On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Professional soccer is at the center of one of the biggest development projects in the entire Washington region. A complex land-swap proposal involving public money is on the table for the construction of a new soccer stadium for D.C. United in southwest Washington, D.C. Kojo chats with the franchise’s owner about the team’s relationship with the city and how its business plans may affect D.C. communities.
- Jason Levien Managing General Partner, D.C. United
Watch Live Video
Starting at 12:20 p.m. on Sept. 22, watch live video of D.C. United Owner Jason Levien in studio.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISoccer fans throughout the D.C. region have plenty to cheer about this fall with just a few weeks remaining in the season. D.C. United is sitting on top of its conference. But we didn't invite the team's managing general partner Jason Levien to the studio today to chat about the team's success on the field. He's here because the team is pushing a development project in Washington with the potential to affect taxpayers in the city.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere's a deal on the table for the construction of a new soccer stadium in southwest Washington that would involve as much as $150 million in public funds, it also involves the city swapping one of the more valuable pieces of public property for the proposed site of the new stadium at Buzzard Point, land that's currently owned by a developer. There's little doubt that this deal is a good one for D.C. United, which has been eager to move out of the crumbling RFK Stadium for years. But the question is, is it a good one for the city? Jason Levien is the managing partner of D.C. United. He joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us.
MR. JASON LEVIENThanks for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou too can join the conversation. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org and watch our live video stream there. You can ask a question or make a comment there. You can also do so by calling 800-433-8850. Jason Levien, a D.C. Council hearing on this stadium proposal turned into a pep rally of sorts this summer for the many team supporters who testified on behalf of the deal under which the terms we described already.
NNAMDIBut we know pretty clearly how the team and its supporters would benefit from this proposal. What do you -- what do you say to those who feel it's less clear what the entire city, which would be invested in the deal would get out of it?
LEVIENWell, thank you, Kojo. I think that the first thing I would say is that our supporters, you know, comprise the city and the surrounding communities and they care passionately about soccer, passionate about D.C. United and also passionate about the District. And I think that in looking for the proper site for a home for D.C. United we are pretty extensive in our search. And wanting to be in the District was very important to us. And we feel as though Buzzard Point is a site that is really can help the District, can be a win-win for everyone involved.
NNAMDIWhat would you say to people who feel that public money is not necessary to make this happen over and above basic infrastructure cost? They say you and your partners are not exactly poor people.
LEVIENI would say that this is a deal that's very different than the Nationals Ball Park deal. It's much more in line with the Verizon Center. And, you know, having lived and worked very close to the Verizon Center in the mid-'90s, I saw first hand the impact that it had on that neighborhood, the development that went around there, the jobs that were created, the economic opportunity that was created. And I look at Buzzard Point and I say, this can be another Verizon Center opportunity for the District.
NNAMDIWhat kind of money will come back to the city long term? It's my understanding that the team will be exempt from property and sales taxes for five years after the stadium opens?
LEVIENThere's a short runway of time where the District -- excuse me -- D.C. United is paying for the vertical, paying for the stadium, covering overages above a certain point for the District, and there are some tax abatements for a few years for the club. And once those end, in addition to paying taxes -- full sales taxes on the property, we're also going to be paying a $2-per-ticket tax above and beyond the sales tax so that we can reimburse the city for some of those outlets.
NNAMDIYou've lived here before. You put your teeth as a lawyer working for the firm Williams and Connolly here. You spent most of your time elsewhere these days in the city has changed significantly since this was your full-time home. But to what degree do you still feel connected to the people who lived here in the neighborhood like the ones -- like the one where you want to build the stadium?
LEVIENI feel deeply connected. You know, I walked in this building here today and I saw Diane Rehm who is a hero of mine. That gave me some goosebumps. So -- and sitting here with you today, I feel the same way having heard you on the air for so long. So I feel deeply connected to the city. It's such a unique place. You know, the nation's capital and there are so many people from all over the world to come here and to have a home for soccer, which is the world sport is something that I think is really important and it can be an economic driver for us.
