Garber Mentions the Unmentionable: Moving DC United

(I'm out adventuring across the Eastern seaboard, attending some auctions and vacationing generally, so I wasn't going to be blogging but what the heck)

It's hard as hell to gin up much sympathy for DCU fans. Anybody with as many stars above their crest as they have aren't going generate a whole bunch of tears amongst their fellows around the league, particularly those of us who have not-so-warm-and-fuzzy memories of taking regular yearly butt kickings from Bruce Arena and his Merry Band for what seemed like decades.

And even they would have to admit that, from time-to-time - say, 1996-1999 pretty much nonstop - they could actually get a bit chesty about their success, hard as that might be to believe.

Indeed, they were the original "great, great atmosphere that ought to be a model for the rest of the league" team that they used to rub everyone's face in before the "great atmosphere" moved to Toronto (from which it seems to have migrated to Seattle, but that's another tale).

On the other hand, as fans of the league it's impossible not to feel their pain as they've been tossed around on a roller coaster of broken promises, lies and political double dealing for the last few years that would make Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farms start to consider slashing her wrists.

After years of flogging the den of two-faced crooks and self-serving weasels that constitutes the District government (I mean, how bad are things when, for a while, you find yourself pinning your hopes and dreams on the words and good faith of Marion Barry?) over the apparently comatose Poplar Point project, a deal which made so much sense for everyone concerned that it's still hard to believe that it's not going to happen, DCU owner Victor McFarlane finally bowed to the inevitable and, with great fanfare and to do, announced that the team had cut a deal with Prince Georges County Maryland to construct a permanent home for the Red and Black.

Unfortunately, that one went from media conferences and smiling faces and happytalk to a refusal on the part of the governing authorities - including several politicians who had proposed the thing in the first place - to spend a couple bucks on a study in less time than it takes Sigi Schmid to close down one of those all-you-can-eat places.

Following the advice that Nancy Reagan once gave to a nation of teenagers desperate for a buzz, they just said no.

At the time of the Maryland announcement, McFarlane said that there were no other discussions going on with any other locality. Prince Georges was it. Then, when Maryland turned thumbs down of the deal he told the press that there were indeed SOME OTHER POSSIBILITES OUT THERE but upon closer examination they seem to consist less of concrete discussions and more of some guys who have the usual "we're willing to talk about it" blather to offer.

Then yesterday, IN AN INTERVIEW WITH STEVEN GOFF MLS Commissioner Don Garber finally said out loud what everyone had been thinking and occasionally alluding to but never quite saying out loud:

That it may be time to move DC United someplace else.

And at this point, I'm sorry, much as I've been raised and nurtured on sheer loathing for all things DC United (hey, you try having a team that includes Brad Friedel, Stern John, Brian McBride, Thomas Dooley, etc., etc., etc. that can't get past the Eastern conference finals year after year and see how much love YOU have for those guys) this goes way beyond partisanship and into common decency; year after year there hasn't been a more rabid, loyal group of soccer fans anywhere, and this is their reward?

DC relocating would be the final evidence (if any were really needed) that life is nothing but a bitch slap. Nothing could be more unfair.

But the fact is that the most successful team in MLS history by any measure you care to use has never made a dime.

When McFarlane, an Ohio developer with extensive holdings (and a $30 million home) in California, decided to move into the booming and lucrative DC commercial real estate market, he took a cue from his partner Scott Wolstein, who had a plan (which he inherited from his father) to use a soccer stadium as the centerpiece for a huge development combining retail, office, entertainment and medical facilities (and an MLS team) in Cleveland, and envisioned something very similar for DC.

We all know, of course, how the Cleveland thing worked out, but McFarlane thought he had the inside track after he actually bought a team. And not just any team, but DC United. Surely no municipality, when push came to shove, would let an asset like that walk away. It just didn't seem possible.

And with the collapse of the real estate market and the downturn - OK, the dropping-off-of-a-cliff - of demand for commercial space, a guy like Victor McFarlane, who owns and operates an enormous amount of commercial square footage, and who is in a business almost wholly dependent on a credit market which is trotting past a liquidity crisis and on into insolvency territory, you have to wonder if he really can justify sitting on DCU for much longer.

He may have no choice but to fish or cut bait.

Of course the real issue here is not so much McFarlane as it is MLS itself. On his own, he can do exactly nothing with the team. He's an investor who owns a chunk of MLS, but only controls 49% of the team, as do the other owners. If the league refuses to consider letting him move, his only other option is to give the team back to the league. Which has of course been done before, just not recently, and the owners would rather run naked down Fifth Avenue than go through that again.

On the other hand, with no hope whatsoever of getting a stadium, the team itself has very little value; nobody is going to spend good money on a team that has no hope of ever turning a profit.

At the same time, McFarlane isn't likely to want to move it himself; he wanted it as an entry into the DC real estate business. Moving to St. Louis or anywhere else on Earth and starting up a real estate development company would seem, at this point in time, not much short of pure madness.

So if McFarlane won't move it, then who's going to buy it? Joey Saputo has lost his money man as George Gillett is conducting a fire sale to try and keep his head above water - anybody want the Montreal Canadiens? How about Liverpool?

And if St. Louis had a suitable owner they would already have a team, but they couldn't find one last month and it's doubtful whether anyone has suddenly appeared out of nowhere.

Portland? Vancouver? They bought expansion teams. They aren't going to pony up another $35 million to buy DC, and MLS sure isn't going to transfer their expansion fees to McFarlane.

Bottom line, I honestly think - for what it's worth - that Garber is trying to help DC put the screws to the politicians. I don't really think the league will let that team go anywhere. If McFarlane doesn't like it, then he can walk away and let the league (or AEG) run it.

Maybe I'm naive, but I just don't believe DC United is going anywhere, if for no other reason than, right now, MLS needs to look stable and secure. And it's not like, at least for the moment, DC is the only team losing money.

And now, I'm grabbing a couple hours of sleep, and then a couple gallons of coffee and in the front row at an auction at 9AM. Yeah, this makes sense.