21 March 2007

5 Things I Don't Like About D.C. United

or... Schedenfreude is not a productive sentiment. That being said, it's pretty fun.

Ives Galarcep is just out-and-out ripping up Red Bull New York at his blog. When the local media that should be sympathetic is going after your front office, well, it's not good.

It's tempting just to link and leave it at that. But as the producers of Celebrity Big Brother say: "The unexamined life is not worth living." I now propose a corollary: "The unexamined soccer team is not worth supporting." I write a lot about D.C. United, and my complaints are typically about players, or tactics, or strategy. But as for the organization, I'm usually bubbly and effusive with praise. The organization is one of the best in MLS, in my well-published opinion. They've always been kind and generous in their dealings with this blog. But since I know I probably sound like a cheerleader, I wanted to write about the things I don't like about the D.C. United organization. To be fair, I've never made an issue of this really, or complained to anyone, but let's be honest: I think there are areas where the organization could improve. Here are five things I don't like about D.C. United.

  1. The first-time fan experience: United is excellent with its hardcore support, but I wonder about the new fans that randomly decide to go to a game. United doesn't seem to offer much in the way of orienting people to soccer or to D.C. United in particular. A key branding point of United is our tradition of excellence, but that can also leave potential new fans to wonder if the best times have passed them by, or if they should be doing ten years worth of reading to catch-up. Sometimes fans will be seated directly behind the Supporter's Section, and complain about all the people standing in front of them. Yes, I know, get over it. But that's not the point, these fans had no idea that the supporter's stand. DC does the right thing and gets these people reseated, but still, how would they know before they got to the game or when they selected tickets? Proposed Solutions: Two things. First, the DC United website should host a "First time at RFK?" section with basic info on fan seating, history, game, and current team. Just enough so that people feel oriented with what they're about to watch. Second, I seem to recall Ted Leonesis used to have "Caps University" sessions where people could get a quick briefing to hockey before watching a game. I could see United doing something once or twice a year along the same lines: Get some people in a room, explain the various laws (Tonight guest lecture: Judah Cooks on Passively Offside) then go watch a game. Would these work? No idea, but I do get the sense that if you want to make the transition from first time fan to casual fan, or casual fan to hardcore supporter, the fan has to make most of the effort. I say: Grease the wheels a bit.
  2. Dealing with Departure: It seems like the organization has had a recurring problem with traded players feeling blindsided. Petke and Eskandarian come to mind as recent examples. Proposed Solution? Surely there has to be a way where the confidentiality of transaction negotiations can be balanced with giving a player the head's up that they are on the block. These players are professionals. I would hope they would handle such news with maturity and decorum. If they can't, then they probably shouldn't be wearing the shirt in the first place. Do the right thing, and give them a bit of warning before the media gets it.
  3. Color outside the lines: DC has many things that work for them, from their scouting operations to the way in which they handle player development. Despite that, there seems to be a bit of conservatism in handling players. United, I get the sense, feels like they have a system that works. If it works, they are unwilling to deviate from it. The departure of Jay Needham, the unwillingness to use the Designated Player allocation on Gomez, all of these are decisions emblematic of a "system-first" philosophy. That's not to say they're the wrong decisions, but I'm not sure that they are necessarily the right ones. I'm curious to see if that trend continues, or if DC is willing to change and adapt the system to the situation. Proposed Solution? Not sure that one needs to be implemented yet, but just a willingness to embrace change would not be a bad thing.
  4. RFK: The party line from supporters on this is "It's a dump, but it's our dump." And more accurately, most of the failings of RFK are the result of the DC Sports and Entertainment Commission and having to share an outdated facility with another professional sports franchise rather than DC United's Front Office. That being said... it's time for a new home. Proposed Solution? Poplar Point, obviously, but failing that, RFK could use a little more flair. Is there any way to get local vendors to have stands that compete with Aramark?
  5. Disobedience: I get the sense that Kevin Payne feels that United has to be the flagship franchise for MLS, and that United will go out of its way to support and represent MLS even at the expense of the team and our competitiveness during the season. I don't think he needs to feel that way. Proposed Solution? At this point, United has enough credit built up that it, by itself, should have some sway with the league as a whole. It's not just AEG and Red Bull that can push for changes in structure. I think United should be a bit more selfish when working with the league.
Now, these are pretty much all nitpicks considering the state of most franchises, but I wanted to at least give you some of my thoughts. Feel free to add your own.

