Bobby Goldwater is D.C.’s highest-paid official, but the commission that he heads faces dwindling funds.
It’s 1 p.m., kickoff time, on a Sunday in October. As football fans across the country crowd into stadiums, RFK Memorial Stadium—once the home of the Washington Redskins—remains empty. Outside the stadium, a giant banner promoting Washington Freedom soccer star Mia Hamm flaps in the wind. Inside, sprinklers emit a soft hiss as they spray the turf. Otherwise, an eerie silence blankets the facility.
Times have gotten tougher for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission since 1997, when the Redskins abandoned RFK for FedEx Field in Landover, Md. A semi-independent branch of the D.C. government, the commission’s primary responsibility is to manage RFK and the adjacent D.C. Armory. Since the Redskins left, however, the money that helped fund the commission has begun to dry up.
In the year following the Redskins’ departure, the Sports Commission’s overall revenue plummeted by 44 percent, from more than $15 million to approximately $8.5 million. In subsequent years, revenue continued to drop. The commission’s expenses, however, failed to decrease at a similar rate. Over the past two years, the commission has actually lost money: $1.4 million in the 1999 fiscal year and $2.1 million in 2000.
Presiding over the Sports Commission’s rocky finances during those two years was then-Executive Director James Dalrymple. In 1999, Dalrymple announced his retirement, and the Sports Commission’s board of directors began to search for a replacement. They were looking for a top-notch sports executive, a mover and shaker who could return the Sports Commission to its former days of glory.
They found Bobby Goldwater, a sports executive with a proven track record of success, first at Madison Square Garden in New York City—where he worked for 24 years—and later at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Goldwater’s expertise came with a hefty price tag. In November 2000, the board of directors for the Sports Commission offered Goldwater a sizable deal to secure his services, including an annual salary of $275,000, which more than doubled Dalrymple’s $120,000 pay. The offer also made the incoming executive director the highest-paid employee of the District government. It’s an honor that Goldwater has retained since.
Sports Commission board members see Goldwater’s salary as an investment in the commission’s future, but critics point to his compensation as proof that the commission has failed to adjust its lavish tastes to its diminished stature.
“The Sports Commission operates outside the regulatory structure of the District of Columbia, and there doesn’t appear to be any accountability to the public,” says Ellen Opper-Weiner, a local lawyer who’s monitored the commission’s activities for several years. “It’s outside of anyone’s purview, so they can pay these ridiculous salaries, and nobody’s minding the store.”
Commission members see it differently. “The payment to the head of staff has always been relatively high compared with civil service positions,” says John Richardson, whom Mayor Anthony A. Williams appointed as the chair of the Sports Commission’s board of directors in 1999 and who was primarily responsible for hiring Goldwater. “Washington ought to have as good a presence in sports and entertainment as any other city. And we don’t. But [Goldwater] is getting us there. And he’s getting us there with a sense of sophistication that we didn’t have before.”
Richardson argues that though Goldwater’s salary may look exorbitant, it actually falls in the middle of the industry’s salary spectrum. “There were some [candidates] that we didn’t think we could afford,” says Richardson. “There were others that we didn’t think had the qualifications to kick-start the operations at the commission. Then there was this middle group that Bobby fell into. We did interviews for maybe a half-dozen. He was our clear favorite.”
Richardson may consider Goldwater’s salary average, but a recent study by the National Association of Sports Commissions suggests otherwise. The survey, conducted in 1999 at about the same time that the commission was searching for a new executive director, polled 32 sports commissions around the country on issues such as salary and staffing. The survey results place the average annual salary for executives such as Goldwater at $60,203. With perks such as company cars and country-club memberships thrown in, that number creeps up to $67,165—less than one-quarter of Goldwater’s present salary.
Richardson is quick to point out that Goldwater isn’t paid from the District’s general budget. “The Sports Commission doesn’t get any appropriations from the city,” says Richardson. “They only get the revenues that they produce from RFK, parking lots, and the Armory.”
Goldwater is confident that his experience and skills will pay dividends for the District, in part by increasing the Sports Commission’s overall revenue. “Yes, at the end of the day, we need to improve our financial bottom line,” says Goldwater. “We have to do well, we have to do better, and we have to do more. I think everyone will see that next year. We’ve already increased revenue by $1 million this year. Our biggest challenge is going to be cutting expenses in these older facilities.
“We have to look at everything, including personnel expenses,” adds Goldwater. “Nothing is off the table. We should be as creative as we can, both to get more events and, on the other side, to cut expenses.”
The Sports Commission was created in 1994, about the same time that Jack Kent Cooke, then-owner of the Redskins, was threatening to move his franchise to the suburbs unless the District paid for a new stadium.
Facing stiffer regional competition, the city attempted to strengthen its ability to retain old sports teams and attract new ones by consolidating the D.C. Baseball Commission, part of the D.C. Boxing and Wrestling Commission, and the D.C. Armory Board (which then ran RFK) into a single organization.
