DC United might leave Washington entirely due to lack of a suitable and sustainable stadium. Embedded in the UMD campus plan could be the key: A new stadium which serves both DC United and Maryland soccer.
DC United has been playing at 50-year old RFK stadium since 1996 and the facility is literally crumbling. After numerous agreements with local governments that fell apart at the 11th hour, the trail towards self-funding a new stadium in the region has seemingly gone cold.
When I was a senior at the University of Maryland in 2003, I saw a scale model of the Campus Master Plan. It includes provisions for a soccer stadium (PDF) on top of what is currently a surface parking lot in the back corner of campus. The site is on the south side of the new field hockey/lacrosse stadium and also adjacent to the Comcast Center basketball arena. This could be ideal for DC United.
The site in question would require no new roads or infrastructure to be specially built. That part of campus is tucked away from the academic uses and is currently used for parking and varsity/club athletics. It already has the infrastructure in place for large events. DCU could market using the Green Line, much like the Nats Stadium does, although some fans will want to drive if they’re coming from far away.
The site is about a 20 minute walk from the Green Line but will be less than 10 minutes from the future Purple Line stations at East Campus and Campus Center. (The University currently runs free shuttles to and from the Metro all day every day.) It is also right next to the Paint Branch Trail bike path.
There also are some new apartments with ground-floor retail on Route 1 behind the stadium site, which are on the way from the Metro. Those new buildings have restaurants and pubs in them that are certain to enjoy greater patronage from future soccer fans on the way to and from the game.
Attendance for UMD soccer is currently over the capacity of Ludwig Field, its current facility. They now draw up to 8,000 spectators. After multiple expansions to temporary seating structures, Ludwig’s capacity is about 7,000. During my time as an undergraduate, I heard about how University of Maryland Athletics was dreaming of having a true soccer facility so they could host games and make revenue from prestigious events such as the ACC championship and the NCAA Final Four. However, those prestigious events require that their host facilities have an enclosed press box and locker rooms. Unfortunately, Ludwig Field has neither.
Currently, University of Maryland Athletics is running a deficit. Therefore, they can’t fund new facilities in the Master Plan. University of Maryland Athletics also wants new revenues to fund their operations. Meanwhile, DC United has been offering to fund the construction of a new stadium for over 10 years. They have sought a public-private partnership that involves the local or state government issuing low-interest municipal bonds that the team would be in charge of paying.
The lower municipal interest rate versus the higher private interest rate is the difference between tens or hundreds of millions of dollars over the life of the bond. The Maryland Stadium Authority was set up to mange such projects; as result, they bring in revenue to the government and are funded through fees from events at the facility rather than through taxpayer money. (It was also founded in response to Baltimore’s heartbreak over losing the Colts in the 1980’s because of a situation that was very similar to United’s.)
Under such a public-private partnership between DC United and UMD, the University would get a new facility that’s on its Campus Master Plan at no cost to their budget. They would get new revenue streams by hosting ACC and NCAA events, along with revenue from DC United events, according to the terms of embracing construction on the University of Maryland campus. Finally, they would have a beautiful new stadium to better attract and accommodate more fans for their own soccer teams than their present facility can hold.
The more events a stadium hosts, the more revenue it brings in for all stakeholders. In addition to more revenue from hosting college sporting events, UMD and DCU would make revenue per the terms of their agreement for 60 additional events a year. As I wrote back in January:
Between its Major League Soccer regular season games, U.S. Open Cup, CONCACAF (North American) Championships, and friendlies, DC United holds approximately 30 games during the season. Other events would want to use the facility too, such as the U.S. National Men’s and Women’s soccer teams, concerts, college sports, other pro sports, etc. 60 events a year is a reasonable estimate. The schedule for the Los Angeles Galaxy’s soccer stadium, the Home Depot Center, illustrates the diversity of events held.
DC United’s competitor, the Los Angeles Galaxy has a similar existing arrangement with Cal State-Dominguez Hills as the Home Depot Center is built on the campus. The Home Depot Center represents how a medium-sized professional sports venue built on a college campus can be beneficial for all stakeholders.
The solution to two separate problems often rests with the two parties working together. DC United has been looking to fund building a 20,000 seat soccer stadium for over a decade. The University of Maryland has wanted a new soccer stadium for almost as long, as expressed in the Campus Master Plan, and they currently lack the funds to build it themselves even though their own soccer team has outgrown its present facility.
DC United is in the eleventh hour of getting out of a bad stadium arrangement that threatens their very existence. The land and infrastructure at UMD is already in place. The Maryland Stadium Authority brings professional stadium project management to the table. Both parties have exactly what the other wants and a 20,000 seat soccer stadium will bring in revenue for all at no taxpayer expense. It’s also a smart growth project, located close to existing Metro infrastructure, the future Purple Line (boosting ridership projections and making the project even more competitive for Federal funding), existing parking, and existing road infrastructure that already handle accommodate large sporting events.
Disclosure: I’m a member of the Barra Brava, an iconic independent DC United supporters’ group. I am also a University of Maryland alum and a member of the Alumni Association.