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Why I think DC United’s new stadium plans might work out and why they probably won’t

DCU stadium

DCU stadium

It’s still not going to happen.

It’s just not.

It might.

But it probably won’t.

Why? 

To put it simply, the deal DC United is trying to work out with the city is an immensely complex one involving multiple landowners, multiple government entities, one almost certainly corrupt mayor, an unquestionably corrupt city council, a universally reviled public utility, and the owners of a 2-14-4 soccer team whose competence is still very much in question.

Let me do that rarest of things (for me, at least) and start with why the deal might work.

  • Buzzard Point is a dump. That much is true and that does work in United’s favor. I know the area well after multiple years working at two of this hypothetical stadium’s neighbors – the headquarters of the Coast Guard (which is moving away starting in August) and the Army’s Fort McNair. The area is a wreck and could use development. That much is inexorably true. The area is underutilized and it’s not very safe in its current form. If you’re the District, you see this area as tax revenue waiting to be unearthed.
  • Kevin Payne is not involved. You’re going to hear a lot of alluding to this and talking around this point (After all, where will reporters get their juicy, but ultimately uninformed, leaks about new “signings” like Diego Forlan?), but there is no question now that this deal can happen in large part because former DC United President Kevin Payne is now invoking his reign of bloviation on the residents of Toronto. You didn’t hear Payne’s name or “legacy” mentioned once today. Why? Because one of his most concrete legacies was that of arrogance, rudeness, loudness, unprofessionalism, and promises unkept during his years “leading” the negotiations between the club and the District (and Prince George’s County, Md.).
  • If the stadium is built, and the team isn’t a total gong-show, it will be a big success in this market. DC has a huge community of people who have turned out to support soccer in the community for decades. This isn’t like, say, Atlanta, where you really have to question whether fans will show up for professional soccer. You can go all the way back to the Diplomats of the NASL but since then, DC area soccer fans have turned out whether it was for United, the Freedom, the Spirit, the Warthogs, or the local college teams at Maryland, Virginia, Georgetown, and George Mason. That’s on top of this area’s long history of hosting US national team matches as well as those from other local favorites like El Salvador and Honduras. My point is that this is an area with tens of thousands of folks willing to turn out for soccer. If DC United is playing half-decent soccer in a stadium that isn’t falling in on itself, the club will be a success. If you thought KC turned things around dramatically in that market, you haven’t seen anything yet compared to the DC area.
  • DC United’s long-running charity campaigns in the district have earned them quite a bit of goodwill. It’s no coincidence that even as United stripped most of the rest of the club down to the studs, its charitable organizations United Builds, United Drives, United Reads, and United Soccer Club kept doing good work in DC. That’s worth something, and I tend to believe it has helped United keep its toe in the door even when things looked (look?) really bleak.

Okay, now let’s turn to the reasons why I don’t think this stadium will be built.

