Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Look at DC United Attendance in RFK Stadium, 1996-2014

RFK Stadium, Home of DC United 1996-2017
(Image: Doug Barnes, 2019)

By Doug Barnes, David Rusk, and Tod Lindberg

The attendance at the DC United home opener in 2015 was disappointing. Newcomers Orlando had 62,000 and New York City FC 43,000; phenomenal Seattle had 40,000. The 2015 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 of the 2105 season 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.

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 DC United's marketing team was fighting a losing battle, and also made some mistakes in failing to appreciate the team’s core fans.

Table 1. DC United and MLS Single Game Attendance Averages, 1996-2014
(Source and Image: Doug Barnes, 2015)
One strong message emanating even from DC United management during those years was that RFK was a dump. Certainly, RFK was a poor economic venue for DC United. Also, with the construction closing of the Southeast Freeway from the 14th Street Bridge eastward, the stadium was hard to reach by car for Virginia fans. The food was not good (with the notable exception of the pupusa stand). The restrooms were not up to par. The concrete was cracking. Many seats were clapped out. The saving grace of RFK was that for fans it is a good stadium for viewing soccer games.

The team should have started building up its popularity even before the new stadium was built. In 2015, the battle for a new stadium had been won, and the negative conditions of RFK should not even have been publicized during the new construction. It would have been a good idea to praise RFK's legacy and highlight all the good soccer that United had played in this historic venue. The emphasis should have been placed on how the traditions from RFK carry over to the new stadium.

The ambivalence of watching soccer at RFK was nicely summed up by Steve Goff during its last days as host of DC United complemented by his recollection of frequently attending US Men's National Team games:

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

He was conveying such a positive message because despite the issues with the stadium, actually watching soccer being played at RFK was a great experience. The grounds crew did an excellent job. Lot 8 was ideal for tailgating and communing with other fans. But the not-so-subtle message from DC United management 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. 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 reality 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 Christian Gomez, Marco Etcheverry, and Jaime Moreno.

The New Stadium: Will it Bring Higher Attendance?

The DC United stadium at Buzzard Point cost a total of $500 million to build that included both private and public investments. The city of Washington, DC purchased the land for the stadium and provided supporting infrastructure such as roads, sidewalks, and water commonly referred to as horizontal costs.  DC United footed the bill for all verticle costs that included the construction of the stadium itself and everything within its footprint.

This put DC United in a position to leave the negative rhetoric about RFK behind. But the question at the time remained. "Will the new stadium bring higher attendance?"

The evidence from the league was that the impact of the stadium might be modest (table 2). With the exception of Kansas City, most of the new stadiums in MLS as of 2014 have resulted in gains of 2,000 fans or less. Three teams - Chicago, Colorado, and Columbus - all had 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.

Table 2. Game Attendance in MLS Before and After New Stadium, 1996-2014
(Source and Image: Doug Barnes, 2019)

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 of the stadium, or the consistently good teams? Until 2014, Seattle had extensive marketing support from the Seattle Seahawks.

In addition, the Sounders had established a Fan Alliance with representatives who serve on an advisory board for the organization. The representatives of the Fan Alliance had 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 as of 2014 none were 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 the next section.

Non-Stadium Factors That Impact Team Attendance

Until 2008, D.C. United had relatively good attendance numbers. One of the reasons for the fan support had 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, DC 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, in 1999 Thomas Rongen managed DC United to a third MLS Cup, perhaps. He retained both the same players and tactics successful under Bruce 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 of 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 - took over in 2004 and won MLS Cup straight away with the help of such players as Christian Gomez, Earnie Stewart, Jaime Moreno, 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 3). This was a time when the first stadium initiative failed. Also, after the signing of the Argentinian star Marcelo Gallardo ended poorly, DC United reduced investments in new players.

This decision to not invest in new players 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 in the Washington, DC area had to constantly listen to threats from DC United management that they would move the team to another city if the District's government failed to 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 DC United rose.

Table 3. DC United Stadium attendance and Performance by Coach, 1996-2014
(Source and Table: Doug Barnes, 2019)

A Possible New Era Starting in 2014

United was starting a new era in 2014. New owners joined Will Chang in 2012, and those new partners brought financial resources to the team. The new owners that were led by Jason Levien promised to finance the stadium construction costs. After a stadium campaign that included support from and groups, DC United was able to win approval by the DC Council to pay for land acquisition and site improvements. The new stadium was located in a fantastic new location called Buzzard Point which is right next to Nationals Park and only 1.1 miles from the US Capitol.

The new stadium offered the team the possibility of a better financial model with prospects of making new investments in marketing, players, and coaching. This was only partially successful because DC United management had to pay for the stadium.  As a result, they continued to pinch pennies until the opening of the new stadium in 2018.

In 2014, the evidence from other teams suggested that the new DC United 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 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 combined with the lack of identifiable stars hampered the team in building an extended fan base.

One should keep in mind that for DC United, team success does not turn into attendance growth right away (figure 1). Generally, there has been a 2 year lag between DC United team performance and improved attendance. This means that more wins at the start of stadium construction in 2015 would not lead to higher attendance until 2017.

Figure 1. Team Performance and Game Attendance, 1996-2014
(Figure and Image: Doug Barnes, 2019)

For winning seasons, there may be late-season surges in attendance, but for DC United, those figures are offset by the empty seats earlier in the year. To make believers of fans, teams need more sustained success and a core group of talented players. This helps the fans identify with the team and players. This is borne out by an analysis of team performance and attendance.