In 1994, the D.C. Council passed the Omnibus Sports Consolidation Act, which exempted the Sports Commission from the usual oversight given to other city-funded organizations. “We thought we needed to free it up from government,” former Councilmember William Lightfoot told the Washington City Paper in 1999 (“Squeeze Play,” 5/14/99). “It was set up as an entrepreneurial enterprise.”
The city gave an initial endowment of $5 million to the new commission. Freed from the burden of paying city property taxes and riding the tide of the country’s economic boom, the Sports Commission parlayed that money into a mountainous sum, as much as $19 million at times. Only in recent years have the Sports Commission’s finances gone south.
The Sports Commission is overseen by an 11-member board of directors, all of whom are volunteers. Eight of the commissioners are nominated by the mayor, with the other three spots filled by the city’s chief financial officer, the head of the D.C. National Guard, and the director of the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation.
Since its inception, the commission has been riddled by controversy and accusations of cronyism. Trouble first emerged in 1996, when the financial control board decided that the commission’s plan to lease a luxury box at the MCI Center constituted an inappropriate use of city funds.
Then, in 1998, incoming Mayor Williams and outgoing Mayor Marion S. Barry sparred publicly over control of the commission—widely acknowledged since its inception as a Barry fiefdom. In July 1998, with Williams still on the campaign trail, Barry reappointed himself for another four-year term on the commission’s board of directors.
Once elected, however, Williams made diplomatic attempts to remove Barry and his appointments from the board. First, Williams made his request to Barry in private, but Barry balked. Then, on Nov. 25, 1998, an irritated Williams went public with his request for Barry’s resignation. “Apparently, flicking the lights and sounding soft chimes is too subtle a message,” Williams told reporters. “The party is over.”
Eventually, Barry stepped down. But an audit of the commission revealed exactly what the party had cost the city.
On March 14, 2000, Deborah K. Nichols, District of Columbia auditor, released her report on the Sports Commission’s activities in fiscal years 1996 to 1998. The audit highlighted questionable practices in nearly every realm of the commission’s operations, including fishy loans, dubious community grants, inappropriate expense accounts, and improper personnel practices.
Among her many recommendations, Nichols wrote that the Sports Commission should “immediately discontinue the practice of spending public funds for personal gifts, food, and entertainment for Commission officials and employees in that such expenditures do not relate to its mission or a discernible marketing plan or strategy.”
In a section of the audit foreshadowing Goldwater’s future windfall, Nichols questioned the seemingly inflated bonuses doled out to then-Executive Director Dalrymple. Nichols found that over a four-year period, Dalrymple had received $75,000 in performance bonuses, despite the lack of any convincing documentation that Dalrymple had performed exceptionally.
Nichols’ audit painted an unflattering picture of the Sports Commission in the pre-Goldwater era. Goldwater says that he examined the audit when he took control of the organization and didn’t like what he saw.
“I read the audit,” says Goldwater. “I was certainly disappointed by what I read. The only response that you can have is to put good business practices in place and have good people to execute them.
“You have to look at that as the past,” continues Goldwater. “We can do better.”
For the moment, District residents will have to take Goldwater at his word. The figures for the 2001 fiscal year—the first under Goldwater’s stewardship—have yet to be released. Goldwater does admit, however, that the commission will most likely lose money for the third year running.
According to Goldwater, though the commission took in more money this past year, it spent more, too, primarily on renovations for RFK Stadium. “The majority of the money that we spent this year was on physical improvements for RFK. The building was not in very good shape last November. But this summer, every group that played a concert in this region played at RFK. That wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t made the improvements.”
Goldwater adds that the money spent now will pay off not only in increased revenues but in less tangible ways, as well.
“When I arrived here, every wall and every concourse at RFK was painted maroon or gold,” says Goldwater. “I called the staff together and told them, ‘The Redskins are gone. They’re not coming back. Get over it.’ Then we repainted everything.”
Thus far, members of the Sports Commission’s board of directors are categorically upbeat about Goldwater’s performance. They point to lucrative events such as last summer’s Dave Matthews Band concert, the return of WHFS-FM’s HFStival, and the recent United We Stand benefit as indications of RFK’s more prominent stature under Goldwater. Whether Goldwater becomes the Sports Commission’s financial savior or a $275,000 contribution toward the body’s bankruptcy remains to be seen.
District officials, however, aren’t required to wait for the city’s sports experiment to run its course. According to the legislation that established the Sports Commission, “[I]f the Sports Commission is dissolved by repeal of this act, or ceases to exist for any reason, all of its assets…shall automatically be assigned to and become property of the District.”
Has Williams considered bringing the Sports Commission’s $11 million budget back into the municipal fold? According to mayoral spokesperson Tony Bullock, the answer is a definitive no.
“I asked the mayor about [the possibility of dissolving the commission],” says Bullock. “He looked at me like I was a complete idiot. He told me, ‘I’d never think of that. There’s not a thought of that in my head.’” CP