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Will Fenty Let Prince George's Take D.C. United?

In this sorry economy, no one is going to put up a couple of hundred million for a new soccer stadium right now. But the contest for the future of D.C. United is nonetheless on, and Prince George's County yesterday delivered a sharp smack to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, a warning that if the District doesn't move with some alacrity, the region's pro soccer team could well follow the path the Washington Redskins traveled a decade ago.

For months, Fenty issued only the vaguest of statements about wanting to keep the soccer team in the city. When he finally picked a developer for Poplar Point, the national park along the Anacostia River in Southeast where United owner Victor MacFarlane wanted to build a mixed-use complex including a soccer stadium, Fenty excluded MacFarlane from the deal. If a project does proceed there, it's not clear who would pay for a stadium, and given the city's precarious finances, it's by no means certain that the D.C. Council would accept Fenty's proposal that the city front the money.

Yesterday's release of a study conducted for the Maryland Stadium Authority may create some urgency for Fenty. The $75,000 study, in the form of a 99-page report surveying the appetite for and potential benefits of a stadium, envisions a 24,000-27,000-seat stadium at or near a Metro station somewhere near the Beltway in Prince George's.

The study doesn't get specific about exactly where to put the stadium, but it does make the case for benefits to the county that a United stadium could provide, including about 1,000 jobs and $25 million to $30 million a year in economic returns. But those estimates are based on a very optimistic assessment of how busy a soccer stadium might be. The study envisions somewhere between 54 and 63 events a year, assuming that the park would be home not only to United, but to a women's soccer team, a pro lacrosse team, and various college and high school sports events, as well as some concerts and other non-sport uses.

But the experience of other new soccer-specific stadiums around the country gives cause for skepticism about those numbers. In the Denver area, a new suburban soccer stadium paid for by the government (which would be repaid from sales tax receipts, in a deal similar to Washington's arrangement with the Nationals) had only 23 events in its first year--22 soccer games and a Kenny Chesney concert. In Toronto, a new urban soccer stadium attracted some rugby and cricket matches, but also drew only one concert.

Still, the prospects for strong attendance at a Prince George's soccer stadium are good. Major League Soccer games now draw about the same numbers as the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association, although of course those indoor sports are severely limited by the capacity of their arenas. MLS teams drew an average of 17,000 fans per game last season, compared to 33,000 for Major League Baseball. In Washington, average attendance per game last year was 24,000 for the Nationals, 21,000 for United, 17,000 for the Wizards, and 14,000 for the Capitals. The Redskins, of course, were off the charts, with an average attendance around that of all four other teams combined.

Would soccer fans go to Prince George's? The study doesn't provide much meat on that question, but a survey of United fans did raise some questions. In the survey, 57 percent of those responding were Virginians and 27 percent were Marylanders, and that sample said they would be significantly less likely to travel to games in Prince George's than they are to attend games at RFK Stadium in the District. In addition, a separate survey of current sponsors of United found some worry about Prince George's reputation, because of its troubled local government, its demographic mix, and its crime level.

"Some groups we met with mentioned that there is a perception that Prince George's County may not be as safe relative to other surrounding areas," the study says.

Pro soccer draws the highest percentage of Hispanic fans of any sport in the country, and the sport has an unusually affluent fan base. Prince George's lags some parts of the region in both of those categories. D.C. United's largest collection of fans is in Montgomery County, according to the study.

About 30 percent of United fans are Hispanic, the team told the consulting group that put together the study. Prince George's population is 12 percent Hispanic, exactly the same proportion as in the Washington region as a whole. That's well below the U.S. average of 15 percent.

Soccer's new stadiums around the country are popping up both in suburban settings such as the Redskins' home and in urban neighborhoods such as the Nationals' new park. The two choices present different economic models. The suburban stadiums are often surrounded by additional soccer fields that can be used by youth teams--a way to build support for the team by expanding the sport's footprint in the region. The urban stadiums are generally pitched as economic development tools, with mixed-use complexes seeking to lure restaurants, retail and office developers. The Prince George's model might turn out to be a hybrid, as the county is apparently not interested in building a soccerplex of the sort that Montgomery County has. Rather, Prince George's is looking at trying to surround a stadium with the kind of retail-entertainment mix that is planned for the area around Nationals Park.

Whether that would work in a suburban setting, especially in economically lagging Prince George's, is by no means clear. After all, the Redskins' stadium has generated little, if any, ancillary development.

But of course soccer teams play many more games per year than do football teams. Which gets back to the central question about soccer stadiums: Are they busy enough to support eateries, bars and other year-round businesses? The Maryland study does not make a persuasive case on that point, but the prospect of stealing a team away from the District may be enough to overcome that weakness. At least, that's what team officials are hoping Adrian Fenty will conclude. There's nothing the team would love more than a city vs. suburb competition for its presence.

