Wednesday, March 11, 2009

DC United Tries To Flim-Flam P.G. Taxpayers

Recently, we wrote about why DC United's plan to move to a new soccer stadium in Prince George's County is an affront to United's fans. (See "Save DC United From McFarlane And Co.")

It's now clear that the plan is also a rip-off of Prince George's County taxpayers, who stand to gain little benefit and share all the risk.

The basic problem is this: DC United is owned by a fellow named Victor McFarlane and some cronies of his. McFarlane is not a soccer fan. He's a real estate developer. He's not in this to improve DC United's fan base; he's in it to make money on real estate. Hence, all the decisions on a new stadium are being driven by how McFarlane can parlay the move into a real estate deal that will make him richer (or save him from potential financial doom, according to some reports).

The original proposal to move DC United to Maryland had the state stadium authority issuing bonds to pay for the new stadium, with United paying 25% of the estimated cost. The stadium authority would be paid off by tax revenue generated by ticket sales. P.G. County itself was not going to have to pony up any money--that's how they were able to pitch the project in these rather dire economic times.

But now McFarlane wants P.G. County to put up the other 25%, to the tune of $47 million in bonds. DC United claims the County will be paid back by ticket sales. (See "Team Now Asking Pr. George's to Pay Part" in today's Washington Post.)

Don't bet on it. In order to pay the County's share, DC United would have to generate a significant INCREASE in its current ticket sales. McFarlane says no problem--the team has generated annual ticket sales of 20,000 in "rickety" RFK Stadium, so it should be able to increase those sales by 20% in the new stadium. (That would mean a sell-out of every game in the new, 24,000 seat stadium.)

That's ridiculously pie in the sky. DC United supporters in Northern Virginia are already bombarding the club with letters and emails imploring it NOT to move to more inconvenient P.G. County. RFK, rickety as it is, is convenient, with ample parking and easy Metro access from Northern Virginia. Since more than 60% of the team's fans are in NoVa, moving to P.G. County probably means LOWER attendance.

Furthermore, we have today's economy, where people are cutting back on luxuries such as attending professional sports games.

And then, where would McFarlane's incentive to increase ticket sales come from? If the Maryland Stadium Authority and P.G. County are the only ones on the hook, why should McFarlane spend money on marketing and promotion to increase the number of fans attending games?

Remember, McFarlane is not in this for soccer. He's looking for a real estate deal. Once he gets it, he could care less how the team does, especially if he and team aren't on the hook for the stadium.

The taxpayers of P.G. County should beware of this deal. They're the ones who will foot the bill, sooner or later.

As far as DC United goes, our concern remains the same: McFarlane is in the process of destroying one of Major League Soccer's premier franchises. MLS needs to act quickly to recover the club from him and find an owner who cares about soccer.

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