by Doug Barnes with David Rusk and Tod Lindberg
Until the last 5 years, D.C. United has had relatively good attendance numbers. One of the reasons for the fan support has been that the team in its early years was a consistent winner. There were a few down years, but those were followed by good years. In a league where parity was the word, United's management was able to out-think the opposing clubs. Capturing on average 55% of all possible points, Bruce Arena had the best winning percentage of all United coaches before taking over the USMNT late in 1998.
In his first year as coach, Thomas Rongen managed United to a third MLS Cup, perhaps because he retained the same players and tactics successful under Arena. Without management worried about a new stadium and threatening to move the team to Baltimore or beyond, United was able to maintain attendance figures about 17,000 (above average for the league at the time). After some down years under Ray Hudson - who arguably is a better announcer than a coach - Peter Nowak took over in 2004 and won MLS Cup straight away with the help of such players as Christian Gomez, Earnie Stewart, Ben Olsen, Jaime Moreno, Ryan Nelsen, and a healthy Alecko Eskandarian (14 goals).
The wheels started to fall off the bandwagon during Tom Soehn's tenure, which began in 2007. The seeds of declining attendance were sown in 2008 (table 2.1), a time when the first stadium initiative failed and - after the signing of Marcelo Gallardo ended poorly - United reduced investments in new players.
This was partly due to the advent of the severe recession and the uncertainty of being able to have a new stadium and long-term home in the DC metropolitan area. In addition, this also was a time when Designated Players started to allow other teams to make investments in higher priced talent. Fans were constantly being bombarded with threats to move the team if the District's government did not support a new stadium. All the talk about loyalty to the badge somehow took on a hollow ring when fans saw a lack of investment and were unsure whether the team would stay or go. Attendance plummeted from a high of 21,000 in 2007 to just below 14,000 in 2012. The core fans were still loyal, but clearly the bloom was off the Black-and-Red rose.
A Possible New Era
United is starting a new era for several reasons. New owners joined Will Chang in 2012, and those new partners brought significant financial resources to the team. The new owners, by promising to finance the stadium construction costs, were able to win approval by the DC Council to pay for land acquisition and site improvements. The new stadium is in a fantastic new location right next to Nationals Park and only 1.1 miles from the US Capitol. With the new stadium, the team has a better financial model with prospects of making new investments in marketing, players and coaching.
The new stadium will not be a magic force for increasing attendance. Over the medium term it will probably only mean 2,000-3,000 new fans per game. After reorganizing the team in 2011, the young coach Ben Olsen has performed erratically. In 2011 and 2013, the team won only 38% and 16% of possible points. In 2012 and 2014, United won a respectable 57% and 58% of possible points. These ups and downs in the last 4 years and the lack of identifiable stars have hampered the team in building an extended fan base.
One should keep in mind that for United, team success does not turn into attendance growth right away (figure 2.1). Generally there has been a 2 year lag between team performance and attendance. This means that more wins - say, in 2015? - will not lead to higher attendance until 2017.
For winning seasons, there may be late-season surges in attendance, but for United those figures are offset by the empty seats earlier in the year. To make believers of fans, the club's success needs to be more sustained and roster turnover needs to be reduced so that fans can identify with the team and players. This is borne out by analysis of team performance and attendance.
For United, there is virtually no impact of team performance on fan attendance in the same or even in the next year (table 2.2). It takes two years for performance to translate into filled seats. For every 10% increase in performance in a given year (total points won of possible points) fan attendance will increase by over 1,000 fans two years later. The pattern may be different for teams in the rest of the league, as it seems there is a more immediate impact of winning on same season attendance. But just like United, those attendance gains also show up in the next 2 or 3 years.
So what are we to make of these findings? One is that in order to have good attendance when the new stadium opens in 2017, improvements in team performance in 2015 are extremely important. The team position is that it wants to wait for the economics to improve before making a significant investment in players. This is all well and good given the current financial burden, but it ignores the 2 year lag that improving team performance has on team attendance. 2,000-4,000 fans may not seem like much, but over the course of an entire season the returns could be significant both in fan interest and revenue. Ticket revenue is only a small part of the team's financial performance, which with the new stadium will include revenue from concessions, apparel sales, parking and even a new hotel.
United seems to be moving towards having a core of quality players that have a history of winning in MLS. However, fans also want to watch higher quality players, possibly from abroad. This is a delicate balance that the most successful coach in MLS (Bruce Arena) has figured out. Arena has been successful with both United and LA in producing quality teams and higher attendance. Somehow Arena was able to manage Landon Donovan and David Beckham! The caveat is that he also had a more open checkbook for designated players with the Galaxy, spending close to $10 million in 2014 and adding Steven Gerrard this year.
It is hoped that the team's current ownership will stay the course and provide a more stable foundation for building the the Black-and-Red's popularity. In the past 3 years the ownership group has proven its savvy, making a commitment to Washington DC, and this no doubt influenced many on the DC Council to approve the $150 million in tax dollars to support the new stadium.
In the next two years, however, it would be a wise policy to praise the legacy and the benefits of playing in RFK rather treating it as a holding pattern awaiting the new stadium. The battle for a new stadium has been won, and now the negative conditions of RFK should not be treated as leverage for reaching the Promised Land. We only have about 30 games left at RFK. So praise RFK's legacy and highlight all the good soccer that United has played in this historic venue and emphasize how the traditions will carry over to the new stadium. Now that the Buzzard Point stadium has been approved, the issue of lagging ticket sales caused by the uncertainty surrounding the team’s future needs to be addressed. Here we offer some of our thoughts on how United might boost attendance:
- The team needs to ramp up spending on select quality players during the next two years, so that in 2017 United will be an exciting team to watch.
- United should do a better job in marketing the team to more general public while keeping its dedicated fans. Televising every game this year is a step in the right direction, but the team still has a very minor footprint in the area sports media.
- Praise the legacy of RFK Stadium while emphasizing the transition to a new home. Make fans want to come to RFK for the next two years by stressing its proud history in a buildup to marketing the team's future at Buzzard Point.
- Take advantage of the fan support for the new stadium during the DC Council hearing. This momentum should not be lost as the team focuses on future important issues. Perhaps United should adopt a variant of the Fan Alliance approach of Seattle.
- Involve fans and the community in the design of the new stadium and its surroundings. Of course, fans can't and will not be involved in all issues concerning stadium development and marketing. However, Buzzard Point is almost a blank slate. Efforts of the team should not be limited to the stadium only, but also should include weighing in on the development of local parks, the Anacostia Bike trail and South Capitol Street Development.
- More actions need to be focused on promoting season tickets and tickets to casual fans. The new soccer buddies program is an innovative initiative. The new stadium can be used to sell new tickets, but other initiatives also need to be used to garner more general support for the team. In two years, the team should be firing on all cylinders.
The glory years are past and have left a proud legacy for the team. The football maestros of RFK are all now retired (ed. note: except for Christian Gomez). The years of uncertainty during the long stadium quest took a great toll on attendance. Those times are now over, but they have left their footprint on the team. We are entering into a new era for United. The core fans are in place and they are the best in MLS. The core needs to be expanded and complemented by rising season ticket sales, better quality of play, more appealing marketing and the attraction of more casual fans.
What are your ideas about ways for United to boost game attendance?