Tuesday, April 28, 2009

DC United: In Search of a New Stadium

The Stadium Armory Metro Station is packed with black and white jerseys getting off the orange line train to New Carrollton.  The mass moves out of the station and past the shouts of ticket scalpers “Who has tickets, you selling tickets?”  The crowds turn the corner and move past the Armory to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

Fans linger outside the stadium, buying cheap shirts from venders and scoffing down a hotdog and soda before entering the stadium.  Police are scattered across the street, letting the free flow of people move onto the grounds of the stadium.

As fans enter the stadium it begins.  The distance drum beat and the faint chant DCCCC UNNNited. As you emerge from the tunnel to see the field, RFK explodes into a mixture of yelling, music and drums.

RFK stadium is currently the home of DC United, but the team is hoping not for long.  The four-time MLS Cup Champions are proposing to build a new stadium – in Maryland.  D.C. United is hoping to build this new stadium in Prince Georges County. 

D.C. United said that RFK cannot fit its needs and requires basic repairs that are too costly. “It’s old and dilapidated but I think that gives it more character,” said DC United fan Joe Cannon.  He said that the stadium’s character is one of its best features.  “In a new stadium the seats won’t shake the same way that they do at RFK, and that’s one of the best parts of the game,” said Cannon.  DC United has played at RFK since it became a Major League Soccer team in 1996. 

DC United is not the first team to leave RFK for a new tailored-fit stadium.  The exodus from RFK began over 10 years ago.  The Washington Redskins, the Washington Nationals, and the Washington Senators have all played at RFK.  Prince George’s County is now the home to the Redskins at Fed Ex Field and the Nationals play at Nationals Park in Southeast DC, just beyond the Capitol. The Redskins played at RFK for over 30 years before moving to their new stadium in Maryland in 1997.

However, D.C. United’s proposed stadium hit a roadblock last week when the Prince George’s County Council voted to not allow a stadium study to be conducted. Prince George’s Council Chairwoman Marilynn Bland, who supports the stadium, said there is still hope that the stadium will be built, according to The Washington Post.  Council member Eric Olson, who does not support the stadium, said that DC United is now looking for locations outside of Prince George’s County.

“I think it pretty much ends the possibility unless they come back with a new financial model in which they pay all or the great majority of the costs of construction,” said Olson.  He said that the financial risks associated with building a stadium were too great and the public did not support the proposed stadium.

As DC United takes the field against the Houston Dynamo on a cool April night, the lower half of the stadium erupts in cheers and the infamous “DC-United” chant, while the upper half remains silent. Silence is something that has plagued RFK because DC United has been unable to attract a bigger fan base and sell seats in the upper half of the stadium.

DC United is not leaving RFK for a massive stadium like the Redskins and the Nationals. At 45,000 people, RFK can hold over 20,000 more people then its proposed new stadium.  In addition to holding fewer people, the new stadium will also have less parking.  The new stadium will have about 6,500 fewer parking spaces, which depending on public transportation could limit the number of fans that able to go to the games.

DC United fans are divided on how the move would affect their fan base. Washington DC native and DC United fan Elliott Calchell, 31, expressed concern that a new stadium outside of DC would cause DC United to lose some of its identity.  “I feel like if they moved outside of the city, and were so far outside that I couldn’t get into the game, I feel like I would lose a bit of my community and my identity,” said Calchell. He said that he rides his bike to games, so a stadium outside of DC would have to be Metro accessible.

Cannon, a Silver Spring native, said that the move would not affect his decision to attend games, but said he does not think the move would be beneficial.  “I think this is the perfect place for DC United because they are DC United and they should be in DC,” said Cannon.  Calchell agrees and says that switching cities will affect how fans connect with the team.   “I actually feel like DC United kind of represents where I come from, and my city, and my community,” said Calchell.  Both Calchell and Cannon said they would continue to support the team if it does move.

DC United and the New England Revolution are two of a handful of MLS teams that play in a stadium designed for another sports.  However, DC United wants to move out of the city while the New England Revolution wants to move in.  The Revolution, which play at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough MA, proposed in 2006 to build a new stadium and move into Boston.   The DC Fiscal Policy Institute cited in a 2008 article that using DC tax payer funds to build a new stadium “will not generate notable economic or fiscal benefits for the city.”  Another article by the DC Fiscal Policy Institute said that a soccer stadium alone could not revitalize the neighborhood it is built in.  DC United is moving in the same direction as some MLS teams like the Columbus Crew by proposing a new stadium that holds fewer people.

Although United’s stadium will be smaller, the move will not come cheap.  The new stadium cost between $180 million to $195 million.  D.C. United will not own the stadium, but will instead pay rent to the Maryland Stadium Authority.  DC United has never owned its own stadium.  The team currently rents the stadium from the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.

United does not want the emptiness that plagues RFK between United soccer games to move with them to their new stadium.  The proposed stadium will house games, concerts and local events.  In addition to DC United games, other teams will be able to utilize the new stadium.  The Washington Freedom, DC’s women’s professional soccer team will play its games at the new stadium.  Both the men’s and women’s soccer teams at the University of Maryland will play some of their games at the new stadium.

DC United declined to directly comment on the proposed stadium.

By: Lindsey Reese

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