D.C United’s singular objective, pursued for more than a decade and talked up as a cure for all of the franchise’s ills, finally came to fruition this summer. The team hoped Audi Field, their new, state-of-the-art stadium, would transform them from afterthought to sensation. Whether or not that will happen is an evolving process.
For years, the city’s Major League Soccer team tried to secure a new venue and finally escape the dilapidated RFK Stadium. And for years, its attempts fell short.
The franchise was stuck in a permanent loop of frustration: United was losing money through a substandard lease agreement, which prevented the team from spending on front office staff and the on field product. That, in turn, kept the team from realizing sustained success and increased relevance in the D.C. market.
But eventually, with some funding help from the D.C. government, United was able to get the new approximately $500 million stadium it wanted. The 20,000-seat Audi Field opened July 14, and it was hardly a coincidence that the club debuted its other marquee addition on the same night.
Wayne Rooney, one of the greatest English players of his generation, represents the new era of D.C. United almost as much as Audi Field does. Long reluctant to spend big money on players, United lured the 32-year-old forward with a contract worth a reported $13 million over two-and-a-half seasons, while also paying an undisclosed transfer fee to Rooney’s former club, Everton.
With Rooney on board, the on-field results have improved. United, which had sunk to the bottom of the MLS Eastern Conference when Rooney signed, have surged into playoff contention thanks to a run of excellent matches at Audi Field. The MLS Cup playoffs are set to begin on October 31.
This seems to be a dream scenario for United. At last, the team has a home of its own with an icon of the sport leading the team into a new era of prosperity. But has the team finally broken through in D.C.? It depends on who you ask.
“It’s revolutionary,” D.C. United co-chairman and CEO Jason Levien tells City Paper. “We’re on the radar in the DMV in a way that we haven’t been ever. It’s a new world we’re living in.”
According to Levien, one way to measure the change in interest around D.C. United is the increased amount of sponsorship requests from businesses compared to when the club played at RFK Stadium.
“I don’t want to get into specifics yet but we’ll be rolling out this offseason a level of interest that you’ll see in terms of different businesses that we’re going to partner with beyond Audi and Heineken and EagleBank and some of the ones that are most visible right now,” Levien says.
Another way to measure Audi Field’s impact is through attendance, and those results are mixed.
United’s announced attendance this season is up from RFK Stadium: an average of 18,722 fans have attended the club’s 14 home games at Audi Field compared to an average of 17,904 fans who attended games at RFK last season. But the club has sold out just five of those 14 games at Audi Field, a lower figure than some might anticipate at a brand-new facility.
Levien, who says the attendance growth has been in line with his expectations, is optimistic that the numbers of fans through the gates will increase over time.
“This isn’t like a light switch where you turn on the light and everything changes in one instant,” he says. “I think we’re going to see over a very short window the escalation of interest.”
Should that escalation happen, it will likely be the result of a slow, methodical build rather than an instant tidal wave. After more than two decades at RFK, and a stuttering start at Audi Field that featured a frantic rush to complete the stadium and a feud with the club’s supporters’ groups, there is no other way.
“The enthusiasm and awareness of the club need to be rebuilt. It’s not just going to happen overnight,” says Jay Igiel, one of the leaders of D.C. United supporters’ group La Barra Brava. “For a lot of years they were just operating in standby mode because of the financial constraints of playing at RFK, so they lost some of the recognition and prominence they had in D.C. Building that up again isn’t going to happen overnight—but it is happening.”
It can be difficult for teams to find a spot in D.C.’s crowded sports market. Local fans have the Nationals, Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, and the local NFL team, as well as various collegiate teams competing for their money and attention.
Levien believes there is a place in it for United, however. A Gallup poll earlier this year concluded that soccer is now tied with basketball for the second-most popular sport in the U.S. among fans between the ages of 18 and 34, which bodes well for a team in a metropolitan area like D.C.
“I think we’re positioned well demographically among our young vibrant fan base, our diverse fan base, the kind of people that are moving into the DMV, I think we’re certainly in the ascendency,” he says.
But there is a limit to the ascent.
“Realistically I don’t see them ever leapfrogging the [’Skins], the Wizards, the Nationals or the Capitals,” says J.P. Flaim, a host of The Sports Junkies on 106.7 The Fan. “But D.C. United can definitely build that niche audience that will hopefully fill that stadium.”
The upcoming offseason may bring a lot of changes that could also play a role in the team’s future success.
D.C. United is in the process of rebuilding its front office, and more new additions are needed to ensure the team’s off-field goals are met heading into the 2019 season. Levien says the team is in the process of hiring soccer operations staff and plans to add “key hires” on the business operations side.
Two important contracts on the business side will expire at the end of the 2018 season: the club’s local broadcast deal with Sinclair, and its jersey sponsorship with Leidos.
“How those sponsorships change year in and year out will give us an idea of where the club is in terms of the profile of the sponsors—who bows out, who comes in, who’s the next jersey sponsor, that sort of stuff,” says Drew Hansen of The Washington Business Journal.
Fan interest will be key. Though the club does not comment publicly on season ticket numbers, a source familiar with the figures tells City Paper that D.C. United saw a 50 percent increase in season ticket sales from 2017, its final season at RFK, to 2018, the first year of Audi Field. Whether or not that momentum continues into 2019 will say a lot about the team’s longer term appeal.
There is, of course, another vitally important factor that will determine just how much D.C. United can break through in the market.
“There can definitely be a significant fan base and they can fill up the new stadium, but a lot of that has to do with winning,” Flaim says. “D.C. likes winners.”