A new Washington Post poll shows about 60 percent of District residents oppose public financing for the proposed D.C. United stadium project at Buzzard Point. Thirty-five percent are in favor.
What to make of these lopsided results?
First, this is not necessarily a referendum on United and soccer; it’s about public money contributing to United and soccer. DCU has pledged to pay for the arena ($150 million), the mayor has proposed paying for land acquisition and infrastructure costs ($150 million). On the surface, it’s not an appealing proposition. Most residents, I suspect, have not followed the negotiations closely and aren’t familiar with the project. The poll question itself (No. 22 in this wide-ranging survey) begins by saying, “Generally speaking …” and does not introduce details or a follow-up.
Accordingly, the default response is opposition. From that standpoint, 35 percent in favor is not so bad.
When assessing the high negatives, we must take into account lingering stadium fatigue. Gouged by Major League Baseball
and the greedy Lerner family over financing of Nationals Park eight years ago, the public is reluctant to help pay for another stadium. Those surveyed now believe the baseball deal was money well spent; once they saw it, they believed in it. At the time, though, widespread opposition nearly derailed the plan. Resistance to another proposed stadium — particularly one that will house a sport not as popular as baseball — shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Comparing the two projects does create a false equivalency: The city invested four times more on baseball than it would on soccer. (Baseball does, however, generate more business than soccer for the city.) The idea of subsidizing a pro sports organization run by wealthy owners does not sit well with the public, no matter what type of ball is involved. United might not spend big bucks on players, but Erick Thohir is worth hundreds of millions and last fall purchased a majority stake in Inter Milan, the 15th most valuable soccer club in the world.
Few would shed many tears if Thohir and his co-investors didn’t get their way. Despite the Lerner’s wealth, many more D.C. residents would have shed tears over losing out on a relocating baseball team (nous sommes très désolés, Montreal) than losing a long-standing soccer team. Washington is an old-fashioned town; baseball is an old-fashioned sport. Traditions die hard here. For decades, congressmen and pundits — let’s face it, a homogeneous batch — set the agenda by drooling over the idea of the Mudville 9 and seventh-inning stretches in the nation’s capital. They are not as concerned about a soccer team, whose base of support inside city limits is young, hip, diverse and well-traveled. Additionally, the majority of United’s overall support lives in Virginia and the close-in Maryland suburbs, not the city.
As the Buzzard Point process stumbles along, it should be noted D.C. residents will not vote on whether the project goes forward. The City Council will. Mayor Vincent Gray is all in and, presuming he wins re-election this year, won’t change his mind. Several members of the City Council are aboard, some more firmly than others. For political and conscientious reasons, there are council members reluctant to support a project that does not have the public’s will behind it.
To sway the council and the public, the mayor’s office and United will need to do a better job selling the project not as a soccer stadium but as a multi-use venue. Which it would be. New MLS stadiums are always labeled “soccer specific,” but there is confusion about that term. “Soccer specific” means they are built for soccer’s needs (seating capacity, sight lines, field width); it doesn’t mean soccer only. The Buzzard Point project would host concerts, college and high school football and lacrosse, as well as college soccer and international soccer. There has also been a suggestion of attaching the National Soccer Hall of Fame — currently without a home — on the property as a year-round attraction.
Buzzard Point would host the widest array of acts in the metro area, easily surpassing Verizon Center, Nationals Park, Comcast Center and FedEx Field. Okay, maybe not the 9:30 Club.
And United would pay for every last cent of facility costs. What it seeks is assistance in locking down privately held property on the stadium footprint, as well as tax benefits. Is compromise in order? It will have to be. Will Thohir have to pledge more of his family fortune to the plan? Perhaps.
Beyond that, as the poll results reveal, Gray and United will need to tweak their tactics, educate, and emphasize the benefits of a gleaming facility in a forgotten part of town.