FanPost

THE CHALLENGES OF MOVING TO BUZZARD POINT: A Conversation among Supporters: By David Rusk

Nineteen committed DC United supporters gathered on April 7 for an all-invited meeting early Saturday afternoon in a basement conference room of the Northeast Neighborhood Public Library. (Participants listed below.[1]) A preponderance of those present were Screaming Eagles, but also present were members of Barra Brava and independents who had stood and cheered with all three supporters groups.

For 90 minutes (with no injury time added) all engaged in a lively, frank, but respectful exchange of perceptions and ideas. I volunteered to serve as moderator and, though I did not take minutes, would summarize the discussions as revolving around three main topics.

Single Match Ticket Sales

DC United is the only club in MLS that still arranges for some home match ticket sales to be made by supporters groups. That was a big revelation for me. Even Portland’s Timbers Army must buy all tickets through the club. This apparently is an MLS policy that only DC United management has resisted in order to preserve the tradition of our supporters groups selling tickets to their own members in the Loud Side’s supporters groups sections.

To paraphrase one of Saturday’s participants, moving from RFK to Buzzard Point is like moving from a rambling, century-old, five-bedroom, slowly decaying house in Cleveland Park to a spiffy, brand new, two-bedroom condo at The Wharf. You’ve got to squeeze a lot into a much smaller space, and that will mean some changes.

For 22 seasons at RFK DC United management has provided supporters groups with consignments of tickets to sell within the Loud Side supporter sections. With 25,000 seats on the lower level and mezzanine and 45,000 seats by opening the upper deck, DC United did not worry about lost revenues from any unsold tickets on consignment.

That, of course, changes with moving into 20,000-seat capacity Buzzard Point that is likely to be sold out for every match this year. The consequence is that an unsold seat is lost revenue. DC United management seems confident that it can sell out Buzzard Point for every match. Therefore, they’ve decided not to provide supporters groups with single match tickets on consignment Also, consistent with MLS policies and its own financial self-interest, DC United management wants to maximize the number of season tickets sold (full season or special packages).

DC United management will still sell single match tickets to anyone, including single match tickets within the standing-only supporters sections (Sections 136 & 137 which combined will be close to 1,100 capacity). However, the club has not yet opened up single match sales nor set its prices for single match tickets. DC United management may adopt "dynamic pricing" that varies single match ticket prices by anticipated availability and demand.

To preserve its own ability to sell single match tickets to supporters, as an organization, Screaming Eagles committed to purchase 200 full season tickets in the supporters sections which Screaming Eagles can then re-sell as single match tickets. It has purchased those tickets for $320 each (the same price that DC United has set for other season tickets in those sections). That’s a $64,000 commitment by the group – a significant exposure in light of the number of mid-week matches (five) and the vagaries of attendance when the weather is bad.

Another point of emphasis from the meeting is that Screaming Eagles will sell single match tickets to Barra Brava, District Ultras, and unattached supporters for the supporters sections for the same price as to its own members. The price will be less than charged by DC United itself for single match tickets for those sections. Thus, supporters will get a modest price break through buying single match tickets through Screaming Eagles.

Though DC United benefits from guaranteed revenue from these 200 seats, this arrangement with Screaming Eagles was not a small concession. DC United management had to buck both MLS policy and make complicated revisions to its agreement with Ticketmaster. It should be remembered that this season all tickets, including Screaming Eagles tickets, will be issued digitally by Ticketmaster.

The "Partnership"

In a press release issued on February 14th (Valentine’s Day) DC United announced a "strategic partnership" with DC Scores, the club’s official charitable partner, and Screaming Eagles.

One statement in the club’s press release understandably caused great controversy within the total DC United supporter community.

"As part of the partnership, The Screaming Eagles will take the lead role to manage all aspects of the supporter culture including single game supporter tickets sales for both home and road matches as well as organizing all activities and in-game fan experiences in the north end zone, in an effort to further unite the Black-and-Red supporter base that established the benchmark for U.S. soccer supporter culture in the early years of Major League Soccer."

Unfortunately, (and thoughtlessly) some of that language was mirrored in the Screaming Eagles’ own original statement about the new strategic partnership:

"We will take the lead role in managing all aspects of D.C. United supporters' culture, including single game supporter tickets sales for both home and road matches. Ticketing information is available on our website (Screaming-Eagles.com), and inquiries should be directed to tickets@screaming-eagles.com . We’re also increasing our online presence and our volunteer base, and are focusing our efforts on greater member involvement. Those interested in volunteering should visit our website to see a full description of volunteer opportunities and/or send an email to nest@screaming-eagles.com ."

That was understandably seen by many Barra Brava and District Ultras members and other supporters as Screaming Eagles asserting a superior or first-among-equals position regarding the other groups. In its Q & A posted as updated on March 11th Screaming Eagles sought to dispel that concern, declaring that

"[W]e reject the idea that any one supporters’ group can claim full ownership to speak for an entire subset of D.C. United fans. All the clubs are diverse, and that is our strength as supporters."

However, it acknowledged that

Our leadership accepts responsibility for the slow response to the concerns raised by passionate, caring supporters in the wake of our announcement. We acknowledge that our failure on this point has significantly delayed the rebuilding of trust between supporters, and has frustrated members of our own organization. However, we remain open to cooperating with the members of the other supporters’ groups."

Though I have quoted from past documents because I did not take detailed notes at our meeting Saturday, all these Screaming Eagle commitments were strongly reconfirmed. Several participants stated that Screaming Eagles has been really branded negatively and, in effect, "owns" this controversy and must make special efforts to repair cooperative relationships. This meeting was a step in that direction and was appreciated by all who participated.