NNAMDII'll tell you what the thing I've been thinking of and I don't know if I can explain it properly, but I'll try, is that a city's leaders always have to try to strike a balance between, on the one hand, making sure that the people who need them in the city have appropriate city services and, on the other hand, making sure that the city has the kind of dining and entertainment attractions that make it a city that people want to live in?
NNAMDIWhat do you think, A, D.C. United does for the city in that regard? And, B, what do you think a new stadium for D.C. United would do for the city in that regard?
LEVIENWell, I think a lot of it is about jobs and about economic opportunity in terms of that development. And the return on the investment the District would be making in this deal would be plentiful. I would also mention that just in Ward 6, the sort of the programs that D.C. United is involved in with United Soccer Club has a location, for example, in Amidon-Bowen Elementary School in Ward 6 and United Reads Program.
LEVIENSo one of the things that I've noticed, Kojo, this is just our third year owning the team, but the amount of goodwill and the investment that this organization has made in the community has really resonated.
NNAMDILet's go to the phones because I knew this question would come up pretty soon. So let's get to it now from Steve in Washington, D.C. Steve, you're on the air, go ahead please.
STEVEYeah, hi. Thanks very much. I cannot wait for our new soccer stadium. I love watching a game of soccer every weekend. And I love the new soccer stadiums all through the country. Soccer-only stadium. But the proposed location down in Buzzard Point, I went there once it was announced and I don't think that's a really good location at all. I was wondering what you folks thought about the location?
STEVEAnd then I guess the second point is, why not utilize the land at RFK because it's already owned by the government? It would be a lot less money spent? And I'll take my answer (unintelligible) off line. Thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Steve.
LEVIENSteve, thanks so much for the comment and the question. First, about RFK. It's on federal land. So it would take an act of Congress for us to redevelop that stadium site. And studies that we looked at when we first came into ownership of D.C. United indicated that it would be actually more expensive for us to go through that process. Secondly, there isn't the economic development opportunity there because of the federal land issue and some of the issues surrounding the neighborhood.
LEVIENBuzzard's Point, what we're excited about, Steve, is that it's on the other side of South Capital Street that really hasn't been the economic development that you've seen where the Nationals Park is on the east side of South Capital Street. And we think it's ripe for that opportunity. So we're looking to make this really an entertainment district. A district that creates jobs, that it becomes an exciting destination for people not just on nights when we have MLS games, but other nights as well.
NNAMDIWhat are the alternatives for D.C. United if this plan doesn't make it through the council?
LEVIENThat's a great question, Kojo. I've been searching for those for a plan B and a plan C. And when we first came in, we tried to find what they were. And it was very clear that this was the right location at the right time for the club and for the city. And so we have been focused on that. We don't have a plan B at this point. We're all in on making Buzzard's Point work, making it work for District residents and making it work for this community.
NNAMDIFor those people who haven't been there, you can tell them what's wrong with staying at RFK Stadium. It's my understanding that the team has lost money every year at RFK.
LEVIENIt has. And more than that, Kojo, it's -- if you've been there, it wasn't built for soccer. It -- the sight lines are very poor. There's great history at RFK. I don't want to knock RFK because the recent excitement level of just going into a building that hosted so many amazing contests not just in soccer but also in football and also in baseball and great concerts. But it's outlived its useful life certainly for D.C. United. And there'll be a greater sense of intimacy among participants and those attending the matches when we're in a soccer-specific stadium.
NNAMDIIs it your view that a new stadium will be enough to reverse the team's financial fortunes at RFK?
LEVIENI certainly hope so. I can tell you, that's -- that's important for us. But more important for us is being a great steward of the -- of the organization in this community. When we made this investment, you're right, Kojo, I have a strong emotional connection with the District. We want to see this work. I grew up as a young professional when D.C. United was in its heyday, when it was just starting out winning championships.
LEVIENI went to matches at RFK then. I was a big Van Olson fan back then when it was just starting out. And to be a part of it and to be a part of this community and doing something that's really going to help people, we're excited about that.
