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MLS Gauging Market for a Team in Baltimore

On the eve of the second leg of the conference semifinals, the league has stirred some intrigue around one of its teams not in the playoffs.  According to Steven Goff of The Washington Post, soccer fans in the Baltimore, MD area have begun to receive surveys gauging their interest in locating an MLS franchise in the city.  Obviously this is a major issue for fans of DC United, whose franchise has been searching for a home and for the past few years has been rumored to be moving to Baltimore or outside of DC.

According to Goff and Craig Stouffer of The Examiner, the survey asks how likely would fans follow and attend the games of a team in a soccer-specific stadium in the Westport area of the city; the questions ask about a new franchise or a relocated franchise.  The survey then asks which of the following teams residents would lobby hardest to have move to Baltimore: DC United, Columbus Crew, Philadelphia Union, New York Red Bulls, or other.  The final two questions ask specifically about DC United’s relocation to Baltimore.

Some DC fans have already begun to prepare themselves for what seems to be an inevitable move, but I can see a few different reasons why MLS is doing this survey at this time.  Here are my thoughts (and for my previous thoughts on DC United in Baltimore, check out my previous article):

DC United is preparing to move to Baltimore

In an incredibly informative interview last month with Goff, DC United President Kevin Payne was blunt about his team’s courtship with Baltimore:

We’re not hiding anything. We are trying to work through some issues with the District and we are having conversations about how to get something in the District, but we’re having those same conversations with Baltimore. I’m not sure I want to categorize it, but the state of Maryland, Maryland Stadium Authority and city of Baltimore know how to do this. They’ve done it successfully.

DC United last year did an economic benefit study with Baltimore last year so they have some research to back-up potential moves.  And the team has discussed outside of the city stadium sites, including failed negotiations with Upper Marlboro, MD, to build a soccer stadium there (similar to how the Redskins play in Landover, MD, not DC).  Before the end of the season, DCU presented Events DC, which owns RFK Stadium, with almost an ultimatum to either renovate the stadium for soccer use or the team is gone.  How much the city is willing to put into a fifty year old stadium is unknown.  So the most likely reason for this survey is that it is the first step in a multi-year process to move DC United to Baltimore.

DC United is aggressively trying to have DC call its bluff

Despite the negativity surrounding DC United’s stadium situation, it is not all a dark cloud.  The Poplar Point stadium is up in the air, but has never been declared absolutely dead.  In fact, with changing DC demographics and the continued development of the Southwest Waterfront, this may turn out to be an economic option intriguing to the DC Council.  With the grassroots movement Keep DC United picking up combined with the thought of losing what is essentially a business to Baltimore (and the DC government hates losing large businesses to competing regional cities), these tactics by the league and the team are just pressure points to keep the issue on the DC Council’s radar.

MLS is feeling out Baltimore for relocation of another franchise

In all likelihood the inclusion of Philadelphia, Columbus, and New York was a poor attempt to not make the survey all about moving DC United to Baltimore.  But what if MLS is considering Baltimore not just as a landing place for DC United but any other troubled MLS franchise?  If DC works out a stadium deal somewhere in the nation’s capital, could Baltimore be a destination for a team like Columbus, whose attendance has fallen and MLS has publicly worried about its financial well being?   If this was the case, Baltimore would have to compete with cities like Las Vegas and New York, who are also clamoring to get into MLS (or in NY’s case, have a second franchise).  Baltimore is a good location with a good sports tradition, only two major league franchises, and some soccer tradition.  So while maybe the survey was about testing Baltimore as a landing place for any team, I find it unlikely that they would be surveyed now to establish themselves as relocation site #1.

MLS is considering Baltimore to host an expansion franchise

Many of the arguments for the previous idea apply, but I find this even less likely.  The twentieth team will probably be the New York Cosmos, but MLS has publicly courted Minnesota, San Antonio, Las Vegas, and even Miami about housing an expansion MLS franchise.  For Baltimore to suddenly be the new home of a 20th, 21st, or 22nd team, they would have some work to do.  But maybe, just maybe, the survey is designed to see just how much of a possibility this is.