News is buzzing around that Baltimore’s mayor Shelia Dixon wants the Maryland Stadium Authority to study the feasibility of building a soccer stadium to lure DC United to charm city. Sound the freak out alarms. There are reasons for DC fans to be concerned about this development. BUT the basic fact is that DC has a new principal owner that took over the team with a full understanding of the stadium situation AND has just begun a new stadium search in DC. Unless Baltimore offers United the moon and DC does nothing then there is little reason to loose sleep – yet.
First, DC has a new full owner that has just begun to explore possible stadium options in the city. The change in ownership earlier this year with Victor MacFarlane giving up his stake to co-owner Will Chang, significantly increases the prospect for a stadium in DC. Why? MacFarlane didn’t buy the team to own a team, he bought it thinking he could use it as leverage to get a huge development deal (ie poplar point). After Fenty replaced Williams the deal that was in place at Poplar point was reconsidered and MacFarlane scrambled for another huge land give-away that could create substantial development. The only other possibility was in the suburbs but PG county after promising the moon, reneged due to popular backlash from the economic downturn. So MacFarlane realizing that owner United didn’t give him the pull for a big development deal walked away.
In steps Will Chang as principal owner. In late July he explicitly toned down expectations for the stadium. Everyone should re-read Steve Goff’s interview with Chang. He affirms the need for a stadium, but said they would scale it back and compromise and aren’t looking for any ancillary development. He also had nice things to say about RFK – in essence the incredible urgency has subsided for now. And the team less than two months ago announced it was looking at a slew of sights in the District. With no need for ancillary development and with less demand for a world class Red Bull-like stadium – there is a real possibility that a stadium deal could get done in DC.
Second, on the bright side, the fact that there is competition over United from a largely African-American city says something good about the growth of soccer. That a mayor of a big city with a large African American population wants to lure a soccer team to her city is a sign of progress for the sport and another demonstration of the impact of the stadium sell outs from the summer Euro club tours. Dixon’s interest also stands in contrast to the DC city council, which has taken a fairly dismissive view of soccer – with some even disparaging the prospect of the sport in stadium talks. The fact is few DC councilman have probably been to a United game, many view it as a white suburban sport and therefore fail to understand that the team does well with many segments of DC’s society, such as the growing Latino population, the hordes of young professionals, and the large international community from all the embassies and institutions. So the fact that a Mayor from a working class city with a large African-American population is trying to attract United may actually raise some awareness on the council about the sports prospects. Competition can spur action and may actually move the stadium discussions along in DC.
Third, DC United didn’t seem to have any idea the Baltimore offer was happening. DC United’s CEO Kevin Payne was out of the country. You think if he knew Baltimore was about to announce they were going to try to lure United, he would at least be here. Therefore, talks with Baltimore haven’t even begun, so we are still a long long way off from this deal getting done. A study has to be done, then an offer from Baltimore, then negotiations, then politics… this is pretty much just a concept thrown out there.
Fourth, DC fans should not be complacent – moving DC to Baltimore is much more likely than St. Louis. The team would be in roughly the same market and die-hard fans would still be able to make the trip. In short, you wouldn’t be starting from scratch. This could enable the team ownership to justify a move. I don’t know about the feasibility of Baltimore pulling this off in this poor economic climate but where there is a will there is a way, especially in Baltimore and Maryland politics…sshhhhiiiiiiiitttttteeee (I had to put in one wire reference).
But we should be clear this would be a relocation of DC United not just a move a bit farther away. Yes Baltimore is close and thus fans in DC would remain United fans. And yes there is some overlap in terms of the television media market – ie MASN and Comcast (and we each have to suffer through Ravens or Redskins games depending on your outlook). But when it comes down to it these are two very different cities. Getting from DC to Baltimore and back is a nightmare – at least an hour there and back and more if you live in Virginia. Therefore the fan base that has been established in DC would either be lost or significantly diminished. Additionally, MLS would be moving to the outskirts of one of the largest media market. Baltimore is a fine city – but it is the DC metro area that is the wealthy and growing media market. Baltimore is connected to this market, but it is definitely not at its epicenter.
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