In a rather shocking, but very awesome, decision Mayor Sheila Dixon has requested that the Maryland Stadium Authority look at Baltimore as a potential site for a new home for DC United. Since 2008 there had been rumors that United was looking into building a new stadium in Price Georges County. Anyone who has been to a DC United game, or RFK Stadium for any event, knows that the current facility is not up to the standards of Major League Soccer. Of the 12 MLS teams playing this season, 7 now play in soccer specific stadiums that were built with their respective MLS club as the primary tennant (Home Depot Center in LA is the home stadium for two teams). At RFK the fans are not close enough to the game and the facility, in general, is out-dated and the team is in serious need of an upgrade.
The talks between United and PG County broke off earlier this year and I had heard nothing more of a new stadium deal until this afternoon. The BBJ reported that Mayor Dixon wrote a letter to the Stadium Authority asking the group to examine Baltimore as a potential site for a new medium-sized stadium. The Mayor sited the Westport area of Baltimore as the potential site of this project and it seems to be a reasonable location. Close to I-95 and I-295, the area is also serviced by the Light Rail. Not being too close to downtown the land would be cheaper and there would most likely be more room for parking.
The struggle for the city will be proving that Baltimore can support another professional sports franchise. This argument was certainly helped by the tremendous turnout for the World Soccer Challenge, played earlier this summer at M&T Bank Stadium. Over 70,000 raucous fans came out to see the first high profile soccer game in the stadium’s history. This, however, is not a measure of the city’s ability to sell tickets for 15 home dates every year.
Currently, United draws from a large Hispanic population in DC, quadruple what it is in Baltimore. At most United home games you can feel the Hispanic influence throughout the stadium and much of this would likely be lost should the team come to Baltimore. I think with the right marketing attitude in mind, though, that United could thrive here. The stadium would like be in the vicinity of 20,000 seats, less than half the size of Camden Yards. Baltimore has a very strong youth soccer culture and with MLS tickets being relatively inexpensive, especially compared to tickets for the O’s and Ravens, I think many families would look at these games as fun, affordable outings. 15 home games a year is also a good number with each game still feeling a little special, like Ravens’ games, but there is still being plenty of opportunity for everyone to make it to at least one game, like the Orioles’ season.
Many Baltimoreans have been making the case that the city should attempt to draw an NBA team by building a new arena downtown. The risks associated with this project appear too great for it to be completed in the near future. An NBA team won’t come here without the guarantee of a new arena and the city won’t start work on a new arena without a permanent tenant to fuel revenue. Bringing a professional soccer team to Baltimore could be a solid intermediate step. Assuming an arena with approximately 20,000 seats, like the soccer stadium, there would be roughly 820,000 tickets available for NBA games in a given season versus the 300,000 tickets available for an MLS season. There’s no doubt that NBA tickets are drastically more expensive and are not affordable for many of the city’s residents. Perhaps the city is making a move in the right direction, by adding a new professional franchise but not taking a massive financial risk in the process.
Just the idea of a professional soccer team playing its home games minutes from where I live has made me giddy. I can only hope that this proposal was written with genuine intent and that the Stadium Authority undergoes serious consideration of this proposal. Baltimore is prepared to embrace another franchise and the United could be a perfect fit.