his name and brand recognition is just a bonus.”

***

The longstanding debate over the character of D.C. sports fans was recently stoked by TV analyst Michael Wilbon, who this past May called the District a “minor league sports town” on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption.”

Then came the celebration of the Washington Capitals’ Stanley Cup victory over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in June, which brought hundreds of thousands of fans to the streets and seemingly disproved Wilbon’s argument.

Whether that enthusiasm can ever extend to D.C. United is a different challenge, however, especially given the supporters groups’ disputes. A new stadium is one thing, and getting an entire region to fall for your club is another.

In response to this dilemma, the Screaming Eagles created a supporter development academy, which works with charitable partner DC Scores to bring local youth to matches. The academy will provide 100-130 tickets to kids, their coaches and their families and give them a place to sit in the stadium adjacent to the supporters’ section. It will also teach club chants and discuss traditions.

“You’re almost developing supporters in the city from the ground up,” Lambert said. “This is one way we thought we could bridge the gap.”

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, center, is flanked by D.C. United owner Erick Thohir, left, and CEO Jason Levien, right, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony and dedication for Audi Field on July 9, 2018. (Photo: D.C. United)

That development will take time, and its success or failure won’t become apparent right away. An MLS Cup title doesn’t appear likely this season anyway, so there’s a built-in window for under-the-radar growth.

Eventually, though, D.C. United will put out a competitive squad at Audi Field. The regional response to that could ultimately demonstrate whether the decision to invest $400 million into a soccer facility stemmed from a successful understanding of the local soccer market, or misguided optimism.

“You saw what happened with the Washington Capitals. Won the Stanley Cup and we had half a million people show up,” Evans said. “With soccer we’ve arrived that level. If they were to win a championship again, we would have a couple of thousand people show up versus when years ago it was a much smaller crowd.”

Comments are closed.