As DC United’s historically dreadful season has wound itself to its merciful end, the one question I get from everyone is not whether the team will actually get better, or whether Ben Olsen will make any difference, but whether the team will be moving to a new stadium in the DC area, Baltimore, or even elsewhere.
Here’s my attempt to layout what I see are the likely options and timeline for United to stay in the DC-area, move to Baltimore, move elsewhere, or even fold.
The situation as it stands now:
United cannot stay in RFK as the team pays rent to the stadium’s owners (the DC government), doesn’t keep any ancillary revenue and cannot afford to renovate the crumbling edifice even if they wanted to. Just like the Red Bulls did at Giants Stadium, United hemorrhages money each time it pays to open the doors at RFK. Owner Will Chang has admitted that he alone doesn’t have the money to make a stadium happen and thus needs to find new, additional investment in United in order to build a stadium in the DC area, where the large-scale use of public money on stadiums is unpopular and unfeasible considering the financial states of so many of the local jurisdictions.
Recent stadium efforts in Southeast DC and Prince George’s County, Maryland have failed at very early phases. Since then, Kevin Payne has said very little other than to say that “we have options” and “we don’t want to talk until have we something to talk about.” One key difference from the previous MD and DC efforts, is that while Payne has gone silent, there have been none of the usual leaks coming out of local development or Government circles. Talk of a DC United stadium in the DC metro area has gone entirely silent. United says that’s because they want to keep talks quiet, but folks like me say that the silence is because there are no serious talks going on and that Payne is either stalling or lying depending on how charitable you want to be.
What I think is going to happen:
The first big event for the stadium effort is September 14th, when the DC democratic mayoral primary is held. This pits incumbent Adrian Fenty against Council Chairman Vince Gray. As no Republicans are even on the ballot for the general election in November, the primary serves as the de facto general mayoral election. Fenty, who has backtracked on a 2007 stadium promise and is seen now as a someone opposed to the city spending money to help United build a stadium in DC. Vincent Gray has had virtually nothing to say on the subject. Kevin Payne and the United front office will be hoping for a Gray win if only so it gives them a new set of officials to work with. Fenty appeared to stymie United repeatedly on the previous Poplar Point proposal, and Gray, merely by saying nothing, has probably emerged as the organization’s preferred candidate.
If Fenty wins the primary, I expect that to be the end of DC United playing in the District of Columbia. His election will likely force the club into the suburbs or beyond. Having just defeated the Council Chairman, Fenty will have established that he, and he alone, runs the show in DC making it unlikely and that any councilman would ever be willing to defy Fenty and support an almost-certainly fruitless United stadium project in the city.
But, if Gray upsets Fenty in the primary and doesn’t rule out a DCU stadium in the process, I expect United to stay in DC until at least the end of 2011 to try and work with the new administration while also keeping Baltimore alive as an option as a possible incentive to keep DC officials interested. That means DC will stay in the DC-area through 2011 and possibly longer, depending on stadium negotiations progress.
After the mayoral primary, the next date that matters for DC United’s future is somewhere between September and October 2010 when when a marketing consulting firm will release the findings of a $100,000 feasibility study requested by the Maryland Stadium Authority about building a soccer stadium in Baltimore to attract either DC United or a USL club.
That study is important because it will show whether the Baltimore door remains open to United. If the study supports the idea of a soccer stadium in Baltimore, things could start happening very quickly. If the Baltimore door is opened, then I would expect the club to start talks with the stadium authority, Maryland government, and Baltimore city officials fairly quickly. If the support in Baltimore is high enough and the Baltimore officials are enthusiastic enough, the city could even try and get United to move to the Ravens’ home at M&T Bank Stadium for 2011. If I were DCU management, I’d jump at that immediately. That stadium is owned by the stadium authority, not the Ravens club itself, thus opening the door wide for that temporary option. United would announce that after 10+ years of trying, they have exhausted all options to stay in the DC area and will move to M&T Bank Stadium for at least the 2011 season. This makes sense on a lot of levels. The excitement of getting the team in town would provide a good platform for United and the stadium authority to get the deals done on a soccer stadium in the city while allowing them to build their brand and create fans in the Baltimore area. United would come into a marketplace that would be excited to have another major league team in town and one with public officials willing to support the club, something United can accurately say they’ve almost never had in DC.
