Public Opinion Bursts MLS’ Bubble

Major League Soccer’s plan for 24 teams by 2020 is progressing. Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s office announced they would soon have an announcement regarding a stadium for Beckham United. This week San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and NASL San Antonio Scorpion owner Gordon Hartman made their courtship of the league official by meeting with Commission Don Garber ahead of the Mexico – South Korea friendly.

It is unknown if the league traded a junior marketing executive for Garber’s transportation and lodging or if MLS paid for the trip.

With all these city officials across the country courting and cozy-ing up to the commish, this week brought a reminder that soccer is a niche sport and most hardcore fans are living in a bubble.

An opinion poll by the Washington Post (page 10) showed residents are against the proposal for “using city funds to help finance a new soccer stadium for the District’s Major League Soccer team, D.C. United.”  The poll conducted on January 12th reported 59% opposed and 35% in favor, with 39% strongly opposed compared to 15% strongly in favor.

The following question in the poll ask: “As you may know, the District government paid about 650 million dollars to build the Washington Nationals baseball stadium which opened in 2008 – you think this was a generally (good) or (bad) investment for the city?” The results were 71% said it was a Good investment, 26% answered it was a Bad investment.

Yes, money for a soccer stadium is a problem for those polled. It is was not a problem, however, for money to be used for a baseball stadium.  Similar to most stadium deals it is not simple, with as many “yes, buts” than “yes, ands.”

The Post’s Soccer Insiders reporter, Steven Goff, declared the day after the poll was released that the opposition is “not necessarily a referendum on United and soccer; it’s about public money contributing to United and soccer.”  Goff argued the $150 million investment by the city is a good deal. The $150 million cited in the Post survey is misleading since the deal involves land swaps and improvement in infrastructure. DC United is paying for the stadium itself.

The reality is the public may not even have to pay for the project. Politicians and bureaucrats have become sophisticated in their handling of development project; finding ways to pass the cost onto nonresidents. The common course of action is to issue revenue bonds, which utilize user fees (ticket and parking surcharges), and/or tourist taxes (extra percentage added onto restaurant or hotel bills). Furthermore, with the 2014 Capital Improvement Budget at $1.4 billion, the proposed $150 million in land exchange and infrastructure advancements spread out over a few years seems reasonable.

This is where the “yes, but” occurs. Search the proposed location of the stadium in Google, “Buzzard Point”. The name is apropos. DC Mayor Vincent Gray plans to use a stadium to transform a dormant section of the city. It is a vision and verbiage recycled by countless public officials over a number of stadium developments. The dream is the Staple Center in Skid Row, but the reality is a white elephant in the middle of an underdeveloped area. It likely the infrastructure upgrades will provide little benefit to the public.

What is difficult for those in the soccer community that oppose public money for sports stadiums to reconcile is that more than any other fan-base, DC United deserve a stadium of their own.

The club is a charter member, won the first two MLS Cups, the first double, tied with the LA Galaxy for the most MLS Cups with four, and this season produced to worst record in the history of the league. Alongside LA, it is the most significant club in the league’s history. Nevertheless, in Washington D.C., like most major markets in the United States America, soccer is the fifth most important sport.

So what to do when one of the league’s most historic franchises faces the reality of the US sports landscape? For MLS and United State Soccer Federation perhaps, you need to look outside the box, or at least border.

Rather than construct a new stadium, purchase RFK stadium from Events DC and turn it into the home of the US Men and Women National Team. Renovate the stadium to fit the soccer-specific vision and move the US Soccer Hall of Fame from the warehouse in North Carolina to a building on the grounds. Estadio Azteca in Mexico City is home to both the Mexican National Team and Club America. Argentina’s National Team and River Plate play at Estadio Monumental Antonio Vespucio Liberti in Buenos Aires. Aside from Spain, Holland, Germany, Brazil and Italy most countries have a national stadium.

DC United, Major League Soccer, and USSF have accountants and lawyers on staff; let them work out the financial details. If infrastructure upgrades are needed, it is much easier to sell the home to the National Team than the home of the recently 3-24-7 DC United Soccer Club.

Yes, this idea is probably just wishful thinking. The new stadium at Buzzard Point will probably get built.  If not, hopefully the league and club will find a nearby suitor and not resort to moving out of the area. Some city, somewhere, will shell out some money whether it is for a road, train stop, or the piece of the stadium. Nevertheless, it is still nice to dream about the possibility of spending other people’s money.

This week’s Throw-In:

  • Mexico’s Liga MX heavy squad demolition of South Korea’s K League Classic loaded team will be an overbearing narrative for the US-South Korea match Saturday. Mexico as a team had more to prove in that game than South Korea or will the United States. The game Saturday for the US is a try out, not a statement game akin to the Panama match that closed out the Hex. I am more interested in seeing if Wondo or Magee can close the gap on Eddie Johnson for the fourth forward spot? If the starting right back for the World Cup is on the field? And can one of the fringe midfielders have a breakout game?
  • Jermaine Jones bucked the trend of USMNT players coming to MLS for riches and regular playing time. Aside from early rumors about a move to DC United, a Jones move stateside has been quiet. If the Maurice Edu negotiations provided any insight to what Jones was in for, perhaps the loan to Besiktas was best.

Feature Image Credit: By MSGT KEN HAMMOND [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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