  • The corruption and naked self-interest of Mayor Gray and the DC Council. I cannot stress this enough to outsiders. The DC city government is a corrupt, utter failure of an institution. Just since 2012, three D.C. Council members have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges and Federal prosecutors have also probed Mayor Gray’s 2010 campaign. It’s also worth noting that one of the keys to this deal (and any major development deal in the city) is placating former “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry, who couldn’t even get through today’s press conference without attempting to interrupt the Mayor and proceeding to embarrass himself. This team has been sold out by DC mayors and councilmen before, and quite frankly, I expect it to happen again.
  • The 2014 mayoral election stands to throw everything into disarray. In the wake of the sleaze outlined above, Mayor Gray hasn’t decided if he’s going to run for reelection. We do know that three current council members (Evans, Bowser, and Wells) have already declared their candidacies meaning that their support could just as easily change directions once polling arrives that says (predictably) that city voters don’t want public money going towards another stadium.
  • The Levien/Thohir ownership group has been nothing short of a disaster since taking over, and now we’re just supposed to believe its capable of flipping a switch and becoming competent? Since buying the team, they’ve gutted the staff; left the website (only one of the most public interfaces the team has) in the hands of interns and nepotism cases who can’t spell above an eighth-grade level; have left Dave Kasper (someone a respected soccer reporter recently decribed to me as “one of North American sports’ all-time worst GMs”) in place; and overseen a team that has gone from a near-cup-finalist to a laughingstock. While this has happened, they’ve continued to alienate fans with a combination of apparent disinterest, incoherent and embarrassing rambling on Twitter (Thohir, especially), TV and (nonexistent) radio deals that make it harder to follow the team, and the pursuit to purchase Inter Milan that does nothing to dissuade fan fears that DC United is little more than a hedge against riskier plays like Inter and an access point to some of Soccer United Marketing’s ample revenues.
  • The land swaps. I cannot stress how complicated land issues are in DC. In summary, there’s not enough land here and nearly all of it is staggeringly expensive. The Post’s summary does a better job than I can at summarizing the extreme political challenges that lay ahead for United. Any single one of those land-owners can bring this deal (and the continued existence of DC United) to a shrieking halt. In addition, these two land swaps leave DC politicians very open to accusations of welfare for millionaires. The first area of risk are the breaks and incentives that will go directly to the stadium and team’s ownership. The second involve whatever price the city gets from mega-developers Akridge for its Reeves Center building that currently sits dilapidated, but in terms of land value, should be a gold mine for the city. If the perception is that DC is going to get fleeced by Akridge,  I expect the protests to be loud.
  • The experience of building Nationals Park. People outside the area don’t realize how close the Nationals came to moving out of the DC area when the City Council and its then Chairwoman, Linda Cropp nearly canned the deal to build Nationals Park at the 11th hour. Who can forget the Post’s Thomas Boswell utterly demolishing Cropp as he saw his dream of baseball returning to Washington vanishing before his eyes? That deal eventually got saved, but it got saved because everyone who mattered in the DC’s public and private sector agreed that Washington not having a baseball team was an embarrassment. It didn’t matter to them that the district was left holding almost all the risk on the financial side of the deal. The problem is that I question whether enough people amongst those who truly matter in DC power circles feel passionately enough about DC United or professional soccer to accept a deal that is even slightly “bad” for the city in the wake of the Nats’ deal. To many of those “people that matter,” DC United is just a “nice to have,” but also something that enjoyed by caucasians and/or people who don’t live in the District and can’t vote them out, even if the club were to relocate. If this stadium deal does fail down the road, that fact will be the primary reason.
  • Where DC United fits in the changing demographics of the District of Columbia. By going after public money in the district and by potentially being a part of the further gentrification of the historic U Street area, and the more slowly gentrifying waterfront area, United has put itself on the frontlines of the battle over gentrification and the changing demographics of DC. DC, a city once famous for its African-American majority and African-American leadership is slowly becoming a very different city as younger caucasian “gentrifiers” have moved in and helped transform DC into a city that no longer has a black majority and one that within my lifetime, may in fact have a caucasian majority – something unthinkable even 20 years ago. The reverberations of that change and the bitterness it engenders (just read any of Courtland Malloy’s columns on the subject) could backfire on United. Yes, it has Marion Barry’s support, but only because of the Reeves Center (which he built as mayor) would move into his ward of the city.
  • The “seen it all before factor.” The fact is, DC United fans have seen it all before. They’ve seen it about Poplar Point before that blew up and they’ve seen it about Prince George’s County, Md,. before that blew up, too. At this point, practically every one of us have listened as either Kevin Payne or Will Chang or Jason Levien said “I will build a stadium” and yet every one of us has ended up stomping back into RFK to (at least for the last six years) watch United likely lose.

Don’t get me wrong, I want the deal to work, but I’ve been in this community long enough and been around DC sports long enough to know just how unlikely this deal seems at this moment. I have my own opinions about what United should have done in the wake of the most recent stadium failures, but none of that matters now that United has gone “all in” (as Levien put it) on this, likely final, effort.

If this deal happens (and if United finally hires a competent general manager to fix the roster), DC United will be even more of a success in this city than it was in its halcyon early years. It will make Sporting Kansas City look like the Charleston Battery. Just because United was once a great soccer club doesn’t mean DC isn’t still a great soccer community. It still is one and if United returns to even a fraction of its former glories in this new stadium, all of American soccer will be reminded of that.

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2 Responses to “Why I think DC United’s new stadium plans might work out and why they probably won’t”

  1. natgreene

    One thing you haven’t mentioned… is that DC has an enormous budget surplus. The city is booming and had a $417 million surplus. This is a city that can afford this deal. I also think you are too negative on the politics. No one wants to be seen as being the one who lost a sports team. This town is scarred by that. Also with Evans and Wells you have 2 mayoral candidates on board. And with the support of Barry and Bond you have some of the African American constituency as well.

    Reply
  2. TCompton

    I think te criticism of the owners is a little narrow. They focus on addressing the most pressing issue with the team: it’s Going Concern status. The team was losing a ton of money. You can’t both fix the financial instability of the organization AND spend money on players. It’s not like an RFK full of fans solves the money challenges. The team had already said that RFK could not make money. The new owners made a lot of unpopular decisions in an effort to save the team. It’s clear now that Olsen knew that he wasn’t going to have much to work with this season and that his job would not be in jeopardy. He’s elludes to the fact that he shouldn’t have a job with te team’s record. If this is the best deal that the team could do with the city (one that tells the residents that the team will pay for the stadium completely, and the city will swap land for land+money to provide the team with the location) then this is it. At this point, how the stadium goes, so does DC United. If the stadium doesn’t happen, the DC United will no longer exist.

    Reply

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