By Marc Fisher |  September 24, 2008; 8:55 AM ET
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Comments

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UMD probably would sue the field a few times a year for the really big games since at Greenbelt it would be a quick hop away. DCU is scheduled to play 28 home games this year, probably 30 should they make the playoffs and advance to the second round. They may or may not maintain that kind of schdule in the next few years depending on how much wear and tear they want to take on, but 25 DCU games a year would not be an unreasonable expectation.

I would think the Bayhawks would jump at a chance to play in a real stadium rather than a revolving set of college campuses. It would also put them much closer to the big lacrosse fanbase around Baltimore. The Freedom remain to be seen as a workable entity.

With some creative marketing 50 events a year doesn't seem like an unresonable goal. Both site are maybe 15 minutes from the RFK site out either the Parkway or Rt. 50 and both are closer to Metro than RFK, so access is good. If the right kind of financing and development package can be cobled together I could see MacFarlane singing on for this.

Your move Adrian.

Posted by: EricS | September 24, 2008 9:42 AM

2 things:

* Our Metro area has a lower percentage of Hispanics than the national average? Really? I find that shocking. I'm willing to learn, though.

* While a PG location might hinder Virginian participation, the key word is consistently, and is missing from the prose. Virginians will still attend, but fewer games, IMHO, particularly weeknights.

Posted by: JkR | September 24, 2008 10:09 AM

Poplar Point is not a "national park" - Anacostia Park is. And that's on the other side of Pennsylvania Ave. Please stop feeding this to the environmentalists and NIMBY's. Poplar Point is federally controlled, undeveloped land that is not currently a park (although it will be transferred to the District from the National Park Service).

Posted by: Kev | September 24, 2008 10:50 AM

Once again the DC government is more concerned about how much THEY can squeeze out of a developer. And once again they will lose, then pitch a fit, whine and complain.

As a citizen, this is getting old. Why don't DC pol's either try and accomodate these folks with money to spend or shut up and let MD or VA do it.

I would prefer to Metro to the games but I am willing to drive a car full of people to the games if I have to.

DC loses. I still go to the games.

Posted by: DC Voter | September 24, 2008 11:48 AM

I don't understand why you think the estimate is so far off. You said the Colorado Rapids played 22 games in their first year in their new stadium. DC United plays in many more competitions than the Rapids do. Denver doesn't have a women's team. And then you made it seem absurd that Lacrosse games or UMD events could be held there. Their estimate seems reasonable to me.

Posted by: Giannicolus Jones | September 24, 2008 12:23 PM

Plus DC gets a lot more international friendlies than the other cities mentioned above. You are sure to get 1 or 2 US national team games a year. How many games has El Salvador played in DC this year? I would have to think you would get 5 international games a year.

Posted by: Austin | September 24, 2008 1:08 PM

I don't understand why you think the estimate is so far off. You said the Colorado Rapids played 22 games in their first year in their new stadium. DC United plays in many more competitions than the Rapids do. Denver doesn't have a women's team. And then you made it seem absurd that Lacrosse games or UMD events could be held there. Their estimate seems reasonable to me.

Posted by: Giannicolus Jones | September 24, 2008 12:23 PM

In addition, DSG Park is in Commerce City, fairly distant from City Center and the Student Populations of the north range.

PG County is Central by comparison.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 24, 2008 1:12 PM

Roger that DC Voter. We lost the Skins because a loud-mouthed mayor got all huffy. I don't want to lose the United too.

Posted by: getirdun | September 24, 2008 1:29 PM

keep United in DC .... a stadium with mixed development such as retail, restaurants, bars, and condos. I would put a down payment for some season tickets in that area of town any day! I mean, I know DC cannot be compared to european cities with top teams but if I didn't actually get a ticket to a game because it was sold out, I would definitely go and watch the game at a bar across the street from the stadium. Not only would you be surrounded by supporting fans and having a great time but you would also be able to feel the excitement of the action inside the stadium. I spent 4 months abroad in Valencia, Spain and watching a game at a bar, sitting on the outside area, right across from the stadium was a awesome experience. Every fan should try it sometime ...

Posted by: VamosUnited | September 24, 2008 2:13 PM

Tell us how many events The Home Depot Center hosts in a year?

Posted by: Slanted Coverage | September 24, 2008 2:28 PM

Well, Maryland seems somewhat interested, and the feasibility study seems "feasible."

Clark won the open-bid process from DC for the rights to develop Poplar Point, did they not?