NNAMDIOur guest is Jason Levien. He is the managing general partner of D.C. United. He joins us in studio. We're inviting your calls or comments at 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Do you support the idea of using some public money for the construction of a new soccer stadium in southwest Washington? Why or why not? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there and watch the live video stream of our conversation. You can also shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIA lot has been made of how a new stadium has revived the professional soccer franchise in Kansas City. Sporting Park was built with the help of $200 million in public funds. It opened in 2011. Now the team there, Sporting Kansas City, has one of the most vibrant scenes in the entire league. What do you think are the most valuable lessons to be learned from what happened there?
LEVIENWell, first, Kojo, in terms of the question that you asked people to call in on, we don't support public funds going to the construction of a stadium for D.C. United. We support a public-private partnership where the District is providing us the land. But D.C. United is constructing the stadium and we're using our own dollars to do that. But you're right, Kansas City is a remarkable turnaround and an excitement level what they've been able to do there is really incredible.
LEVIENAnd I would invite people to take a look at that because it's -- there's a passion and an excitement level among the fans that has really brought the city together. Now, they're our nemesis right now. We're battling them for first place in the eastern conference and we've got a very big match-up this Saturday at 3 o'clock against Philadelphia, and then we host Kansas City a little bit later.
LEVIENBut that being said, it's exciting to see what Kansas City has done in a market that no one thought had the same kind of potential that it's tapped into. And can you imagine if they can do something like that in Kansas City, Kojo, what we can do here in the District?
NNAMDII was about to say, how much of that model do you think is replicable here in D.C.?
LEVIENI think it's not just Kansas City. You look at Portland, we look at Seattle, there are a lot of markets -- even Philadelphia. We look at markets around the country that have put in soccer-specific stadiums. Seattle is using a football stadium because it's so popular.
LEVIENBut I think we can do great things. I think that it can connect our fan base and really grow our fan base. And this is the international game. And having more and more folks in the District get exposed to it and be a follower of a local team, not just in the EPL team is something we want to see happen.
NNAMDIWhat does -- what do you make of Seattle's success? What's the reason that they are playing in a football stadium yet seem to have gangbusters attendance at their games?
LEVIENThey've really tapped in to the heartbeat of that community. And the sport is so exciting. When people see the authentic nature of the game that people around the world had been seeing for hundreds of years, I think that that is really where you see that excitement level. And that's something we've studied because we want to connect with the fans the way they've done it in Seattle, the way they've done it in Kansas City.
LEVIENAnd don't get me wrong. D.C. United has had great success on the pitch and has a very vibrant fan base. They're going to be even more energized in a new home.
NNAMDIThis is particularly important coming from you. You grew up playing basketball and you invested in a basketball franchise. You ran a basketball franchise. What drew you to soccer?
LEVIENI think that soccer and basketball have a lot of commonality in terms of they're the most democratic, little D, democratic sports. And it's so exciting. When I traveled around the world -- my parents in D.C. United are from Indonesia. And when I travel around the world and look at the game of basketball and look at the game of soccer, you see how mature soccer is, how excited people are about it.
LEVIENYet here in the United States it's really just starting to take off. And I think we saw that around the World Cup, Kojo, in June and July. But I see a real connection between the two sports, in terms of the teamwork, in terms of the democratic nature of them, and it's exciting.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Josh, who says, "Looking at (unintelligible) attendance figures, teams that play in soccer specific stadiums typically boast significantly better attendance figures than teams that do not. Can you talk about your expectations regarding attendance figures going forward?
LEVIENMy expectation is we're going to be in a new stadium, we're going to sell it out. That demand is going to exceed our supply. We've studied that. We know the passion for soccer is here. We know the following for D.C. United is there. And if people are coming to RFK, Kojo -- and we sold out games our first year owning the team in 2012, in a stadium that wasn't built for soccer, that was built in 1951, that really didn't have the modern nature of what's going on around the country, in terms of soccer-specific stadiums -- we feel very confident that we're going to put a compelling product out there and that people are going to be there to watch.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break, but when we come back we'll be continuing our conversation with Jason Levien. Would a new stadium in D.C. make you more inclined to attend a D.C. United soccer match? What do you feel could improve the experience of seeing a game from what it is right now at RFK Stadium? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can watch our live video stream at our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Jason Levien. He is the managing general partner of D.C. United. You can call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think the city could benefit from the construction of a new soccer stadium for D.C. United? Do you think these benefits would extend to people who are now -- not now currently soccer fans? 800-433-8850. You can talk about the experience of going to a new stadium, what it means for you.
