To many fans, D.C. United’s Audi Field debut feels like a coronation, the end result of a years-long search for a permanent, modern home.
To others, it feels more like a wake.
Members of the District Ultras and La Barra Brava—two of United’s three recognized supporters’ groups—organized a protest before Saturday’s inaugural home match, meeting a local park and marching nearly a mile to Audi Field. When they arrived, they made their voices heard.
The event felt every bit like a New Orleans-style jazz funeral. About 100 supporters banged on drums, blew whistles, and chanted during the hour before the opening kick, filling a small plaza outside the stadium with a mixture of anger, grief, and joy. Perplexed onlookers raised cellphones to film the spectacle, while others joined in.
The protest stems from an ongoing and widely-reported dispute between the club and many of its most loyal fans. They feel frozen out of the new venue by the club’s decision to alter ticketing policies for supporters and partner exclusively on ticket sales with the Screaming Eagles, another group of United supporters.
“As a leader [of the group], all I want is I wanted to be able to come into the stadium with my group,” Barra Brava founder Oscar Zambrana tells City Paper in the midst of the protest. “A lot of our people are [being treated] unfairly, and that’s who I’m fighting for. We want our seats back, not a free ticket. We just want to be able to pay for our ticket, to support D.C. United, the team we’ve loved since 1996. And that’s what I’ve been doing since then.”
Traditionally, the club had sold La Barra and the District Ultras an allotment of discounted tickets. The groups would then turn around and sell them at a small mark-up, which helped subsidize game day activities like tailgates and “tifo,” sometimes-elaborate pre-game displays hoisted by supporters. For years, that arrangement worked well for both sides; United desperately needed those thousands of supporters to fill cavernous old RFK Stadium and many of those supporters found a sense of community in their respective groups.
That has changed since the club has moved to their smaller, space-age home. Ticket prices have nearly doubled, and space, it seems, is at a premium. Rumors have long swirled that individuals within Barra Brava were profiteering, skimming off ticket sales to line their own pockets, something Tom Hunt, United’s president of business operations, alluded to in an interview with The Washington Post last week. The club, it’s worth mentioning, has not yet offered any proof to back up the claims.
“Bullshit,” says Zambrana. “They can say all they want. They can say whatever they want. Me as a leader, me as a guy in charge of the group—we sold tickets for less than face value. We offered free food and free beer every match for $25 a year. That’s our membership. To me, the broken deal is a bunch of bullshit. These people don’t have any sense. We’re just here to try and support the team. That’s what we do.”
For their part, the Ultras told City Paper during the protest that they’ve never marked tickets up more than five dollars. “Obviously we feel [hard done],” said Ultras member Srdan Bastic. “We’re anti-profit!”
Inside the stadium, the supporters’ section at the north end of the facility was relatively full of members of the Eagles. It also seemed a bit tepid. They lifted their tifo just before the opening kick, a large tarp which covered most of the section. It was emblazoned with an eagle—underneath it, a caption: “OUR HOUSE.” It was clearly a nod to Audi Field, but to some felt a bit like a jab at supporters who’d been excluded from the very section they were in.
Nick Michiels sat a couple of sections over from the Screaming Eagles, choosing to bring his own brand of protest inside the facility. On Saturday, the stands were dotted with Barra Brava jerseys and T-shirts and even a few protest banners, like the one displayed by Michiels: “AUDI FIELD—A STADIUM FOR ALL? STOP EXCLUDING BB AND DU.”
Michiels tells City Paper he was conflicted about even attending the game, a sentiment shared by many members of the excluded groups who showed up anyway.
“I went to the protest march today and was really conflicted,” says Michiels. “I’m doing little things like wearing a shirt with a message on it, I have this banner. I bought season tickets before the partnership was announced and frankly, we did things like write letters to the mayor when we were considering whether D.C. could even afford this place. I came, it was a tough choice. It was a great night, but I’m just sad that two groups weren’t here.”