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D.C. United strikes deal with Audi for stadium naming rights

Southeast view (DCU)

As D.C. United approaches the final hurdle in a 13-year quest for a new stadium, the MLS club has struck a long-term deal with Audi for naming rights at the Buzzard Point venue.

Introducing: Audi Field.

Terms were not disclosed, but United officials said the contract with the German automaker is one of the largest in the league. Most teams collect a few million dollars annually from pacts that typically run 10 to 20 years. Sources say the United-Audi deal is at least 12 years.

Audi, whose U.S. headquarters are in Northern Virginia, will display its name and iconic four-ring logo throughout the 20,000-capacity venue, including the roofs over seating sections on the east and west sides.

“They are really excited about being part of the transformation of the world’s sport in the nation’s capital,” said Mike Schoenbrun, United’s chief revenue officer. “Most important to us was a partner that believed in the sport. We wanted a brand that would make a splash and turn people’s heads.”

The news comes one day before the D.C. Zoning Commission will conduct probably the final hearing on the stadium proposal. The five-member panel granted conditional approval in December, pending additional transportation and environmental details, and will vote again Thursday.

With final passage, United would break ground late this month at the 14-acre plot in Southwest D.C. — adjacent to Fort McNair and three blocks from Nationals Park — and aim to open the facility in summer 2018. Audi Field will stage other sporting and cultural events, as well.

Next month, United will begin its 22nd season at run-down RFK Stadium.

Audi, MLS’s automotive sponsor since 2015, is owned by Volkswagen, which, from 2008 to 2013, was United’s uniform sponsor. In Herndon, they share an office building. However, the brands have separate business operations.

Audi also has the naming rights for a soccer stadium in Ingolstadt, Germany, site of its corporate headquarters and home to Bundesliga club FC Ingolstadt 04.

The agreement will bring much-needed influx of revenue for a D.C. team that has lost millions playing at RFK, a municipal venue with an unfavorable financial arrangement (no naming rights or suites, and limited parking and concession revenue). The sides will begin working together right away, but the contract will not go into full effect until 2018.

United also collects an estimated $3 million per year from its uniform sponsor, Leidos, a Reston-based government contractor, whose contract with the team runs through 2018, with a one-year option.

While MLS is a single-entity business — investors buy into the league as a whole and receive team operating rights — the individual organizations pocket the funds negotiated for stadium naming rights and uniform sponsorship.

Audi and United spoke on and off for a year and engaged in formal talks during all-star game festivities last summer in San Jose, according to Tom Hunt, the team’s president of business operations. They reached a tentative agreement before the winter holidays over dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant near the Buzzard Point location. Other names under consideration were Audi Park, Audi Arena and Audi Stadium.

Like in other sports, corporate naming rights are prevalent in soccer circles. The exceptions in MLS are RFK Stadium, Yankee Stadium (home of Yankees partner New York City FC) and BC Place in Vancouver. Toyota sponsors MLS venues in Chicago and Dallas, and Mercedes-Benz Stadium will open this summer for MLS newcomer Atlanta United and the NFL’s Falcons.

Los Angeles FC, a 2018 expansion team, struck the most lucrative deal for an MLS-specific stadium last summer with a 15-year, $100 million contract with Banc of California on a downtown venue under construction.

Audi has “fully embraced the culture of soccer, especially in MLS,” United managing general partner Jason Levien said. “We couldn’t think of a better partner to name our stadium and we look forward to forging extraordinary memories for years to come at Audi Field.”

Other area athletic facilities with naming rights include FedEx Field (Redskins), Verizon Center (Wizards, Capitals, Mystics, Georgetown), Xfinity Center (Maryland), M&T Bank Stadium (Baltimore Ravens) and EagleBank Arena (George Mason).