The real winner in the D.C. United stadium deal

Red, black and white balloons greeted D.C. United supporters as they arrived at Penn Social Wednesday. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Renderings of the new stadium were staggered on the way into the event.  (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Supporters and front office members gather downstairs at Penn Social as highlights play on the screens. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
D.C. United supporter Paul Sotudeh, wearing his Screaming Eagles scarf, chats with a fellow fan. (WTOP/Noah Frank)
Supporters wait patiently outside Penn Social after a fire alarm forced them to evacuate. (WTOP/Noah Frank)

WASHINGTON — It can be easy to forget, what with all the political posturing and deal-making that such projects require, who really benefits when a professional team gets a new stadium. Everyone always wants to declare a winner. The team won. The real estate developer won.

When D.C. United’s new Buzzard Point stadium was finally given the green light late Wednesday morning, and supporters gathered at Penn Social just a few hours later, it was a reminder of who really won in this deal: the fans.

Descending the stairs to the lower level of Penn Social Wednesday afternoon, supporters were greeted by red and black balloons, with giant posterboards of renderings of the new stadium staggered along the way. The big screens, usually devoted to sporting events, all played highlights from United’s successful season, one that saw them reach the top of the table in the East, both Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell be selected to MLS Best XI, and head coach Ben Olsen be named MLS Coach of the Year.

Those honors are great, but the crown jewel, the one many supporters have been devoting their nights and weekends to for years, was a stadium to call their own, one that would keep their beloved team here in D.C. for decades to come. With the D.C. Council’s unanimous vote late Wednesday morning in support of the new Buzzard Point stadium, they have scored their biggest victory as a fan base.

“It means everything,” said Donald Wine, field team member for the Screaming Eagles supporter group and President of the American Outlaws D.C. chapter. “It means we have a home of our own that we can stay in the next 40-50 years.”

Wine compared the elation Wednesday to waking up Christmas Day, going downstairs and seeing what you hope is the present you’ve been wanting under the tree, but not knowing for sure until you actually unwrap it. With the announcement last week that D.C. leaders had come to an agreement on how to fund the project, the stage had been set for today’s vote. But considering how long the entire project has taken to come to fruition, nobody was taking anything for granted.

“I’ve been invested in this over 10 years,” says Mark Kusek, a member of supporter group Barra Brava. “There’s no way, even a year and a half ago, that this was going to happen.”

For a brief moment around 3 p.m., staff and supporters were forced out from the gathering at Penn Social and onto the street, as the fire alarm went off. As they huddled on the corner, waiting for the all-clear from the fire department, everyone joked and remained in good spirits.

After all, when you’ve been waiting more than 10 years, what’s another 10 minutes out in the cold?

But a new stadium alone wasn’t what the support group wanted, not if it meant leaving D.C. The city’s identity is very much a part of the team’s identity, all the way down to head coach Ben Olsen.

“Our fan base is very focused on urban issues and District issues and very proud of our District identity,” says Paul Sotoudeh, an active member of Screaming Eagles who also took part in the Keep D.C. United and Unite D.C. campaigns. “So the fact that it’s in D.C. is very important to us.”

Sotoudeh  and his various groups have worked with three different mayors over the better part of 10 years on different iterations of stadium plans. From a practical standpoint, to finally have one in place is a relief, but as a fan, his enthusiasm hasn’t been dampened along the way.

“I and a lot of other people have been doing a lot of stuff to make this day happen, and I think we’re all very excited that we’re here,” he says. “There’s just a ton of excitement. That’s how it should be.”

Wine echoes that sentiment, and is happy to trade in his role as community organizer and be able to invest his attention toward the actual game that brings the whole fan base together.

“We can just focus on being the best fans in MLS that we already are,” he says.

Chief operating officer of D.C. United Tom Hunt has seen plenty of fan bases over the years, from his time in Major League Baseball, the NBA and in professional wrestling. He came to D.C. to work for Monumental Sports for several years before joining D.C. United 10 months ago specifically to help with the new stadium project. The support from the fans at every step along the way, on and off the field, impressed him the most.

“When I first got here, people would say that D.C. United has the best fans in MLS,” Hunt says. “To see that in action was phenomenal.”

Hunt points out that in addition to all the moving parts politically and economically, the grassroots component of support was just as crucial. A campaign drummed up more than 5,000 emails from District residents to the Councilmembers in support of the stadium.

“They deserve a new stadium,” says Hunt. “Ben (Olsen)’s been saying this for a long time.”

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