D.C. United made considerable strides last year. RFK Stadium was again a hellish destination for opponents. A five-year playoff drought ended. New investors were secured, brightening the prospects for a new facility in the near future.
But a club that once enjoyed the most reliable support in MLS also watched attendance figures continue to tumble. Over five years, United’s home average plummeted 34 percent, to an all-time low of 13,846 last season. Only Chivas USA, the league’s mismanaged misfit, and the San Jose Earthquakes, who play in a pint-size stadium, posted smaller figures among MLS’s 19 clubs.
So while Coach Ben Olsen spent the winter addressing the roster, the front office began new initiatives to reverse the attendance slide. The efforts appear to be working: Full season ticket sales are up 21 percent and season packages (full- and half-year plans) have risen 27 percent, United chief marketing officer Doug Hicks said this week.
As of Friday afternoon, the club had sold 14,200 tickets for Saturday night’s home opener against Real Salt Lake, Hicks said. With late purchases and walk-ups, United expects to surpass the turnout for last year’s first game at RFK (16,314).
It is an encouraging sign for an organization that led MLS in attendance in 2001 (21,518) and, as recently as 2008, was third overall. Last year, saddled by unfavorable home dates, an outdated stadium and a team still finding its way, United drew almost 5,000 less than the league average. (Seattle skewed the numbers by averaging 43,144, but seven other clubs attracted more than 18,000.)
United’s focus was on improving season ticket orders.
“Our base of ticket buyers wasn’t where it needed to be,” said Hicks, who has worked for the club since 2001. “Our starting point was so low, we were racing against time every Saturday night to build a crowd.”
In 2012, the only sellouts in RFK’s downsized capacity of 19,647 were the regular season finale and Eastern Conference finals.
Officials wouldn’t reveal the number of full-season ticket equivalents — a fan who buys the entire home slate counts as one, as does two half-season buyers. However, one person, who did not want to be identified because internal figures are confidential, said the team sold 5,200 packages in 2011 and 4,300 last year.
United confronted multiple ticket-selling challenges last year: a schedule pocked with midweek home games and long gaps between RFK appearances; a middling team lacking an international star and an aging stadium that doesn’t appeal to casual sports fans.
While some areas were beyond its control, the front office targeted the home schedule.
“It didn’t happen by chance,” chief financial officer Michael Williamson said. “We needed to work with the league and stadium.”
The result: All but one of 17 regular season home matches fall on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
The club also moved the starting time for most games to 7 p.m., 30 minutes earlier than usual, to allow families to return home earlier and young fans to hit the town earlier.
To ramp up season ticket sales, the club offered a dedicated entry gate and access to a private club, which will remain open after the game.
United has also looked long term by abandoning an eight-ticket voucher plan (which allowed fans to attend at any time) and starting a four-game package to higher-profile games. The hope, Williamson said, is to create a feeder system in which those purchasers will eventually become half- or full-season buyers.
The team has also hired an independent advertising agency for the first time in many years.
The acquisition of Carlos Ruiz, the Guatemalan national team’s all-time leading scorer, has created buzz in the Latin American community. With Ruiz, 33, in the last stage of his career, however, a bump at the box office will hinge on playing time and production.
Another key, officials said, is a stabilized investment group.
Until Erick Thohir and Jason Levien agreed to join holdover Will Chang last summer, “people were wondering about the future of the club,” Hicks said.
Without a stadium on the horizon, United weighed an opportunity in Baltimore and MLS Commissioner Don Garber hinted at relocation. Since the influx of cash, however, United officials say they’ve made strides in reaching a stadium deal to remain in Washington.
“The emotional attachment the fans have with the team, if they think there’s a chance we aren’t going to be here, they are going to cut it off,” Hicks said. “By firming up [the investment group] and making a commitment to stay here, that resonates.
“We think people believe in the organization and where we are headed.”
United notes: Fans driving to RFK Stadium on the Southeast Freeway should prepare for a new route to Lot 8. A construction project will take vehicles across the Anacostia River and require motorists bound for the stadium to follow I-295 north to the exit for Pennsylvania Avenue west, which reconnects with the RFK access road at Barney Circle.
Where: RFK Stadium.
When: 7 p.m.
TV/Internet: Game is available only on Direct Kick (the MLS cable/satellite pay-per-view package) and MLS Live (the league’s online pay-per-view package).
Records: United 0-1-0; Real Salt Lake 1-0-0.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Chris Korb, Dejan Jakovic, Brandon McDonald, Daniel Woolard; MFs Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Marcelo Saragosa, John Thorrington, Chris Pontius; F Lionard Pajoy.
RSL probable starters: GK Nick Rimando; Ds Tony Beltran, Chris Schuler, Kwame Watson-Siriboe, Abdoulie Mansally; MFs Sebastian Velasquez, Kyle Beckerman, Khari Stephenson, Luis Gil; Fs Alvaro Saborio, Robbie Findley.