There's the option to include a soccer stadium in that development by Clark. I guess it is up the the City Council now to figure out if they want to work (and pay) to have United (and a new soccer stadium/hotel) included in the Poplar Point development or if DC would he happy to (let United head out of the city) and let Clark develop the area and their urban deck over 295 in Anacostia without a stadium, but just some other big office/retail buildings.

Posted by: Is it a park, or is it just Federal land? | September 24, 2008 2:44 PM

Bold prediction: Poplar Point languishes for years without some kind of retail anchor to draw people from west of the river. I'm an admitted, unabashed United supporter, but I really don't see how the development gets around the chicken-egg problem - the only viable option I've heard is the stadium plan.

Posted by: The AMT | September 24, 2008 4:33 PM

One thousand low wage jobs for 28 games a year is not worth the investment. There may be 100 full time employees and the rest are seasonal employees. So the whole promise of hundreds of new job is a PR fantasy. Let Maryland have them if they want them. After all we spent on the baseball stadium the Lerners still don't want to pay rent. The same thing could potentially happen and with the Soccer stadium. Concentrate on real life issues and not on luxury entertainment. Those $7 an hour jobs aren't going to improve the lives of anyone.

Posted by: CW | September 24, 2008 4:47 PM

What nation are you living in if Toronto is "around the country" and Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and Columbus are left out? Give us the information about all the Stadiums built by or for MLS teams and let develope an informed opinion.

Posted by: Crazy Huey | September 24, 2008 5:36 PM

If those soccer promoters are stupid enough to move to PG, Darwin will take care of them. They're too stupid to survive. Nobody goes to PG unless they want to have their dogs shot.

If the District is stupid enough to spend money it doesn't have (or will admit it doesn't have once the election is over), heaven help us.

What's next? A world series of poker stadium? A taxpayer funded roller derby arena? We don't need a soccer stadium, and it won't do a darned thing to develop the area near Poplar Point.

Posted by: No more stadiums, please! | September 24, 2008 8:42 PM

Tell us how many events The Home Depot Center hosts in a year?
---------------
Unfortunately, the study got lazy at this point.

However, for Pizza Hut Park they listed:
Eight high school football games
 25 FC Dallas matches
 Eight international soccer matches
 Five concerts
 The Dallas Cup which included four stadium events
 Two community events
 40 stadium rentals
And for Toyota Park they listed:
15 home regular season MLS matches
 Six Chicago Machine Major League Lacrosse (MLL) games,
 A University of Notre Dame vs. University of Denver NCAA lacrosse game
 A local radio concert that featured Hilary Duff and Gym Class Heroes in the 2007 lineup
 Two dates of Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band
 The 2008 Barclays Churchill Cup which is the biggest international rugby tournament in
North America

Kind of makes the projection believable, doesn't it?

Posted by: seahawkdad | September 24, 2008 9:10 PM

Additionally the comparison with Toronto is reduced to a joke because the artificial surface at BMO Field restricts the variety of events which can be held there. It may be urban, but it is already losing out to Montreal because of the FieldTurf it chose to install.
RSL is readying to open its brand-new stadium Oct2 and a has pre-announced a variety of sporting events (national rugby team matches, all-star game) which will boost its profile.
The potential of a fan-friendly natural soccer stadium is unlimited - if you get the location right.

Posted by: Jock | September 24, 2008 10:07 PM

I am only a casual sports fan but I follow United and the Redskins in the papers and they are my two favorite local teams. As a lifelong DC resident, who didn't like the baseball stadium give away, it seems the deal United offered was fair in comparison to MLB one, I don't want the United to leave the city like the Skins did. I have been to a couple of United games over the years and besides their crazy fans the thing I remember most is the bad condition of RFK. We are a cosmopolitan city and I am proud that my black and white and brown brothers and sisters can sit together and enjoy an international sport. I think Fenty needs to get on the ball and work with the team.

Posted by: BrooklandLvr | September 25, 2008 9:02 AM

One thousand low wage jobs for 28 games a year is not worth the investment. There may be 100 full time employees and the rest are seasonal employees. So the whole promise of hundreds of new job is a PR fantasy. Let Maryland have them if they want them. After all we spent on the baseball stadium the Lerners still don't want to pay rent. The same thing could potentially happen and with the Soccer stadium. Concentrate on real life issues and not on luxury entertainment. Those $7 an hour jobs aren't going to improve the lives of anyone.

Posted by: CW | September 24, 2008 4:47 PM

------

Read the study jackass. Those thousand jobs listed are all FULL time jobs. On top of the stadiums listed events and other developments the plan also proposes that a 6,000 seat concert venue be constructed as part of the stadium. So lets list it off...