For DC United, there was virtually no impact of team performance on fan attendance in the same or even in a year following a successful season (table 4). It takes two years for performance to translate into fans filling seats. For every 10% increase in performance in a given year (total points won of possible points), fan attendance increased by over 1,000 fans two years later.

The pattern may be different for teams in the rest of the league, but the evidence suggests that as of 2014 for DC United success translates into attendance gains only after 2 or 3 years.

Table 4. Impact of Team Performance on Attendance, 1996-2014
(Source and Image: Doug Barnes, 2019)

So what are we to make of these attendance findings? One was that improvements in team performance in 2015 would have been extremely important promoting good attendance when the new stadium opened in 2017. Unfortunately, the team position was that it wanted to wait for the economics to improve before making a significant investment in players. This is all well and good given their financial burden, but it ignores the 2-year lag that improving team performance has on team attendance. Two to four thousand fans may not seem like much, but throughout an entire season, the returns could be significant both in fan interest and revenue. 

Recommendations Updated for 2022

Here are some revised recommendations first offered in 2015 that might still have lessons for 2021 on how United might boost attendance and its popularity in Washington, DC, Maryland, and Northern Virginia regions:

The team still needs to ramp up spending on quality players so that DC United would be an exciting team to watch. Even though the stadium has been open since 2018, this year's attendance has lagged expectations. Some of this lag may be due to the Covid pandemic. The team has an exciting new coach and has made significant investments in facilities. Unfortunately, the investment in players has trailed many teams in the league. DC United does not have the allowed 3 designated players.

United should do a better job in marketing the team to the more general public while keeping its dedicated fans. In the lead-up to the new stadium, DC United started to televise every game. After the new stadium inauguration, the team faltered significantly by contracting FloSports to stream every game and charge all fans for viewing the stream. This included season ticket members who were already paying DC United significant sums to engage with the team. This disastrous policy was followed this year with almost all games being televised by a local sports network and also streamed on DC United's website. These are both good policies for keeping existing fans interested and recruiting more casual fans.  This policy should be continued in the future.

The new DC United stadium at Buzzard Point is now a reality but the past should not be forgotten.  In the first years in the new stadium, the team pivoted to the future and seemingly forgot its past. This was corrected in the last couple of years and this emphasis on the team's traditions should be continued. The remembrance of teams playing in RFK Stadium should not be forgotten as DC United embarks on a  bright future.

With all the new construction, Buzzard Point is quickly transforming from abandoned lots and scrap yards into one of the best and most unique neighborhoods in Washington, DC. With both DC United and the Nationals as feature attractions, DC United has a unique opportunity to market and integrate the team within its new unique environment.

Buzzard Point--which previously was a blank slate--will quickly become a community with old low-rise neighborhoods, public affordable housing, and new multiuse buildings. DC United needs to work with the community to make the surroundings of the stadium a unique place to visit. DC United should embrace both the name Buzzard Point and the community.

The efforts of DC United should not be limited to the stadium alone. The team is part of a greater neighborhood. The team can take advantage of a unique opportunity to weigh in on the development of local parks, the Anacostia Bike trail, and South Capitol Street Development in ways the enhance the value of the stadium. These all can help with pregame festivities and safe pedestrian travel to and from games.  A symbiotic relationship between DC United and the community would lead to enhancements in which the sum is greater than the individual parts.

Parking around the DC United stadium is an issue that will probably get worse. As the lot south of the stadium is developed, parking in that lot will disappear.  Recently DC United has been relying on SpotHero for its fan parking with a nominal discount to DC United fans. This makeshift arrangement is probably low-cost for DC United administrative responsibilities, but it does put another barrier in front of fans wanting to attend games. More effort needs to be made to secure parking at discounted prices for those who want to drive to the DC United games.

More actions need to be focused on promoting season tickets and tickets to casual fans. Now that DC United is settled into its new stadium and with the pandemic subsiding, other initiatives also need to be used to garner more general support for the team. The team's marketing outreach and approach should be firing on all cylinders.

One sore point among some fans that needs to be corrected is that the roof of the stadium has never been fully completed. It is admirable that solar panels now generate much of the electricity for the stadium, but DC United has never completed the roof over its expensive midfield seats. Season ticket holders in these sections pay thousands of dollars per year for their seats. DC United has never explained to its fans why it would build a $500 million dollar stadium and not finish the roof. This needs to be corrected in the near future.

A gathering spot similar to lot 8 at RFK stadium would be a great draw for DC United fans to come early to games.  Right now fans trickle into the stadium delayed by metro and other issues.  One suggestion is that on game day, perhaps Potomac Avenue could be blocked off and lined with pregame-sanctioned food tents and other welcoming events.  Perhaps the new building that will be constructed next to the stadium could have some kind of welcome fan zone.  Having a gathering place for fans would greatly enhance not only attendance at DC United games but also the timeliness of fans entering the gates on game day.

Last but not least, the name Buzzard Point is now becoming a very trendy name and even has a website of its own financed by local developers. In other words, the name Buzzard Point has been embraced by the real estate community.  DC United should join in with them and recognized that the team is located at Buzzard Point, perhaps even calling the stadium Audi Field at Buzzard Point.

The glory years are past and have left a proud legacy for the team. The football maestros of RFK are all now retired. The years of uncertainty during the long stadium quest took a great toll on attendance. As of 2018, those times were over, but they had left their footprint on the team.

Today, DC United still has a chance to establish itself firmly in its new era. The core fans are in place and they are the best in MLS. This core needs to be expanded and complemented by rising season ticket sales, a better quality of play, more appealing marketing, local fan zones before games, and better parking options. This will lead to an attraction of more casual fans and future DC United season ticket holders.

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