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A Look at D.C. United Attendance: Part 1

In recent years D.C. United's average attendance has declined. A look at some possible reasons.

Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sports

by Doug Barnes with David Rusk and Tod Lindberg

The attendance at the DC United home opener was disappointing. Newcomers Orlando had 62,000 and New York City FC 43,000; phenomenal Seattle had 40,000. The recent D.C. United game in Orlando had over 30,000 fans in an old football stadium. This got us questioning what has gone wrong with the team that a mere 11,500 souls would turn out for the first home game and less than 15,000 for the second game. We keep hearing that DC United fans are the best supporters in the country. This is true for the core of supporters who are passionate about the team and very sophisticated soccer fans. A smaller minority of these boisterous fans loyally travel to away games. But the low attendance in both the first and second home games raises some questions about the less committed fans. How did a team that was first in the Eastern Conference last year come in dead last in attendance the opening weekend?

D.C. United and MLS

Until recently DC United stacked up quite well compared to the rest of the league. United consistently had over 17,000 fans attend games from 1996 through 2010 (table 1.1). This was above the MLS average. Thus, historically United's attendance has been quite good. However, fan attendance since 2011 has dropped to less than 15,000. The reason for this pattern can probably be traced to the history of the club.

The team was a consistent winner in its early years with identifiable heroes. The likes of Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope, all national team regulars, accounted for the backbone of a team that consistently played soccer at a high level. They lost their share of games, but even when they were losing the team had strong players that fans could appreciate. In 2004 a side with the likes of Earnie Stewart, Ryan Nelsen, Christian Gomez and Ben Olsen won its most recent MLS Cup. In 2006 and 2007 they won the Supporters Shield but flopped in the playoffs.

After those glory years the team faltered. The reason was that some high profile foreign player additions flopped, ownership changes unsettled the team, and two failed attempts at securing a new soccer stadium left the soccer fans wondering if their club would remain in DC. Since 2008 the team has been hard working, but never really seemed to be able to recapture the magic of past years, or be able to recover from the off field problems. The result was that two years later in around 2010, many more casual fans began to stay home. In the period from 2011 to 2014, team attendance declined just at a time when attendance for other MLS teams was increasing. At this time United's marketing team was fighting a losing battle, and also made some mistakes in failing to appreciate the team’s core fans.

Attendance table 1.1

One strong message emanating even from the team during those years was that RFK was a dump. Certainly RFK is a poor economic venue for United. Also, with the recent closing of the Southeast Freeway from the 14th Street Bridge eastward, the stadium is hard to reach by car for Virginia fans. The food is not good (ed. note: Except for the pupusa stand). The restrooms are not up to par. The concrete is cracking. Many seats are clapped out. The saving grace of RFK was that for fans it is a good stadium for viewing soccer games.

The ambivalence of watching soccer at RFK is nicely summed up by Steve Goff:

"RFK could be down to its last cracked and crumbling chunk of asbestos, and I would still prefer attending a game there."

He is conveying that despite the issues with the stadium, on the positive side actually watching soccer being played at RFK is a great experience. The grounds crew does an excellent job. Lot 8 is ideal for tailgating and communing with other fans. But the not so subtle message from DC United in past years was the stadium was unfit for its fans.

The negative view of RFK as an economic venue by team management no doubt had a chilling effect on attendance. The constant search for a new home projected a negative view to fans that the RFK was not a proper place for soccer and also resulted in a feeling that the team might move out of Washington DC, betraying fans. Another issue was that due to poor economic conditions, the team did not have the financial resources to keep up with the rest of the league by investing in good players. With one hand tied behind its back, United was expected to stay within a small budget and win trophies. Perhaps the team should have started applying a "Moneyball" approach to soccer earlier, but the result was a team that relied more on grit than talent. Certainly there was some talent on the recent teams, but they lacked the flair of such players as Gomez, Etcheverry and Moreno.

The New Stadium: Will it Bring Higher Attendance?

With an investment of $150 million in a new stadium, the Black-and-Red now in a position to leave the negative rhetoric about RFK behind. But the question remains: Will the new stadium bring higher attendance? The evidence from the league is that the impact of the stadium might be modest (table 1.2). With the exception of Kansas City, most of the new stadiums in MLS have resulted in gains of 2,000 fans or less. Three teams - Chicago, Colorado and Columbus - all have seen increases in fan attendance of less than 1,000 per game. Thus, new stadiums may bring about financial gains for the clubs and short term spikes in attendance, but over the long term they are not a panacea for assuring new fans will come.

Attendance Table 1.2

As an aside, Seattle is an outlier in MLS, playing soccer in a relatively new football stadium that is downtown. Is the success of Seattle due to a local soccer culture, the downtown location or the consistently good teams? Until this year Seattle also had extensive marketing support from the Seattle Seahawks. In addition, the Sounders have established a Fan Alliance with representatives who serve on an advisory board for the organization. The representatives of the Fan Alliance have monthly meetings with team management including those on the soccer side to discuss selected issues. All MLS executives no doubt would like to know the magic touch of Seattle in drawing fans, but they have not been able to replicate the feat.

The conclusion is that the new stadium at Buzzard Point will boost attendance, but the team also needs to take care of other factors as well. This includes the attractiveness of the team's play, their record, marketing, and other factors. We will take a look at some of those issues in a subsequent posting.