09.07.2015 03:35 h

Building a club from nothing into champions

Frank Lampard might be forgiven for feeling a sense of apprehension as he embarks on his new career at New York City FC.

The former Chelsea and Manchester City midfielder has joined a newly formed club that has spent most of its first season in the basement of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference and in the absence of its own home is playing at Yankee Stadium.

David Beckham, the former England star who is launching his own Miami team, will also be taking a keen interest in the fortunes of New York City, built from scratch with the eye-watering wealth of Manchester City's Abu Dhabi owners.

But history suggests that all the money in the world does not necessarily attract fans, ensure supporter loyalty and bring on-field success.

So what does it take to build a football club?

Beckham and the City money men might want to take a look at DC United, who sit 11 points clear at the top of the Eastern Conference and are among the most successful teams in MLS history.

The key to long-term sustainable success, chief operating officer Tom Hunt told AFP, is for DC United to have their own stadium -- which will happen as early as 2017.

Since being founded 20 years ago they have played at the ramshackle RFK Stadium.

"If you're creating a nice little stew, one of the primary ingredients has to be owning and operating your own stadium," he said.

"Here at RFK, we are a tenant, and being a tenant we don't have access to the revenue streams that you need to have to be successful as a business -- not having the ability to sell naming rights, building our partnerships on the sponsorship side.

"If you've been to any modern facility -- stadium or arena -- (they have) technology, food options. The whole guest experience is very different from what we can potentially provide here at RFK."

The club has lost money for 20 years running and Hunt does not expect that to change until DC United are in their own home.

The supporters might be passionate and the team top of the league, but home attendances have been falling -- a sore point for many fans, some of whom accuse the club of not doing enough to get bums on seats.

According to a fan study posted on the Black and Red United blog, DC United consistently had over 17,000 for home games from 1996 to 2010.

But that dipped to less than 15,000 since 2011, among the poorest in the MLS, according to the study.

Chris Dodds, a season-ticket holder and member of the Screaming Eagles supporter group, agrees that the lack of amenities at the crumbling RFK is hurting attendances.

"The club also has failed to invest sufficient resources into marketing and promoting the team," said Dodds, who was among a group of fans who recently met club officials to offer feedback.

"This is one area that has started to improve this season. The front office has taken visible steps to reach new fans."

Dodds and Hunt agree that it is not much good having a great stadium if the team is useless.

Hunt concedes that the MLS is nowhere near the Premier League yet, where teams play out to full houses even if they are battling relegation, but says that American sports owners and administrators have a strong track record when it comes to building successful sports clubs.

A "historically awful" 2013 season drove many casual fans away, said Dodds, who admits he often cannot find anyone to accompany him to games.

"Sadly, after 20 years, DC United still struggles for respect among the sports fans in the DC metro area," said Dodds.

"This is really difficult to believe since DC had the highest television ratings for the men's World Cup, the second highest for the women's World Cup, a team with four MLS league titles, and some of the top soccer writers in the country."

Hunt points out that while the figures show a healthy appetite for "soccer" in the capital, the local sports scene is already chockablock, boasting baseball, hockey and basketball teams, as well as the NFL's Washington Redskins.

Washington is not unique, however, in that respect -- Beckham's team will have to compete with several professional sports teams in Miami, including the Dolphins (NFL) and Miami Heat, the NBA champions in 2012 and 2013.

Sometimes, a dose of old-fashioned patience goes a long way.

"It's building up stars," said Hunt. "RGIII (Robert Griffin, the Redskins quarterback) goes into a grocery store and everyone knows him. Bill Hamid (DC United goalkeeper) -- people might look at him and think he's an athlete but not everybody knows him yet.

"Ten years from now that will change. Back in the days when the NBA really had to make stars... we are at that point where we need to start making recognizable stars."