Football stadiums belong in the suburbs

It is a universally accepted truth that a new football team owner needs a new stadium. Preferably I would add – with apologies to Jane Austen – one that is publicly subsidized.

So it’s little wonder that, with the NFL’s Washington Commanders impending takeover by a new ownership group and despite the dire need for a new quarterback, the NFL’s Washington Commanders have hired lobbyists to rally public support for their quest for a new home. The team used to play at RFK Stadium, about two miles east of the Capitol, and many fans want them to return to the city after nearly 30 years in suburban Landover, MD.

As a fan, I would also like to see them play in a top-class stadium. As a wonk, though, I hope it’s out of town. Like most NFL teams, the Commanders belong in the suburbs. Football and suburbia are two great American passions that belong together.

Professional sports franchises fled central America during the great urban decline of the 1960s and 1970s, only to return more recently when many inner cities returned. This makes sense in many respects – if it is possible on financially justifiable terms. The argument against public subsidies for sports teams has been around for a long time and is strong, but my argument is more geographical. Let the suburbs have the stadiums. Cities need housing.

The Commanders’ case is complicated by the fact that the 62-year-old RFK Stadium, which would have to be demolished, sits on land owned by the Home Office. The team’s lobbyists want the federal authorities to cede control of the site to the DC government, presumably so they can drag the city into a bidding war with Maryland and Virginia over a better deal for a new stadium.

But soccer stadiums differ from other sports facilities in two ways, making them a bad game for urban areas. First, they’re a lot bigger because the NFL is a lot more popular than its competing leagues. And second, they host a lot fewer games.

Washington’s ballpark, which opened in 2008, anchors an impressive urban renewal project and hosts 81 regular-season games a year. This generates significant amounts of foot traffic for local businesses, which in turn becomes attractive amenities for nearby residents. The stadium itself is large, but nowhere near the size of an NFL stadium. And its parking needs are met by relatively compact garages.

In comparison, an NFL team plays eight or nine home games in the regular season. This just isn’t enough utility to have a significant benefit for nearby businesses. Meanwhile, an NFL stadium has a larger footprint and a much more extensive parking requirement, which is usually—as at the RFK site—served by huge, tailgating-friendly areas.

The basketball and hockey seasons are of course shorter than the baseball seasons. But basketball and hockey teams can share arenas in major cities, creating heavily used facilities nine months of the year.

Of course, these problems could be alleviated by football teams sharing facilities with franchisees in other sports. Combined football/baseball stadiums were once popular for this reason, and later football/soccer stadiums as well. From a strictly urban point of view, this was ideal. But baseball and football teams and fans have found over the years that the trade-offs in the fan experience aren’t worth it. And both heavily used baseball stadiums and relatively compact soccer stadiums are wise uses of urban land.

This leaves professional football as an island, presenting a peculiar combination of high demand and low frequency, which is a highly inefficient use of urban space. Fortunately, there is one place in America with vast tracts of land just looking for a use: it’s called the suburbs.

As with any rule of thumb, there are exceptions: If your city’s only major professional sports franchise is an NFL team — there are only two by my count — and there are no other major facilities, an NFL stadium could serve double duty as a concert venue or even a convention center. If your downtown area is riddled with rot and vacant lots, a rarely used soccer stadium and a few parking lots could be a step up.

But Washington, while not without problems, is an expensive city with high demand for housing. And the RFK site is far away from the other sports facilities in the city. So the team might as well move even further away from the center of the city.

Admittedly, the existing Commanders’ Stadium, although only 26 years old, is outdated and in need of replacement. But its location — near the Beltway, an inconvenient but doable 20-minute walk from a metro station, in the relatively inexpensive suburbs east of the city — is close to ideal.

Like I said, I’m a fan of the team. But I’m also a resident of the city, and I’d like to see Washington make better use of the RFK package. Converting the derelict stadium and associated parking lots into commercial housing and retail with maybe a neighborhood park or two would create jobs and tax revenue. It would help stabilize an urban economy that — like many others in the US, especially on the coasts — is suffering from the impact of remote work on commercial property rents.

As they try to adapt to the new WFH world, cities are promoting themselves as centers of recreation and consumption. It makes perfect sense. But despite its enormous popularity, professional football simply does not belong in the middle of a city.

Elsewhere in the Bloomberg Opinion:

• The football season is over, but the NFL’s troubles aren’t: Stephen L. Carter

• $1 billion in Super Bowl betting is changing fandom: Timothy L. O’Brien

• Why sport should be more political: Michael Serazio

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This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. As a co-founder and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. Most recently, he is the author of One Billion Americans.

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