NNAMDIThe Nationals, Jason Levien, play 81 home games a year at its park, Verizon Center hosts and event, it seems like, just about every night. What do you make of some concerns that all of this money is going into a facility that in the end may not get used that much? There are only so many events to go around to keep that place filled.
LEVIENThat's something we've thought about and we've studied in other markets, Kojo. And one of the points I would make is that if you don't fall in love with the world's game, which is soccer -- which I think you will -- I will say that we're going to have other concerts and other events we're planning in the new stadium. We want this to be a community center for events for different opportunities for music, for live events. And so that's something we're focused on, Kojo. In order -- we're motivated, just like the District is, just like District residents are, to make it a destination more than just for major league soccer events. And that's what we're planning to do.
NNAMDIHere is Heidi, in Bowie, Md. Heidi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HEIDIThank you. I just wanted to make a comment that nobody has discussed yet, is that RFK Stadium is falling apart. We've been a season ticket holder of D.C. United since the year 2000. And we will continue, you know, to be season ticket holders as we move into a new stadium. But I just wanted to make the point that RFK is just lived through its purpose. You know, the seats are broken, bathrooms don't work right. It's just seen its better days -- put it that way.
NNAMDIYou can't have enjoyment just based on tradition, right, is what you're saying?
HEIDIYeah, no. No. I mean, you know, it's been a wonderful venue. We've certainly enjoyed being there. But outside of the fact that, yes, it loses money, it's just not functional anymore.
NNAMDIIt wasn't built for soccer, and, well, it's getting old.
LEVIENThank you. First of all, thank you, Heidi, for your support and your continued support. Some people come to our games with hard hats on. There was some falling concrete. But, no, it's a very safe venue, but you're absolutely right. It has outlived its usefulness, especially for soccer. And we're so excite about the move to a new stadium. And really, honoring, RFK Stadium, as we finish up there the next couple of seasons.
NNAMDIOn now to Karen, in Washington, D.C. Karen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KARENHi. Yes. My name is Karen. And I'm D.C. resident. And I'm very concerned about where my tax money goes. And I'm wanting to hear what the explanation is for literally giving away land at the Reeves Center so that multimillion dollar condominiums can be built. Why is this part of the soccer stadium deal?
NNAMDIWell, allow me to tell you that before Jason Levien responds, the land at Buzzard Point is not owned by D.C. United. It's owned by a developer, Akridge. And Mayor Gray has agreed to sell the Reeves Center for $55.6 million…
NNAMDI…in addition to a land swap. Well, so they're not giving it away, but it is less than the land -- is it less than the land…
KARENSo -- well, they're literally giving it away because…
NNAMDI…is assessed for. You are correct.
KARENYes. It's far less than the land is assessed for. And why must we do that? I mean, the soccer stadium is supposed to make a profit. We're giving them five years with no taxes. Why does that have to be included?
LEVIENWell, I think that's a very good question. And I'm glad you raise it. The Reeves Center site is a site that was identified by the city, and also by Akridge, as one of the potentials for a land swap. And this is not new, just the District. You see these land swaps happen around the country, where a city didn't want to pay cash to buy the land, where D.C. United is going to pay to develop it, but instead, wanted to swap out city land.
LEVIENAnd there was a sense among the city administration that the Reeves Center had outlived its usefulness, that it was put there at a very important time to establish a neighborhood and it had done its work. After that had happened my understanding is there was quite an extensive appraisal process to determine the value of Reeves Center. And once that appraisal was done there was an agreed upon price for it. That being said, what's come up in our hearings -- and there have been hearings that have been chaired by members of the council, including Councilwoman Bowser -- in different wards.