-Stadium
-Hotel
-Retail
-Restaurants/Bars
-Concert Venue
-Office Space

Now I don't know the specific specifics but it seems to me that 1,000 jobs is not a far off claim. I agree that the District has many other pressing needs economically, and yes I realize we're entering into a credit crisis, but to argue that United who (as stated in the article) draws an average of about 21,000 a game could not be a sustainable tenant for a new stadium at Poplar Point is just bold and ill informed.

Also, I don't have a specific number in my head but I do know that the Home Depot Center does hold well over 100 events a year. LA is much more relevant than Colorado or Toronto for the obvious reasons that... 1. Colorado has never been a comparable club to United in any issue on or off the field so why should they be now? 2. Toronto isn't even in the United States of America so this changes a lot of the specifics of this issue entirely and I don't think either can fairly be compared.

If you want to make a realistic comparison then the only one available is LA since they and DC have been from day one the two best supported clubs in the league. Now with that comparison in mind it would be safe to assume that United could potentially hold the same number of events and carry the same kind of numbers as LA if they could just get into a new stadium.

Other than that thanks for a good article Fisher. I don't know what changed your tune but it's appreciated.

Posted by: Chris | September 25, 2008 1:28 PM

"...although of course those indoor sports are severely limited by the capacity of their arenas." With all due respect, Marc, that comment was both pointless and unnecessary. As I've told other scribes making similar remarks, it's not like the crowds at MLS games are somehow "worse" than those at NBA or NHL games just because there's a roof involved! Moreover, you seem to imply that the NBA and NHL would be drawing MLB- or NFL-sized crowds if only it weren't for those pesky roofs. That's pure nonsense. Those sports have pretty much peaked in popularity. MLS, by contrast, is on the rise, and although it'll take time for TV ratings, merchandising, sponsorships, etc. to catch up, American soccer's best days (unlike those of the so-called "American" sports) are still ahead, like it or not -- and all the snide asides in the world from the soccerphobic mainstream sports media will not change that fact, sir!

Posted by: Richard | September 25, 2008 5:04 PM

Most of my arguments for the stadium and the number of events to be held have been stated.

As for the DC area being under the national average for Hispanic population. Where is the DC area if you don't count the states along the Rio Grande? Those states would natrually have a much higher percentage of Hispanics than other parts of the nation.

Of the articles by Mr. Fisher that I have read in relation to DC United, I have always sensed a decidedly anti-DC United bias. Merely my opinion, but I'm willing to bet that others share the same opinion.

Posted by: Super White Boy | September 25, 2008 9:50 PM

Only problem with comparing to Home Depot Center is that they have 2 MLS teams, so about twice as many games. But if you erase Chivas' numbers and just count Galaxy + international soccer + random other events, then that number would be interesting

Posted by: Giannicolus Jones | September 26, 2008 7:51 AM

Only problem with comparing to Home Depot Center is that they have 2 MLS teams, so about twice as many games. But if you erase Chivas' numbers and just count Galaxy + international soccer + random other events, then that number would be interesting

Posted by: Giannicolus Jones | September 26, 2008 7:51 AM

Yeah, that's what I was getting at simply because Chivas hasn't been in existence long enough for it to be compared to a team like United. I agree I'd like to see some official numbers as well...

Posted by: Chris | September 26, 2008 10:39 AM

Have never heard this as being considered and don't know if they could take out a couple of the fields in the back to build a Parking Garage and then build up the current stadium to become a 25,000 seater, but I think it would be great if they could do all of that at the Maryland Soccerplex. You would not have Metro Access, but I am sure that they could have buses run from Shady Grove to the Soccerplex. I also suspect that a lot of the Montgomery County Soccer Families that NEVER go to RFK to watch DC United could be lured out to the Soccerplex.

Posted by: KevinMc | September 30, 2008 4:39 PM

What is wrong with RFK?
Why can't this great stadium with it's necessary roof for weather and great fan atmosphere be refurbished and downsized and have all the retail stores added?
Is the place literally falling down? I don't think so.
What will happen to it if DC United leave?
MLS does not need executive boxes, it needs a team that can thrill in front of a packed house. So if RFK is only used for soccer, why can't the area around RFK be developed?

For one thing, DC needs a soccer complex for it's 25,000 soccer youth and adult participants, and much of the parking lots at RFK can be converted to a mix of turf and Bluegrass fields to accomodate them. Major income is generated from youth tournaments, summer camps and clinics. Build an indoor soccer facility too and you have income generated all winter. I can't believe no soccer minded people have not joined together to inform this local government how to make money from our sport. Stop the politics and just serve the people, and do it for the next generation, our kids.

Posted by: Coach | September 30, 2008 9:15 PM

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