When will D.C. United’s new stadium open? How many spectators will it hold? Are the investors in it for the long run or looking to flip the club? Will Leidos remain the primary sponsor after 2016?
In the second of a two-part installment [see the roster-oriented first part here], United managing general partner Jason Levien shares thoughts on the Buzzard Point project and other off-the-field topics.
Where do things stand with the new stadium?
“We are in the design and planning process right now. We’re working closely with the city, which has been very supportive. We’ve spent a lot of resources on architects and engineers, on planning in-house and outsourcing it. We’ve made a lot of progress and we are excited about what the product is going to look like.
“We have been spending hundreds of hours looking at what the new stadium might be, what kind of fan engagement there is going to be, what the team store is going to look like, what the main entrance is going to be, what kind of suites there are going to be, what the field-level seating is going to look like – and it’s a lot of fun. It’s exciting to picture it.”
What’s the next step?
“Environmental remediation on the land. The city is going to turn over control of the land to us in 2016.”
“Late summer is my guess.”
Have you determined seating capacity?
“We are somewhere between 18,000 and 23,000.”
Why such a wide range?
“One of the things that was key to us in building the stadium in this location was that location trumped all. It’s a tricky site with some of its limitations; it’s very tight. We want to fit as many seats in as we can, but we want unbelievable sight lines for our fans. So we want to squeeze in the right number of seats. We would like to be bigger [than 18,000], but we don’t want to sacrifice the sight lines and experience. Those are driving it and we are looking for ways to engineer the building in such a way to have more seats.
“In the agreement with the city, we are required to build at least 17,000. We are going to go over that. We are required to make a $150 million investment. We are going to go over that. At this point, the amount [of seats] will depend on the variables. We would like to have more [than 18,000] seats.
“In the studies we have done, we believe our fan base is robust and growing. We’re going to sell out that building, and the more seats we get in there, the more fans are going to enjoy the experience. That is what we want.”
So it’s fair to say you had to choose between a stadium site in the city with space limitations and a location well outside the city with more land to work with but less accessibility and a suburban feel?
“Correct. Buzzard Point is a fantastic site. We want to be in the city.”
When do you expect to lock into a final design?
“In the next 60 days.”
Will a roof cover the stands?
“There are some engineering issues, but we are working on it. We like the idea of having a roof. We think it makes it more intimate. We think it makes it a better experience for our fans. It helps with the weather — sun and rain. We are trying to figure that out now — two sides, three sides, all of it.”
Are you looking to develop the land around the stadium right away for commercial purposes?
“Our focus is making sure we get the stadium right, but we think there is huge opportunity with ancillary development.”
How quickly can you build the stadium?
“I think we can do it in 14 months. Our guys say 16 to 18 months.”
So if you were to break ground around Labor Day 2016, you will open early in the 2018 season. Do you expect to play some games in 2018 at RFK?
“No. We expect two more years at RFK.”
Until the new arena opens, how will you pitch season tickets and suites to potential buyers? As it stands, United doesn’t have nearly enough season ticket holders to fill a new stadium right away.
“We are opening a stadium design center near Union Market this spring. We’re renting space and building out. We’ll also use it for team functions and events. It’s a seven-figure investment. We’ll be able to show fans what a seat will look like, what the suites will look like, the sight lines.”
Many MLS teams have training facilities separate from stadiums for daily workouts, offices, medical care and other support purposes. Currently, United practices at the RFK training grounds next to one of the big parking lots surrounding the stadium — not exactly state of the art. With tight space at Buzzard Point, where will you base the team?
“We are actively involved in talks with the District. We have also had talks with Maryland and Virginia.”
Many fans suspect the investment group, headed by Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, will look to sell the team when the stadium opens and the value of the organization rises.
“Our emotional investment in the team is deep. It’s growing every season. We are really enjoying this. Our big challenge was getting a new stadium and we want to see that through. Beyond that, we see the growth of soccer in the U.S., the growth of soccer in this market, and we want to be part of it. Certainly it’s an investment, and like any investment, at some point, it’s not forever. But we love what we are doing here. We don’t see it as a short-term investment; we never did. We want to continue to build; it’s become a passion for us.”
Thohir also owns Inter Milan. Is D.C. United a priority for him?
“Erick has businesses all over the world. I was tasked with overseeing this investment on behalf of the ownership. Erick has been fully committed since day one. Whether he owns another coal company in Jakarta, which would be less visible than Inter Milan, he cares about his investments. When we are playing, he is texting me constantly, staying up at all hours of the night, no matter where he is in the world. When he was in town late in the year, he spoke with the team. He wants to win. He wants to be successful. He has a real passion for soccer and he’s a real competitive guy.”
Will Chang, based in San Francisco, is also a major investor. Are you also looking to diversify United’s investment group in the near future by attracting new individuals or groups?
“We are not actively looking. We’re focused on what’s in front of us, which is getting the stadium built and putting a good team on the field.”
Leidos has been your primary sponsor — and jersey sponsor — for two seasons. The original deal was for five seasons, but the last two are bilateral option years. So Leidos will remain in place through the 2016 campaign, but as I understand it, there is a Dec. 31 deadline for the sides to exercise the option for 2017 and ’18. The primary factor on Leidos’ end, it would seem, is a 50 percent increase in their financial commitment in 2017-18. Have they balked at that increase? Is there room to negotiate the terms or extend the deadline for a few months? If 2016 is, indeed, the final year with Leidos, I imagine you would want to know that soon in order to begin courting a future sponsor.
“I can’t get into specifics. I can say we have had a great relationship with them. D.C. United was their first foray into sports marketing. It’s been positive on a lot of levels for our club and their company. We’ve built some strong ties and we are hopeful and optimistic it will continue beyond 2016. We’re excited about that partnership, but certainly they’ve got to make sure it makes business sense for them and it makes sense for us.”