LEVIENAnd one of those hearings was actually at the Reeves Center. And the discussion was around what can we do on the Reeves Center site that is good for the neighborhood, that's going to benefit the neighborhood? And there has been discussion there about not just building multi-family homes, but also potentially office space so there's more daytime traffic. And also some affordable housing initiative as well. So there's a lot of discussion going on. I'm not privy to all of it. Most of those discussions are happening between Akridge, the developer, and members of the council who have to vote on this legislation.
NNAMDIKaren, thank you very much for your call. WE got a tweet from Jonathan O'Connell of the Washington Post, who says, "Is Jason surprised that the Reeves Center has become the most controversial aspect of this deal?"
LEVIENI'm not surprised. I will tell you that, you know, our focus is on -- certainly on Buzzard's Point. But as we've spent the last two years talking about the Reeves Center as a part of the land swap, Jonathan, I will say that I understand why that building and that neighborhood is so important to so many people. And I understand that they need to work out a solution that is fair and equitable for the residents of the neighborhood, for the District, and certainly for Akridge as well. I think they're working towards that in a very constructive way. And they're going to come to a resolution.
NNAMDIOn to Tony, in Bethesda, Md. Tony, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TONYYeah, I -- first of all, I really enjoy your show, Kojo. And this is the first time I've ever called because I've been struck by the excitement that casinos generate, in terms of they'll be good for the city and whatnot. And my comment is that when you compare -- at least in my view, building a new soccer stadium which is a -- I would say basically a family-friendly and people-friendly endeavor, it seems to be a lot better solution to employment and development than a casino. That's -- I guess that's a comment. And I guess my question is has anybody else brought this up or is that too -- verging too much on morality?
NNAMDIWell, most of the casino we were having had to do with casinos being developed in Maryland. And not in the District of Columbia. But I don't know, Jason might have another comment, in terms of soccer being a healthier pastime than gambling.
LEVIENI certainly think that's the case. And I agree. I mean, we're building a community venue here. A venue that, you know, having lived in the District, I understand isn't always available for outdoor events and concerts during the summer and spring and fall months. We're going to get people excited about soccer, about kids getting -- coming to games and bringing them to games, that play the sport and to stay healthy and active. But certainly we see this as more than just soccer. We see it as a venue for other community events.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Pat, who says, "Vamos, United. I'm a season ticket holder and member of the (unintelligible). One of the great things about RFK, is that supporters have the best seating location in the league, midfield. Would a new stadium, send supporters to the end zones?"
LEVIENWe want them at midfield, Kojo. We've talked about this. We need supporters. They carry us through tough moments in matches. Certainly our players talk about how passionate and energetic our supporters are. We think we've got the best supporters in the league. And we need more of them. But we've got some great supporters' groups. We work closely with them and they're going to have great seats at the new stadium.
NNAMDIOkay. So you won't be confined to seats in the end zone. Could the Seattle Sounders' model, the combination football/soccer stadium, can that model, you think, work here in D.C.?
LEVIENYou know, we looked at it other places. We feel as though the best opportunity for us is a soccer-specific stadium that's going to be more intimate, that's going to have great site-lines, that's going to be really something that spearheads even more excitement and growth for soccer in the District. So that's where our focus is, Kojo. But it's worked other places. They're also doing that in Atlanta. They're building a new football stadium in Atlanta. And they're making it work for MLS as well.
NNAMDIHere is Will, in College Park, Md. Will, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WILLYeah, I'm wondering the design of the stadium itself, the construction of the stadium. I look at, you know, United States design seem to be, you know, the butts in the seats equals butts. How many seats can we get in the stadium and make the money. Whereas I look at European and the designs of the stadiums and I see the way their aisles are built, down near the front they're very narrow and then as they get toward the exiting at the top they're very wide so that getting in and out of your seats, getting in and out of the stadium is not an inconvenience. You know, you're not standing in queues and waiting. I wonder what width model you're going to go with there.
NNAMDIDesign elements, Jason.
