Thursday, July 25, 2013

Looking to Kansas City as a model for the new D.C. United stadium

For every D.C. United fan gushing about Mayor Vincent Gray's announcement of plans for a long-awaited new stadium at Buzzard Point, there's someone pointing out the obvious pratfalls. It's a $300 million project, with $150 million coming from D.C. taxpayers' pockets. Mayor Gray insists the stadium will help revitalize struggling neighborhoods and makes use of an area that's currently just a dilapidated industrial wasteland. But as anyone who's read Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski's seminal Soccernomics can tell you, promises of economic growth from stadiums are nebulous at best.

The proposed stadium, with Nationals Park down the block
and the Capitol in the background

It can work, though. I currently live in Kansas City, home of the recently-rebranded Sporting Kansas City. Like D.C. United, they were a founding member of Major League Soccer back in 1996. While MLS has grown in popularity over the last two decades and new teams like the Seattle Sounders average over 40,000 fans at each game, some of the older clubs are struggling in 2013. Seven of the ten teams with the worst attendance in MLS this season are founding members of the league. The novelty has worn off the founding clubs, and teams born in the more soccer-friendly environment of the 21st century have more ease gaining a fanbase.

Sporting KC found a way to buck that trend. The former Kansas City Wizards were virtually a non-entity in the KC sports landscape, and when they rebranded themselves with a more European-sounding name in 2011, they essentially tricked the city into thinking it had a new sports team. Their average attendance nearly doubled immediately.

Sporting Park and its revitalized fanbase

The driving force of the rebrand was SKC's new state-of-the-art stadium, Sporting Park (it was originally Livestrong Sporting Park, but... ya know). I've been to a handful of games there, and it's a beauty to behold. They sell out every single home game, have a presence all around the city, and even got an in-depth New York Times feature yesterday dedicated to how awesome they are.

Kansas City has become a reliable home for the U.S. national team, hosting multiple World Cup qualifiers while Washington, D.C. hosts... zero. It's embarrassing that the United States is now one of the only countries in the world not to play meaningful national team matches in its capital city.

The U.S. national team playing a World Cup qualifier at Sporting Park.
Shouldn't the nation's capital get games like this?

The new stadium's location within the District of Columbia is its huge advantage over Sporting Park. Sporting Park is in the outskirts of suburban Kansas City, Kansas, rather than the city core of Kansas City, Missouri. Buzzard Point isn't exactly Chinatown, but with the combined forces of D.C. United and nearby Nationals Park, it's a step in the right direction. Not to mention easy Metro access... something Sporting Park doesn't have at all.

The Buzzard Point project is key to revitalizing and expanding D.C. United's fanbase. I wouldn't go so far as saying the team needs a new name, but some sort of rebrand could be in order as well. As soccer becomes an increasingly important part of American sports culture, it's critical that D.C. maintains a successful MLS club, especially with D.C. being such an international city. I hope this leads to long-term economic development stemming from the stadium.

No comments:

Post a Comment