Arena: Last hurrah for home of the hogs: 9. RFK Stadium - John Lichfield casts doubt over the future of a capital landmark which is one of the World Cup venues
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Sunday 19 June 1994
Jack Kent Cooke, owner of Washington's American football team, is moving the Skins to a purpose-built stadium, with 50 per cent more seats and revenue, in suburban Maryland. What then is to become of RFK Stadium, present home of the Redksins, one of the nine US World Cup venues?
RFK is a stadium many Premiership clubs would sell their team for (all-seater, bigger than Highbury or Old Trafford, surrounded by car parks). It is an elegant, shabby-genteel, intimate, double-deck oval, only 30 years old. But it is, in effect, doomed. At the end of next year, when Cooke punts the Redskins 15 miles down the freeway to Laurel, RFK will become another inner-city victim of suburban flight.
Officials of the government of the District of Columbia, which owns RFK, refuse to accept this fate: they talk of attracting a new major league baseball franchise to the US capital (hugely unlikely); of professional soccer booming after the World Cup (the Washington Diplomats play occasionally at RFK, but to crowds of fewer than 2,000); of bringing more rock concerts to Washington (the Grateful Dead hold the attendance record). But, realistically, RFK's days as one of the great sporting venues in the US are numbered.
The World Cup - a second- round match and four first-round games in Groups E and F - will be one of the stadium's last hurrahs. RFK is the smallest of the nine venues, with 53,142 seats. All its matches were sold out weeks ago (even Belgium v Saudi Arabia).
Of the World Cup sites - five college 'bowls' and four professional gridiron fields - RFK most resembles a European football stadium. It originally doubled as a baseball park (two different lots of Washington Senators moved to other cities). But RFK has none of the bizarre shapes and odd sight- lines of American college and baseball stadiums. Built in 1961, and renamed following Robert F Kennedy's murder in 1968, its seats loom in two tiers directly over the pitch. As a result, it has the reputation of being one of the noisiest and most hostile venues in the National Football League (much of the mayhem being generated by the hogs, male Redskins' fans in dresses wearing rubber pigs' snouts).
So why is Jack Kent Cooke moving the Skins and destroying RFK? The first answer is money: there is a vast waiting-list for Redskins season tickets; Cooke will easily fill the proposed 78,000- seater stadium. But the DC authorities, desperate to keep the team within their boundaries, offered to build a new stadium, as large as the Maryland one, next to RFK. After exhaustive negotiations, Cooke pulled out.
The unspoken problem with RFK, apart from its size, is its location. The intersection of 22nd and East Capitol Streets is only a mile or so from the US Congress building on Capitol Hill. But it is in the heart of all-black north-east Washington, one of the most violent and drug-infested neighbourhoods of any US city. The Redskins team is largely black; but the crowd is almost all white. For most of the spectators, ball games are the only occasions on which they enter north-east DC.
They still pour into RFK for every Redksins fixture; attacks on fans are virtually unknown. And yet. And yet. The move out to Maryland is part of a nationwide movement of the mainly white- supported professional sports teams out to the mainly white suburbs. The World Cup has followed the same pattern: of the nine venues, only two, RFK and Soldier Field, Chicago, are near city centres.
North-east Washington is reaping some benefit from the World Cup, at least. Streets around the stadium are being resurfaced for the first time in years. Adrian Thompson, who lives near the stadium, told the Washington Post: 'I've been here for 25 years and I haven't seen anything done to the streets. International soccer comes to town and they're redoing the streets. I guess there's something to be said for that . . . But I don't think anybody in the neighbourhood has tickets to the World Cup. They don't have money to go to the World Cup.'
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