LEVIENThat's a very good question. It's something we talked with architects and engineers about. I will tell you soccer's unique because there are no timeouts. So you got a half-time break, and you don't want to leave your seats other than that. So, you know, you think about different stadiums when it comes to baseball and football and there are a lot of time breaks for you to go, you know, go to the restroom, get a bite to eat and you won't miss much. In soccer you really can't leave your seat too often. So -- but you make a very good point.
LEVIENWe want to make it very fan friendly. Certainly we want to make sure that the economics makes sense. But it -- they only make sense in the long term if our fans and our supporters are happy and comfortable.
NNAMDISoccer fans, we learn to plan our bathroom breaks. Here we go to Greg, in Brightwood, in D.C. Greg, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
GREGThanks, Kojo. I'm a lifelong soccer fanatic. I referee. I just -- I've been to friendlies at RFK Stadium. I've only been back in town the last four years. I've never been to a D.C. United game. And I can't tell you how excited I am at the prospect of seeing them and the development of the waterfront at Buzzard's Point. I think they need to get the deal done. I hope the city will get behind them, but I'm ready to start going. I'll probably go between now and then, but I really think it's needed. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Jason, when you say that the growth trajectory for major league soccer is unreal, do you mean that in terms of attendance, in terms of TV deals?
LEVIENI think there's great opportunity, Kojo. We're only in the 19th year of major league soccer. And as we enter the 20th year, two decades old, we're in the growth stage of the sport in the United States, certainly. You see that in terms of even the new national media rights deal that was done for major league soccer. You see that in the excitement level of English Premier League and other leagues around the world, just here in the United States. Certainly attendance is one indicator of that. We've had -- seen a growth in attendance this year. We've seen a growth in our local ratings here.
LEVIENAnd as you know, Washington was the number one rated market for the World Cup in all of the United States. So not only do we see the growth nationally, but really in this market it's especially true.
NNAMDIAnd Ishmael, in Arlington, Va. Ishmael, your -- we have to have some point -- at some point get into the selection of your players. Here's Ishmael, in Arlington, Va. Ishmael, you don't want to talk about the stadium, do you?
ISHMAELNo, I don't, Kojo. How are you doing today?
NNAMDITell us what you want to talk about.
ISHMAELWell, I have a question. So if you noticed, around the country there are a lot of teams now that are starting to get the European players. Now, what is D.C. United going to do to start attracting those big guys? We saw Ronaldinho, he left Europe, he went back to Brazil. Now, he's in Mexico. Right? I'm thinking, you know, why couldn't D.C. United pay him to come here because that's what all -- obviously, you know, make the game more enticing for the Americans that don't really like soccer and grow, you know, the attendance. Because I've been to a few of D.C. United's games and, you know, there are very few people there at most of them. And I think we need to attract…
NNAMDIBut very -- there are very passionate people there. People in this country get very into the World Cup, that's once in four years. How do you tap into that kind of enthusiasm and channel it to MLs? Does that mean you have to bring players here who have wider -- worldwide recognition?
LEVIENI think that's part of it. I think Ishmael makes a good point. Certainly I will say that in 2012 we sold out the lower bowl of RFK, over 20,000, when we were winning. So part of it is putting a winning product on the field. Last year we struggled at attendance because we struggled on the pitch. And this year certainly we've seen a big rebound there. But we brought in international plays. Our MVP candidate this year is from Argentina, Fabian Espindola, who's had an unbelievable year. And has really helped us.
LEVIENCertainly I will say we've got some local talent, like Bill Hamid, who's an outstanding goalkeeper, played in the All Star game, has a real chance, we think, with the national team here in the United States. Our strategy this year, Ishmael, was to bring in players how are prove in MLS, who had shown they could win in this league, but in past years we've also looked internationally and we're going to continue to do so.
NNAMDISteven Goff writing last week about two international Guyana players who had never met one another, even though their families knew one another in Guyana. But I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Jason Levien is the managing general partner of D.C. United. Vamos, United. Thank you for joining us.
LEVIENThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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