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At 21 March, 2007 13:54, Blogger adelino said...

I'm a longtime United supporter. I saw as many games as I could afford as a high school kid in 1996. That's pretty much remained my guiding philosophy over the last 11 seasons. I've seen the crowds grow and change during that time. I love the team and I think the franchise is one of the finest organizations in the city. For the last 11 years, going to a game at RFK (despite all its faults) has been the region's best kept secret. That's the one thing I don't like about DCU. There's no reason for it to still be a secret that our team is awesome, our fans are awesome, and that our gameday experience is better than all of the other area pro teams combined.

I was at a bar this weekend and overheard the following conversation at the next table:

Guy: "Yeah, I live in Cheverly. It's right on the Metro. I'm only a couple stops from the city."

Girl: "Aren't you close to the stadium stop?"

Guy: "RFK? Yeah it's close too."

Girl: Isn't that where the soccer team plays? What are they called again? Do you ever see any of their games? [seems excited]

Guy: [with snobbish incredulity] DC United? I don't go to their games. I don't think anybody goes to their games. The stadium is always empty.

And scene...

Now I know that what that guy said was BS and you know what that guy said was BS, but that's really what he thought (unless he was a RBNY spy). And, much more importantly, that's what the cute girl he was talking to would have thought if I hadn't intervened.

Why can't DCU do a better job of getting the word out that there are a lot of people at these games and it's a really good time. They want more of the metro area's 18-34 demographic out at the park don't they?

This is the one obstacle that seems so hard to overcome. There are plenty more people out there who are curious about DCU. They would love to go to a game, but if they don't think it's cool and they don't think that other people are doing it, then getting a bunch of friends together to see a game is too risky. People want to be part of a scene and we've got a great scene, but DCU needs to let people know about it.

Solution: I know that money is always an issue, so try some guerilla marketing. Get a DCU street team together. Put the next few headliners at the 9:30 club in a DCU jersey. Boswell is cute, so get him a myspace page with some shirtless photos and watch the magic happen. Put some Lite-Brites in some overpasses.

Wait...forget that last one.

At 21 March, 2007 14:07, Blogger D said...

Adelino: Excellent suggestion. DC United street teams should be doable, and I imagine the marketing department wouldn't have to make a huge infusion of cash to make them work. I think you allude to a strange marketing problem. We wear our DC United shirts at games or supporter's events where they are seen by other people in DC United shirts. In short, we have visibility to ourselves. This would be a great way of increasing visibility to those that don't follow. Hit the campuses, that sort of thing.

Also, Ben Olsen should be hosting indie rock nights at the Black Cat. Really.

At 21 March, 2007 14:12, Blogger Kinney said...

Adelino - I completely agree. In my imaginary what I would do if I owned DC United, a street team is something I would definately look into. Right now I think Chivas USA is the only MLS team that has one. The possiblities are endless in this area for a soccer street team. Your Bobby myspace idea is exactly what DC United is trying to do with BobbyBoswell.com and a great step in the right direction.

At 21 March, 2007 15:27, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One thing I would change:

While I understand the need to educate new fans to the laws of the game, I think this season should mark the beginning of the "you all should know by now the damn time is kept on the field" era.

Hearing that announcement every half of every game (in English and then Spanish) is embarrassing.

12 years is enough.

At 21 March, 2007 16:39, Blogger JWVariant said...

The "Intro to DC United-style soccer" idea is spot on. Educate and entertain while cultivating a broader base. Throw in a "Your first beer is free..." feature, and you'll have a true winner!

