In Houston, D.C. United finally gets to christen a new stadium
By Steven Goff,
HOUSTON — Major League Soccer will christen another new stadium Saturday, a 22,000-seater erected in 16 months, located blocks from the city center and bathed in radiant orange. Those attending the Houston Dynamo’s home debut will measure BBVA Compass Stadium against the league’s other glimmering venues that have blossomed over 13 years.
They’ll marvel at perfect sightlines, 36 suites within 10 rows of the sidelines, an aluminum exoskeleton and permanent tributes to past heroes.
And inevitably, those with an appreciation for league history will make note of the visiting team and wonder: When will D.C. United, a four-time MLS champion and a founding member, have something like this?
In a cruel twist, a team craving a new stadium for a decade is the first guest in the newest MLS fortress.
“I remain hopeful something can get done,” Commissioner Don Garber said Friday about United’s situation. “It’s just so frustrating we haven’t been able to do in that market what we’ve been able to do in so many cities.”
The Dynamo, which played its first season in 2006, will be the 12th of 19 MLS clubs housed in a medium-size stadium built with soccer in mind. (There are 11 facilities, but Home Depot Center near Los Angeles hosts two teams.)
The San Jose Earthquakes have land and plans for a new facility in the next few years. Teams in Portland, Ore.; Montreal; and Vancouver, B.C. — all entered MLS in the past two years — settled into existing stadiums renovated to meet their needs.
The Seattle Sounders, another recent league arrival, share CenturyLink Field with the NFL’s Seahawks. The arrangement works, though, because of the tall stadium design, prime city location and the league’s largest fan base.
And that leaves two teams stuck in inadequate venues: United and the New England Revolution. The Revs play at Gillette Stadium, home of the NFL’s Patriots, who also own the MLS squad. The venue in Foxborough, Mass., dwarfs the soccer team’s modest crowds and is situated 27 miles from the cosmopolitan demographic that cares most about MLS.
Garber calls D.C. and New England “the last frontier.”
United has been hunting for a new home for years, only to see proposals falter in Prince George’s County and at Poplar Point in Southeast Washington. The latest focus is Buzzard Point, in Southwest Washington near Nationals Park. Outlines for a stadium and mixed-use development were drawn up two years ago.
United President Kevin Payne last week expressed optimism, tying the likelihood of additional team investors to a stadium plan.
“We hope these conversations with new partners will come to fruition this spring and conversations with the District [about a stadium] can resume in late spring or early summer,” he said. If a deal can’t be reached, relocation to Baltimore is an option.
Payne declined to identify potential investors, who would join current owner Will Chang in financing a stadium. But multiple sources said the group is likely to include Indonesian businessman Erick Thohir, part owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers.
United has played all 17 seasons at RFK Stadium, an antiquated facility built in 1961 that is too large for MLS and doesn’t provide revenue streams, such as private suites.
“That team is losing a great deal of money” paying rent at RFK, Garber said. “It’s an untenable situation that has got to change.”
New stadiums have become important annotations on MLS’s timeline, symbols of growth and permanency. They’ve allowed teams to cut tethers on rent agreements with football facilities that offer too many seats and, in some cases, not enough field width.
The projects have provided a setting that fuels the sport’s fan experience and a backdrop that enhances TV presentation. For the teams’ bookkeepers, control of a stadium generates revenue from soccer matches and other events.
Like United, Real Salt Lake was a tenant in an imperfect venue — the University of Utah’s football stadium — before entering into a public-private partnership to construct Rio Tinto Stadium in the suburb of Sandy in 2008.
“It changed everything,” said Real President Bill Manning, whose organization paid for the stadium while public funding covered infrastructure. “It allowed us to reposition ourselves in the marketplace and change our image. It’s almost like two completely different franchises.”
The Dynamo, which rented the University of Houston’s Robertson Stadium for six seasons, spent $60 million on construction costs on its new facility, located within walking distance to Minute Maid Park (where baseball’s Houston Astros play) and Toyota Center (home to the Houston Rockets of the NBA).
The city and county contributed $35 million for the land and infrastructure upgrades. BBVA Compass, a Spanish bank, purchased the naming rights for $20 million over 10 years.
“The stadium is a symbol of our growth,” said Dynamo President Chris Canetti, whose club has sold 12,000 season tickets and each suite at $50,000 to $60,000. “We think we’ve got a gem.”
United officials have suggested paying for a stadium themselves while seeking ancillary help from the city. The club is operating at RFK Stadium under a two-year lease, signed this spring. Payne’s hope is for a seamless transition from an old city structure into a new city facility.
For now, United is left to enjoy new stadiums as a visitor only.
“It’s hard not to” think about United’s stadium situation, midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. “I’m glad they’ve got the stadium [in Houston]. It’s amazing for this league and it’s good for American soccer in general.”