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Football Stadiums Belong in the Suburbs

Pro football represents a peculiar combination of high demand and low frequency that is a highly inefficient use of urban space. What cities need is housing.

RFK Stadium
RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.: Many fans would like the Washington Commanders to return to the city, but turning the derelict, 62-year-old stadium and its parking lots into market-rate housing and retail would generate jobs and tax revenue. (Shutterstock)
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a new owner in possession of a football team, must be in want of a new stadium. Preferably, I might add — with apologies to Jane Austen — one that is publicly subsidized.

So it is hardly surprising that, with a new ownership group set to take over and despite the desperate need for a new quarterback, the NFL’s Washington Commanders have hired lobbyists to enlist 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 would like them to return to the city after almost 30 years in suburban Landover, Md.

As a fan, I too would love to see them play in a first-rate stadium. As a wonk, however, I hope it’s not in the city. Like most NFL teams, the Commanders belong in the suburbs. Football and suburbia are two great American passions that belong together.

Pro sports franchises fled American central cities during the great urban decline of the 1960s and 1970s, only to return more recently as many downtowns came back. In many ways that makes sense — if it can be done on financially reasonable terms. The case against public subsidies for sports teams has been around for a long time, and it is strong, but my argument is more geographic. Let the suburbs have the stadiums. Cities need housing.

The case of the Commanders is complicated by the fact that 62-year-old RFK Stadium, which would need to be demolished, sits on land owned by the Department of the Interior. The team’s lobbyists want the feds to give control of the site to the D.C. government, presumably so they can drag the city into a bidding war with Maryland and Virginia over which one will offer a better deal for a new stadium.

But football stadiums are different from other sports facilities in two ways that make them a poor match for urban areas. First, they are much larger, because the NFL is much more popular than its rival leagues. And second, they host many fewer games.

Washington’s baseball stadium, opened in 2008, anchors an impressive urban revitalization project and hosts 81 regular-season games per year. That generates meaningful amounts of foot traffic for local businesses, which in turn become attractive amenities for nearby residents. The stadium itself is large, but not nearly as large as an NFL stadium. And its parking needs are met by relatively compact garages.

An NFL team, by comparison, plays eight or nine regular-season home games. This is just not enough use to be a meaningful benefit to nearby businesses. Meanwhile, an NFL stadium has a larger footprint and much more expansive parking needs, normally met — as at the RFK site — by vast surface lots that are friendly to tailgating.

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

These problems could, of course, be ameliorated by having football teams share facilities with franchises in other sports. Combination football/baseball stadiums were once popular for this reason, and later so were football/soccer stadiums. From a strict urban planning standpoint, this was ideal. But baseball and soccer teams and fans have discovered over the years that the compromises to the fan experience aren’t worth it. And frequently used baseball stadiums and relatively compact soccer stadiums are both reasonable uses of urban land.

That leaves pro football an island, representing a peculiar combination of high demand and low frequency that is a highly inefficient use of urban space. Luckily, America has a place with vast acres of space just looking for a use: It’s called the suburbs.
Washington Commanders at FedEx Field
Washington Commanders wide receiver Terry McLaurin celebrates after catching a first-quarter touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., on Jan. 8, 2023. The 26-year-old stadium is already outdated and in need of a replacement.
(Rob Carr/Getty Images/TNS)
As with any rule of thumb, there are exceptions: If your city’s only major pro sports franchise is an NFL team — by my count there are only two — and lacks other major facilities, an NFL stadium could do double duty as a concert venue or even a convention center. If your downtown is scarred by blight and vacant lots, a rarely used football stadium and a bunch of parking could be a step up.

But Washington, though not without its problems, is an expensive city with high demand for housing. And the RFK site is already far afield from the city’s other sports venues. So the team might as well just move even farther from the center of the city.

Granted, the Commanders’ existing stadium, though only 26 years old, is outdated and in need of replacement. But its location — close to 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.

As I said, I am a fan of the team. But I am also a resident of the city, and I’d like to see Washington put the RFK parcel to better use. Turning the derelict stadium and its associated parking lots into market-rate housing and retail, with maybe a neighborhood park or two, would generate jobs and tax revenue. It would help stabilize an urban economy that — like many others in the U.S., especially on the coasts — is reeling from the impact of remote work on commercial real-estate rents.

As they try to adapt to the new WFH world, cities are promoting themselves as hubs of recreation and consumption. It makes perfect sense. But professional football, despite its tremendous popularity, just doesn’t belong in the middle of a city.

©2023 Bloomberg L.P. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC. Matthew Yglesias is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A co-founder of and former columnist for Vox, he writes the Slow Boring blog and newsletter. He is author, most recently, of One Billion Americans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Bloomberg L.P. editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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