At the same time, Screaming Eagles believe in supporters group independence and remain committed to "fighting for supporters culture." It believes that a cooperative and constructive rather than a confrontational approach with DC United management best serves such goals at this time.

Independent Supporters Council

Forming an independent Supporters Council that could speak in a unified fashion for all supporters groups was the first topic raised at the meeting as a possible way forward. The general consensus was that a Supporters Council could organize how the different groups can collaborate within the context of the more confined Sections 136 & 137 ("spiffy, brand new, two-bedroom condo at The Wharf") now that we no longer have the option to form up as separate groups along the 110 yard, Loud Side, touchline ("rambling, century-old, five-bedroom, slowly decaying house in Cleveland Park"). It was pointed out that the different groups already function as a unified rooting section on road trips and this could be a model adapted to the new stadium.

Actually forming a Supporters Council is much more complicated than was discussed at our meeting as it involves setting up a whole new institution.

  • The first issue is representation of each supporters group. Would each supporters group have the same weight despite varying numbers and finances and season ticket holders (like the US Senate)? Or would it be proportional representation (like the US House of Representatives)? Or a combination?

  • The second issue is that the supporters groups would have to agree on some kind of charter or rules to follow as part of setting up a council; the existing groups are very different, so this may be difficult.

  • A third issue may well be whether or not DC United management would actually accept such a group as its negotiating partner with regard to supporter relations (despite its professed willingness to support the idea)? A related issue is whether or not all supporters groups and DC United management accept a Supporters Council as the sole negotiating authority in relations between supporters and management? Or would supporters groups want to reserve a right to direct negotiations with management in some or any circumstances?

  • There are many other issues; forming a Supporters Council is not an easy lift.

Towards the end of our 90-minute meeting Robert Blagg volunteered to take the initiative in trying to bring the different groups together to form a Supporters Council. Though Robert belongs to Screaming Eagles, he has close friends in both Barra Brava and District Ultras. He also spent many years working as a labor contract negotiator in the South and Southwest. He is familiar to Black and Red United bloggers as DoWBrewer and can be reached at (240) 472-8647 or robert.blagg@gmail.com if you would like to help shape a Supporters Council.

My Added Two Cents

Greater Ticket Sales: Fund-raising & Leverage: The die is cast for the 2018 season regarding ticket sales by supporters groups. Screaming Eagles will tack on some premium above the $21.33 cost per single match tickets (the average cost under a season ticket package). Initially, that premium must serve as a hedge against potential losses from not selling out all 200 tickets every match (e.g. Wednesdays, terrible weather, etc.). However, after meeting its "nut," the premium serves as a modest fund-raiser for Screaming Eagles.

With stronger and more reliable demand for single match tickets (not only from its own membership but from Barra Brava and District Ultras), Screaming Eagles could become more emboldened to increase its order beyond 200 season tickets, certainly for the 2019 season but perhaps even when the 2018 season at Buzzard Point is only partially completed. That could well open up greater single-match sales as a potential fund-raiser for Barra Brava and District Ultras on a pass-through basis from Screaming Eagles. That will require building a habit of very good self-identification by buyers for Screaming Eagles block of tickets (e.g. I’m SE, I’m BB, I’m DU, etc.) and also a good bookkeeping system involving Ticketmaster. However, I can see greater potential benefits for all three supporters groups.

At present the Screaming Eagles block of 200 season tickets is a really small number compared to the 12,500 season tickets that DC United wants to sell for the season. To that number can be added members of the three groups that have purchased their season tickets in the supporters sections directly from the club. But many supporters group members, including myself, do not have tickets in the supporters sections and we pay full price for our season tickets. Identifying all season ticket holders from supporters groups has benefits for all three supporters groups in terms of dealing with DC United management.

Moreover, supporters groups’ controlling an ever-increasing block of season tickets in the supporters sections would increase a future Supporters Council leverage in negotiations with DC United management. (That leverage should not reflect just Screaming Eagles-purchased season tickets but season tickets purchased independently by loyal SEs, BBs, and DUs – often located elsewhere in Buzzard Point as are my own season tickets.)

For instance, DC United management might look upon such issues as installing safe standing more favorably if a Supporters Council representing 15-20 percent of all season tickets at Buzzard Point pushed hard for safe standing. Assuming that DC United reaches its goal of selling 12,500 season tickets at Buzzard Point, that 15-20 percent would translate into 1,875 to 2,500 season ticket holders. A future Supporters Council’s influence would be greatly strengthened by a collaborative effort to identify season tickets held by members of all three supporters groups both within the standing-only sections 136 and 137 and elsewhere throughout Buzzard Point.

Next Steps Forward

An earlier post on the meeting by Still-Life 305 (https://www.blackandredunited.com/2018/4/9/17210342/small-dc-united-inter-supporters-group-meeting-held) generated a great deal of discussion (112 comments as of Thursday night). I held off posting this Fanpost until I had assured myself that what I had written was accurate. All meeting participants had the opportunity to review my draft Fanpost and all would not necessarily embrace some of my characterizations and, certainly, my two cents’ worth.

However, from his many comments on Still-Life 305’s Fanpost thread, Robert Blagg (DoWBrewer) is clearly working very hard to facilitate bringing as many interested supporters together to help define and shape a unified Supporters Council. Again, those interested in helping should contact Robert at (240) 472-8647 or robert.blagg@gmail.com .


[1] Robert Blagg, Jimi Butler, Brendan Cartwright, Michael Critchlow, Trevor Crowell, Nicole Gara, James Lambert, Nicolas Michiele, Rob Mishler, Danilo Pelletiere, Julia Persing, Josh Readshaw, William Robbins, Eric Robinson, Mike Rogers, Eric Ruenes, David Rusk, Keith Slack, and Paul Sotoudeh