At 21 March, 2007 20:43, Anonymous JCM said...

I've got to say the fan experience has deminished recently. The game against Chivas was the worst in recent memory. I spent 95 minutes in lines to get in the lots, buy food and out of the lots. If it was my first game, I wouldn't return. And a suggestion: How about general admission in the upper deck when the open it? That would help with ticket walkups. There must have been 2000 people waiting to buy tickets at kickoff.

At 21 March, 2007 23:14, Anonymous dave C. said...

Interesting comment about first-time visitors sitting behind the supporters section. I've witnessed this a lot in the 8-pus years I've been going to RFK, and I've always wondered why the seating map on the DC United website doesn't label the supporters' side and the family side as such, and include some verbiage about what you're in for if you sit behind the supporters. I can't tell you how many soccer moms I've heard say this is the last time little Johnny is coming to a DC United game. And little Johnny could be a future Barra Brava, or Ben Olsen for that matter.

Anyway, I'd encourage any of us who witness people sitting in poorly chosen seats, or otherwise not enjoying the game, to offer them your help in getting the attention of an usher to be reseated, and then kindly suggest that next time, they try seats on the other side of the stadium.

At 22 March, 2007 07:37, Anonymous matt w said...

I agree with the comments about the quiet side and the supporters side and the importance of helping first-timers understand what's going on on the field and in the stands. Everything people have pointed out is exactly right.

If I were head of the DCU marketing department (a recurring fantasy of mine -- call me, KP!), I'd have a teevee commercial out there on cable channels exploiting the difference between the sides. Five seconds of the Barra in full bouncing stands and smokebomb mode, then five seconds of some cute family of four from Bethesda cheering golf-gallery stylee, back and forth, back and forth. Then: "Quiet side? Loud side? Which side are you on?" Make people choose, in their minds, where they would sit were they to go to a United game. I think that would also dispel the myth that no one goes to the games, and let them know that hey there's something interesting and different going on at these games.

Then finish it off with a Barra hearty high-fiving one of the Bethesda kids with the 'rents looking on and smiling, just to demonstrate that the two sides aren't actually in conflict with each other. Maybe throw in a unison, multi-ethnic, multi-generational "Go United!" at the very end.

Also, one thing that has always nagged at me but I've never had the opportunity to whine about: the youth teams playing at halftime is a great way to get kids and their parents to the games and a nice nod to the area's rich youth soccer talent. But have the announcer dudes tell us who's playing. Give the kids their moment of glory and give the teams some publicity.

At 22 March, 2007 09:34, Anonymous Goose said...

" I've always wondered why the seating map on the DC United website doesn't label the supporters' side and the family side as such, and include some verbiage about what you're in for if you sit behind the supporters."

Dunno about the online stuff, but the sales reps always mention this on the phone when you call for tickets.

The section on the website that talks about the supporters' groups lists where they're located, so the information is out there.

At 22 March, 2007 09:57, Blogger Kinney said...

The big problem are the people who buy through ticketbastard. They have no clue what they are in for and it is better for DCU to let them sell the seats then to not because people can get up and move. I don't really know how to fix this completely but some of the steps mentioned above can allieviate some of the problem.

At 23 March, 2007 10:12, Anonymous seahawkdad said...

Good for you, anonymous. That 'time is kept on the field' announcement just drive me nuts.

Since I don't have to rant (any more) about that, here's one that really bothers me.

I don't like stadium music. But I can live with it if it doesn't intrude on what's going on in the game.

However, since the intent is to get people psyched, playing it up to the exact moment the ball is touched at kickoff destroys that psych factor.

How? Because it drowns out what the supporters sections are doing at kickoff, which is a hell of a lot more psyching than that damned music. When I am with the Barra, I can't hear the music, of course. But when I'm on the quiet side with my wife (no Barra for her, sadly), the music drowns out the Screaming Eagles, La Norte and La Barra Brava.

Solution: fade out the music starting about three minutes from kickoff so that the last two minutes before are nothing but supporter cheers and chants.


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