Why I Still Have Faith in DC United's Owners and the Stadium Deal

Patrick McDermott

There are a few reasons to think that Erick Thohir, Jason Levien, and even Will Chang don't care about D.C. United any more:

  • Amidst a record-breakingly bad season just a few years after another record-breakingly bad season, it can be physically painful to watch this team.
  • A lot of people who we liked and cared about got cut from the staff earlier this year, making our relation to the current front office all the more tenuous.
  • Erick Thohir is investing in a bigger club in a bigger league while Jason Levien tweets about the Memphis Grizzleis as often as he tweets about United and Will Chang lives approximately three thousand miles away.

A lot of folks have turned on the owners and started to say they just don't care. I don't think this is the case, and I want to explain why. I also want to provide a place for us to have a respectful debate about this stuff without derailing every comment thread in the universe. (Sorry about that, Martin.)

The short version: the ownership group's top priority right now is (and should be) making this team profitable so that it can exist in the long term, and that priority is most closely related to a stadium and not related to what happens on the pitch.

First, this team is not currently profitable and that probably isn't going to change any time soon. Attendance is likely not to improve in the near future, and even if it does it won't make a huge difference. Last year, Stephen Whiting wrote a series of great pieces (Part 1|Part 2|Part 3) on why our attendance is bad. Even if we were suddenly good (which we were, in terms of results, last year), attendance isn't suddenly going to explode and make the team profitable.

Last time I heard, Doug Hicks said that the team makes about $1.85M a year less than the average MLS team and has to spend about $1M more in expenses (keeping in mind that since then we've gotten a new and more favorable lease at RFK, but I'd guess that has to do with decreasing the expenses but hasn't increased the revenue much).

Having a cracking team that slaughters opponents could (probably would) bring people out to watch the games, but even that sort of investment is inherently uncertain. Big names can go down with injuries and blow up your season, or people simply might not come. Totally anecdotal, but I don't remember the stands really starting to get packed until the very end of our run last year, when we actually went the entire season without losing at home after being beaten in the opener against KC. Investing in making the team good right now would probably be very expensive and would potentially have little payoff.

Second, building a stadium is the necessary antecedent to making this team profitable again. Building our own stadium that we can run that is appropriately sized and has the amenities that contemporary sports fans expect would allow this club to cancel out that disparity between what the club spends and what it takes in. I think the best examples of clubs who benefited tremendously from new stadiums in the recent past are SKC and Houston. SKC seems to be an even better example because their onfield production has increased along after the addition of the stadium. (Note, I don't know the situations well enough to give a complete picture of how that all went down; this is based just on a quick glance at stats.)

Not only that, but big players aren't going to want to come to play in a dump like RFK (sorry, old girl) and try to pull a team out of last place. Similarly, I'm sure that a piece of it is that our own players and team staff look up when coming into work and feel let down. It is, of course, their job to play like they mean it (and they haven't been lately), but after having conversations with some folks I've come to agree that the stadium situation really poisons every aspect of this team. Before we can turn the corner, we need the stadium.

Third, this ownership group knew the situation when it bought this club. The quote I posted above from Doug Hicks is from 2011, and there's no way that they didn't read that and every other article we read at the same period of times about the dire straits of our beloved United. They also knew that the team wasn't that great when they bought the team, as I don't believe we'd started our down-the-stretch run of good/lucky form at that point. They bought this team knowing what it would take to become profitable and thrive in the long run, and they said they're up for it.

They've been quietly working behind the scenes as the District has brought in D.C. City Administrator Allen Y. Lew, the guy behind the Convention Center and Nats Park projects, to be the "Get Sh*t Done" Guy on this project. Goff has said that the wheels are turning on this, and I think would make it clear (at least with some "zzz" tweets) if things had stalled or fallen apart. I feel virtually certain I've seen somewhere that Goff said we're closer than we've ever been to getting a stadium deal done, but I can't find it anywhere so that might be wishful thinking. But overall, I'm still encouraged to the same level I was when they released those awesome mockups of where the stadium is hopefully going to be.

To sum it up, it seems to make financial sense that the only way to turn this franchise profitable is to focus on a stadium. Would I prefer it if they could do both at the same time, spending money on players AND spending money on the stadium deal? Of course. But just because Thohir has truckloads of cash doesn't mean that he should be willing to flush money down the toilet - in fact, he probably stays that wealthy by trying not to do that. Keeping on a cut-rate young coach who enjoys a high level of popularity and good will from the fans because of his legendary status with the fans and offloading expensive players to bring in talented (cheap) youngsters is, I believe, a decept-sized part of this plan to keep costs down. The stadium focus is first, and the wheels are turning. For these reasons, not only do I think that what they're doing makes financial sense, but I think they actually do care about the team and making it financially viable for the future.

Of course, I can anticipate a reasonable but more cynical explanation: buy the team when it's terrible and try to make a few bucks on moving the team away. But that contradicts everything we've heard from the new owners about their intentions with the team. Yes, that means taking businessmen at their words, but that's my gut feeling on it.

Is it discouraging to be a United fan right now? Heck yes. Am I making some assumptions here? Certainly. But at the end of the day this is really what I believe is going on.

And now, a disclaimer. I'm not an expert in business or sports management, so a lot of this is based on stuff I've heard and read in the last couple of years. While I don't think I can judge this from a totally knowledgeable perspective, I have read a lot of this stuff and I haven't been a fan during the glory days, which leaves me a little lest emotionally invested in winning right now this second. So I've tried my best to be as objective as possible.

Have at it.

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