If I were United, I’d time the announcement around the Superdraft, which conveniently is taking place in January at none other than the Baltimore Convention Center. If the Baltimore officials are excited enough about the prospect of a major league team moving to town (and being able to put the screw jobs to their snobbish neighbors down I-95), I could see this deal being wrapped up as soon as January, believe it or not.
As an aside, if the team does move to Baltimore, I expect the club to maintain the United identity and colors, probably becoming Baltimore United. If they were to move out of the area completely or fold, I’d say that they’d leave all the branding and records here like what happened with the Earthquakes, but if it’s only to Baltimore, I expect the branding and records to go too.
But if at any point after a Fenty election, the Baltimore door is closed on United, that leaves the club with having to work with the DC suburbs. All has been quiet for months out of suburbs in Virginia and most recently, Kevin Payne said that Baltimore is the only site in Maryland under any consideration. If the suburbs, especially the most likely candidates of Fairfax and Loudoun counties in Virginia stand firm to their past policies of no funding of stadiums for anyone at anytime, then this puts DC in an ugly spot. I can see United trying to budge one of the suburbs during a desperate 2011 season and simultaneous “save the team” campaign (like the Capitals in 1982).
But if that doesn’t work, I believe the team will either be sold to the highest bidder and moved or, if a buyer cannot be found, the team will suspend operations/fold after the 2011 season. By taking that unconventional step, the other owners would pay off Chang to get him to walk away, put the league back at an even number of clubs in 2012, and find itself with the prospect of two expansion fee windfalls available after 2012 rather than just the one everyone assumes will be New York.
Here are the two outcomes, in order, that I believe are most likely:
Outcome #1. Fenty is reelected and MLS folds the team after Baltimore decides against building United a stadium and DC fails to convince a Virginia suburb to support a stadium. In most times, this would be the “move the team” option, but MLS gobbled up all its viable threat markets when it signed up Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal as expansion teams. Plus, they won’t move the DC franchise to NY because the league doesn’t want to give up the hefty expansion fee that any NY club would have to pay the league and its existing owners.
In this economy then, that leaves MLS with very few options in terms of moving United out of DC or Baltimore. The USL ownership in St. Louis just proved to everyone that it doesn’t have the money. Also, once the Saputos were sated in Montreal with team #19 in Montreal, that really exhausted the list of legitimately rich folks who want to buy an MLS team. Sure there are markets, especially across the Southeast, that MLS would love to fill, but not one of them has an owner or even anything much more a website or two. Maybe by 2011-12, something will have emerged in Phoenix, Atlanta, or Miami but I doubt it.
Thus after the 2011 season, I think MLS shuts down United until the economy gets better and an owner in DC or elsewhere emerges with the deep pockets and political backing to build a stadium.
Outcome #2. This is the Baltimore option. Baltimore’s officials might be so excited at the thought of getting another major league team in town that they make United a deal to move to M&T Bank Field in 2011 with terms that are more favorable than those at RFK. Once in Baltimore, the team moves to build the soccer stadium in that city leaving Washington DC for good with only the hopes of a white knight owner coming in, buying another team (since we all know that the 20th team will be New York), and getting approval to both build a stadium in the DC area (extremely hard) and to get MLS approval to potentially cut the legs out from under the Baltimore market by moving to DC (extremely unlikely).
I should add that I think an MLS team would do quite well in Baltimore. It would do with a far less crowded market with only the nearly hopeless Orioles to compete with in the summer. In terms of media coverage, I could see a Baltimore team being covered far more comprehensively by the local media than United is currently in DC. This team, assuming it’s less hopeless than the Orioles, would become a real event in that town if marketed just halfway decently. Plus, at least on weekends, it would still attract a significant percentage of its old fans from the DC area. It saddens me to say it, but it would probably be good business for United to move to Baltimore.
In conclusion, unless something really drastic changes such as new, very deep-pocketed local owners purchasing the team, I don’t think the DC metro area will have a top-flight professional soccer team any later than 2011.