By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009
D.C. United and the Washington Freedom have joined forces in the past to stage doubleheaders, but when the area's top-tier men's and women's soccer clubs host successive matches at RFK Stadium today, the circumstances will be much different than their previous cooperatives.
While United is largely unchanged since the previous doubleheader nearly six years ago, the Freedom is, for the most part, the same in name only.
The demise of the Women's United Soccer Association in the fall of 2003 after three seasons dropped the Freedom to amateur status before the team returned to the pro level this spring as part of a low-budget, seven-city circuit known as Women's Professional Soccer.
Once a co-tenant with United at 46,000-seat RFK, the Freedom is now based 40 miles away at Maryland SoccerPlex, a sprawling recreational facility in northern Montgomery County that can accommodate about 5,200 spectators in the main stadium.
Washington will play three of its 10 home games at RFK, all opening acts to United matches. The others are scheduled for June 13 and July 18. The only MLS-WPS doubleheader outside of Washington this season is next weekend at Home Depot Center in suburban Los Angeles, home to the Galaxy (men) and Sol (women).
"For us, it's a huge opportunity to showcase our team and players using the United platform," said Mark Washo, the Freedom's president and general manager who handled United ticket sales from 1996 to 2000 before moving to executive positions in New York and then Chicago in MLS.
Neither Washo nor United executive vice president Stephen Zack would detail the financial arrangements, such as the breakdown of ticket revenue. But unlike the periodic doubleheaders between 2001 and '03, when both teams had rent agreements with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, the Freedom is United's guest.
How do the doubleheaders benefit United?
"Long-term, we have an interest in the promotion of soccer as a whole," Zack said. "We want the women's league to succeed, so by doing this, we'll provide additional exposure. We certainly hope the Freedom will be there when we eventually have a new stadium and then they will become a tenant, which is also beneficial to us. And there is an added attendance opportunity for us."
The impact at the box office probably won't be felt until the subsequent doubleheaders because "there are still a lot of people who aren't aware of the Freedom or the doubleheaders, for that matter," Zack said. "This will be the first one that will gain publicity, which will then build up for the other two games."
United is averaging 14,561 after five league home matches, while the Freedom is drawing 4,803 through three appearances at Maryland SoccerPlex. United officials are anticipating around 15,000 today.
The Freedom's desire to play some games at RFK is driven by "our marketing and branding," Washo said. "We have Washington in our name and we want to show that we are a D.C. team."
Playing in the city also will help broaden the team's fan base. Although the Freedom has yet to conduct any demographic surveys, club officials believe most fans who have attended games are from close-by communities. While Maryland SoccerPlex sits in a quiet residential area and is not easily accessible by public transportation, RFK sits in the center of the metropolitan area and is a short walk from a Metro station.
Budgetary reasons and attendance expectations precluded the Freedom from playing most or all home matches at RFK. In future seasons, Washo expects to have just one or two doubleheaders at RFK because, despite the benefits of playing on a bigger stage, the SoccerPlex's intimate setting serves the club and its family-oriented fan base well. Spectators are close to the field and able to interact with players before and after the game.
United's past experiences with the Freedom, as well as a warmer relationship between MLS and WPS, have helped facilitate the doubleheaders. While the WUSA wanted to prove it could succeed without MLS's help, WPS is working with Soccer United Marketing, a branch of MLS. United has offered the Freedom assistance in, among other areas, ticket sales and game operations.
"It's not easy to arrange these types of things," Zack said, "but we think we've found the right formula to benefit both teams."
United-Freedom Notes: Midfielder Ben Olsen (hamstring) is United's only absence. . . . Because of injuries to starter Nick Rimando (finger) and backup Chris Seitz (shoulder), Real Salt Lake's probable goalkeeper is third-stringer Kyle Reynish (no MLS starts). Rimando is listed as questionable. . . . The Freedom, which abruptly fired team president Joseph Quinn at the start of the season and hired Washo, dismissed three front-office employees this week, soccer industry sources said.