Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
The lunatics behind the huge yellow banner aren’t your average soccer rowdies. In fact, they’re probably the last guys in the world who would rip out a stadium seat in order to pummel a rival fan or pelt a referee. It’s quite the opposite, say Steve Montrose and Bruce Popavich: Their “United? Don’t Abandon D.C.!” banner is part of a crusade to keep D.C. United in the District—and to save their beloved Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium from what they say is neglect by the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission.
A year ago, season-ticket-holders Montrose and next-door neighbor Popavich first heard rumors that the city’s Major League Soccer team might move to the suburbs because of shoddy treatment from the commission, the quasi-governmental agency that runs RFK (“Squeeze Play,” 5/14). D.C. United is for sale, and its lease with RFK expires at the end of this year, leaving open the possibility that the team could decamp to greener pastures.
Given the city’s history of chasing off professional sports franchises—and the Sports Commission’s obsession with professional baseball—Montrose and Popavich decided they needed to make a statement. “It didn’t seem like the District government gave two damns about [D.C. United],” says Montrose. “Basically, if the soccer team moves, that’s it [for RFK]. We’re never going to get a baseball team.” Their grandstand agitprop got an assist from a professional banner-maker, who prepared the sign at cost once he realized their intentions. The pair arrive at games an hour early to position their banner for a good TV angle near their end-zone seats.
Montrose and Popavich also plan to distribute flyers at games to educate fans about the Sports Commission and its alleged mismanagement of the stadium. Their prose isn’t quite up to speed yet, but Montrose promises to produce several “screeds” at future games, including one against Sports Commission Executive Director Jim Dalrymple. Montrose holds Dalrymple personally responsible for the commission’s refusal to host several Women’s World Cup matches—games that eventually drew 93,000 people to suburban Jack Kent Cooke Stadium. “That’s $2 or $3 million that he just gave to his biggest competitor,” says Montrose. (Dalrymple didn’t return a call for comment.)
Montrose and Popavich have good reason to think the ‘burbs may soon snag D.C. United. The first night they put up the banner, a team official accused Montrose of senseless paranoia. But at that same game, Montrose says, the team passed out a survey asking fans how they would feel if they moved to the suburbs. “In general, our position has been to remain in the District if possible,” says D.C. United President Kevin Payne, “but Jack Kent Cooke is a possible alternative.”
Payne says that for the team to remain in D.C., the Sports Commission would have to sweeten the deal with facilities improvements or even a soccer-only stadium on an RFK parking lot. At minimum, he says, the commission needs an “entire new mentality there in how the stadium is managed,” citing several recent third-party evaluations sent to Major League Soccer officials that criticize the stadium for its lack of guest services. Any decision on relocating will ultimately rest with the team’s new owners, one of three investor groups currently taking a look.
Newly appointed Sports Commission Chair John L. Richardson denies that the commission is unenthusiastic about soccer. “It’s hard not to get excited about it as a sport and economic activity,” he says. “The young people just love it.”
So far, however, the Sports Commission has done little to entice its only tenant to stay. The commission didn’t lift a finger to help D.C. United find a local buyer when it went up for sale—even as it managed to round up a host of investors for a baseball team that will likely never come here. And, although soccer revenue helped the commission fund several studies on a new baseball stadium, it refuses to plow any of the money back into RFK. “When we meet with them face to face, they tell us they want us to stay, but I don’t see a whole lot of activity behind that when we’re not meeting face to face,” says Payne.
For instance, the 38-year-old stadium needs a new scoreboard. But the commission, which has $19 million in the bank, won’t buy one without a long-term lease with D.C. United. On the other hand, Dalrymple earlier this year told the Washington Post that the commission would shell out a million bucks for a new scoreboard in a heartbeat if the city got a baseball team—which would play at RFK for only a season or two at most before moving downtown. “You have a bunch of guys there who want to bring back baseball, and that’s their priority,” says Payne. “We’re a little disappointed that they have spent so much energy pursuing that holy grail.”
Montrose can’t really blame the soccer team for contemplating a move. “The conditions at RFK really are bad,” he says. “[The Sports Commission is] just letting it rot. This is just the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and they’re not fit to run RFK. The team belongs in the city.” CP