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Soccer Stadium: Great For Fans, Lousy For Taxpayers

In the end, Mayor Adrian Fenty decided it wasn't worth a fight to keep D.C. United in Washington. Fenty, no fan of the deal to build a baseball stadium in the city, was even less enamored of using the District's financing power to put up a soccer stadium, which has far less ability to spark economic development.

So United has moved on to Plan C (Virginia was the team's second choice, according to executives involved in the search for a site, but governments there have been unwilling to commit public financing to sports projects). The result, an agreement with Prince George's County announced this week, is a sweet deal for United, a feel-good boost for the beleaguered county and a financial loser for Maryland taxpayers.

Let's look beyond the bright display of optimism at a news conference where County Executive Jack Johnson and United chairman Victor MacFarlane touted the 1,000 jobs and $65 million and more per year in economic activity that a soccer stadium supposedly would generate.

Away from the spotlight, Johnson was more straightforward: Don't bet on much new development springing up around a soccer stadium. "I don't think it's going to create a lot of revenue," he said on WAMU's "Politics Hour." It's not dollars that argue for building a stadium, Johnson said, but rather "public interest" and "public benefit."

Boosters talk about psychological benefits because a soccer-specific venue hosts far fewer revenue-generating events than a downtown arena or an urban baseball stadium. A legislative policy analysis concluded last fall that a Prince George's soccer stadium "would add to the state debt load and reduce the state's debt capacity."

Could Maryland raise money for stadium construction? In Washington, the Forest City development firm halted construction last week on residential buildings near the baseball stadium because the D.C. Housing Finance Agency couldn't sell bonds to pay for units the District is subsidizing. In these tough times, will bonds for a stadium sell?

Maryland Comptroller Peter Franchot says yes. "This is an economic development project that makes sense even in bad times," he told me. "It's going to be something like Bethesda or Ballston in Prince George's County. You'll see huge development if they put the stadium near a Metro station."

Franchot defends the most remarkable part of the Prince George's deal, in which MacFarlane, who in flusher times promised to pay the entire cost of a soccer stadium at Poplar Point in Southeast, now proposes to put up zero dollars. Franchot and MacFarlane say it's good enough that D.C. United would eventually cover about a quarter of the stadium's cost through rent payments.

There's nothing terribly wrong with public financing -- if government backing is rewarded by ancillary development that expands the tax base. The evidence so far is that that's unlikely.

The best argument for a soccer stadium in a feasibility study commissioned by the Maryland Stadium Authority is that it could enhance the image of Prince George's and increase "the overall quality of life." Alas, that nebulous benefit was more than countered by a slew of warnings:

· The location is a demographic mismatch. According to Major League Soccer, its fans are 63 percent white, 19 percent Hispanic and 11 percent black -- similar to the national profile but almost a mirror image of Prince George's County, which is 18 percent white, 12 percent Hispanic and 64 percent black.

· Soccer fans might be skittish because "there is a perception that Prince George's County may not be as safe relative to other surrounding areas," the study said. In a survey of United fans, 57 percent of whom were from Virginia and 27 percent from Maryland, most said they would go to fewer games than they do at RFK, or they wouldn't go at all. Businesses that sponsor the team also were not disposed toward Prince George's, citing its reputation for crime and a difficult local government.

· Plans to rent out the stadium for concerts might flop. New soccer stadiums in the Denver and Toronto areas were sold as possible concert venues, but each attracted only one show in its first year. (A stadium in Los Angeles has lured more.)

· Other uses of the stadium aren't likely to produce much revenue. United is pro soccer's top-drawing team, and Major League Soccer now draws more fans per game than hockey and almost as many as basketball. But even if international soccer matches, a women's soccer team and a pro lacrosse team also used the stadium, it would be dark about 300 days a year. Abe Pollin's downtown Washington arena, in contrast, hosts about 220 events a year.

United fans -- at least those in Maryland and the District -- are understandably thrilled by the prospect of a new stadium. But for Virginia fans and Maryland taxpayers, this deal takes dollars from the wrong source to build in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  February 19, 2009; 8:00 AM ET
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Thanks for an intersting article. My family and myself are ardent soccer fans from Virginia and have supported the team for years. Driving into the city is not that big a deal, most of the time, and the egress onto 295 works very well at off-hours. I am very disappointed at the location for the new stadium. Suffice it to say that most Northern Virginians travel to PGC only for an occasional Skins game and to pass through it on the way to northern destinations.

I doubt that we will be attending even half as often as we do now once the new stadium opens. I would opt to stay at RFK but that will one day be torn down. It's really a shame that Fenty is so short-sighted and offers no assistance to have yet another sports franchise within the DC confines.

We will miss DC United - it is a wonderful sport, a budding franchise and relatively inexpensive day/night out.

Keep up the good work!

Posted by: mvlee2 | February 19, 2009 1:18 PM

By metro or car, it'd be an extra 15-30 minutes maximum to any of the sites being suggested. Is that really enough to deter you from going? Or is it simply that you don't want to go to a "dangerous" place like PG County? Which has almost identical demographics to that of DC, particularly the areas around RFK...

Marc, way to continue lying through your teeth. Your lack of journalistic integrity is only exceeded by Nakamura.

Posted by: alecw81 | February 19, 2009 1:31 PM

The move to PG is disappointing in two ways. One, since I live in NoVA, Im not sure im going to take the extra time to get to PG county for a game. Two, it always seemed like DC United's fan base was more based in VA and perhaps Montgomery County, where local soccer is strong. I wonder if the fan base will really show up in PG county?

It really is too bad VA couldnt come up with funding...Alexandria seems like it could have been a good option.

Here's to hoping that PG can't figure out a location or funding to make this happen.

Posted by: healdkw | February 19, 2009 1:48 PM

Great, DC United is coming to PG and away from dangerous DC. Mark, when was the last time you were in PG? Have you been to a Bowie Baysox game? Redskin game? Cap center shopping area? PG is doing quite well.
It has been sadder to watch the decline of the Washington Post Group as a news organization of integrity.

Posted by: jwzephyr | February 19, 2009 2:11 PM

A good move on Fenty's part. Glitzy new venues are almost always revenue drains, compared to focusing on growing/revitalizing existing resources. Create sources of labor wages by directing funds to neighborhood revitalization and improving the homes on the lower-middle income citizens.

Posted by: sacomment | February 19, 2009 3:56 PM

Mark, your column reads like exactly what it is - SOUR GRAPES.

DC has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult place in which to do business. If the antics of Fenty and the Council don't get in the way, then it's the "preservationists", "community boards" and "activists" who think they have to add their "input" whenever someone wants to build a molehill in DC. The owners of DC United simply got tired of the nonsense.

DC United, welcome to Prince Georges County. And to the naysayers and badmouthers who think our community is "too dangerous" or "too far away", we've done well without you so far and we'll do even better in the future.

Posted by: ceefer66 | February 20, 2009 1:21 PM

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