After months of delays and, at best, sluggish progress, D.C. United has reached a stadium development deal with the city. Word that the club was in talks with the state of Virginia and suburban Loudoun County (home to Dulles Airport) appeared to be the catalyst Mayor Muriel Bowser and the D.C. government needed to finalize an agreement. On Monday afternoon, Bowser announced that the city and club had reached a development deal for a stadium on Buzzard Point, United’s preferred downtown location, paving the way for a facility that should be ready in time for the 2018 MLS season.
United’s decade-long pursuit of its own stadium appeared to hit the home stretch in December, when D.C.’s city council voted to spend up to $150 million to acquire and prepare the land located southwest of Nationals Park. The club planned to finance construction. But Bowser took office in January and as her staff began to pick apart the legislation, issues apparently arose. The city wanted protection against specific cost overruns and asked United to put up a $25 million guarantee that it would build the stadium if the city acquired the land through purchase and/or eminent domain.
The team hesitated to embrace the evolving terms. Eager to make faster progress toward finding an alternative to RFK Stadium, United officials picked up the phone when Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe called. United toured potential sites and met with Virginia and Loudoun officials in May, according to The Washington Post. The response from the District was swift and, likely, just what United was hoping for.
According to The Post, the city and team will split up to $20 million in cost overruns related to land acquisition through eminent domain, if necessary. It doesn’t appear the city will receive its $25 million guarantee, but United did sign a non-relocation agreement preventing it from leaving. Bowser’s administration must finalize the land purchase (there are four current owners, three of which already have negotiated deals with D.C.) and approve a necessary street closure before the end of September.
In a joint release, the parties said, “The signed agreements include improved deal terms which will result in better financial protections for District of Columbia residents, clarify the size and timeline of the stadium, and strengthen community engagement. The Bowser administration will submit legislation to the Council of the District of Columbia for final review.”
United still may have a future in to the west. Its negotiations with McAuliffe very well could lead the club to deciding to locate its future office, training and academy facilities in Virginia. There won’t be room for it at Buzzard Point. The team currently practices at a field located a couple blocks north of RFK, which lacks the modern amenities that players, technical staffers and fans enjoy elsewhere in MLS. United has been losing $7-$10 million annually at RFK, which opened in 1961 and has served as the team’s home since its inaugural season in 1996. Of the 10 surviving clubs from the 1990s, United is one of only two that isn’t playing in a soccer-specific facility (the New England Revolution and Gillette Stadium share an owner).
Despite the team’s success on the field—it finished first in MLS’ Eastern Conference last year and now leads the pack again—United’s attendance has fallen as the wait for a new stadium persists. Although season ticket commitments are higher than they’ve been at any point this decade, according to a club source, walk-up crowds have plummeted. United’s 2015 average attendance of 14,183 is the league’s lowest and represents a drop of nearly 17% from last year. For the club, Monday's news was welcome, and 2018 can't come soon enough.