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D.C. United supporters’ groups plan protest after club’s partnership with Saudi Arabia

When D.C. United opens its season on Saturday against the New England Revolution, it will do so with less fanfare than normal.

Four of United’s officially-recognized supporters’ groups — District Ultras, Rose Room Collective, 202 Unique and Buzzard Point Social — are planning a four-match protest at the onset of United’s season in response to the club’s preseason visit to Saudi Arabia. A fifth, unsanctioned group, La Banda del Distrito, has also joined in.

“D.C. United Supporter Groups will not be providing organized support for the first four matches in protest of the club’s preseason partnership with the Saudi Government,” the groups said in a statement. “This includes no drums, flags, or banners. The club’s stated values of being ‘Relentless, Deliberate and Decisive’ must also include a deliberate respect for human rights.”

United spent two weeks of preseason in Saudi Arabia, playing two friendlies against Saudi Pro League teams and another two against Sudanese teams. United was not the only MLS side to conduct preseason in Saudi Arabia: Lionel Messi and Inter Miami played in the inaugural “Riyadh Season Cup,” taking on Saudi teams Al Nassr and Al-Hilal.

United’s partners in Saudi Arabia covered the whole of United’s expenses and paid an appearance fee, according to two people briefed on United’s preseason visit. That arrangement is not an uncommon one between countries in the region and visiting sports teams.

On Monday morning, D.C. United declined to comment.

 

The Saudi government has for years faced global criticism for human rights violations stemming from its treatment of migrants, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups. Saudis who have protested these abuses have sometimes faced lengthy prison sentences.

Angus Long, who serves as the president of Buzzard Point Social, says that supporters have reached out to the club to arrange a meeting with ownership or another decision-maker.

“We want to talk about this with the club to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” said Long, “and the response (from the club) we got was, ‘If you guys are planning on protesting just let us know what banners you’re bringing in so we can get them cleared.’ We were stonewalled at every attempt, more or less. We are trying to get that conversation. I’m not saying the conversation would (end) this boycott but I think an open dialogue and a promise of never going again is what we’re seeking.”

According to Long, United head coach Troy Lesesne and general manager Ally Mackay were asked about the Saudi Arabia visit during a meeting with supporters last Monday.

“Our protest and our ideas don’t reflect (Lesesne and Mackay’s) vision for the club, nor their inherent values, nor the (first) team itself,” said Long. “Both of them made it very clear that they were not on board early enough to have made a call in that process of doing preseason in Saudi Arabia.”

The Middle East has become a major player in hosting these types of events, forming relationships with the NBA, UFC and a host of global soccer leagues. Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), majority owners of Premier League club Newcastle United, made waves in 2021 by pumping billions into LIV Golf, a competitor to the near-century-old PGA Tour. The investment fund has also made attempts to purchase Formula 1 and WWE, and the country is set to host the 2034 men’s World Cup after Qatar held it in 2022.

The Saudi Premier League spent nearly $1 billion in last year’s summer transfer window and has attracted the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Karim Benzema as it attempts to establish global relevance. Last summer, Al-Hilal offered a reported $400 million a year to lure Messi to Saudi Arabia, only to watch him land in Major League Soccer instead. Messi, however, has a reported $25 million commercial partnership with the Saudi government.

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United’s relationship with the Saudi government is seen by some at the club as part of a potentially longer-lasting pact which might include future preseason visits or games featuring Saudi teams at Audi Field, reported by the Washington Post. The stadium’s other tenants, the NWSL’s Washington Spirit, visited Qatar in 2020, a trip that led to its own smaller wave of fan unrest.

United is not the first D.C.-area team to form a business partnership with a Middle Eastern entity. Ted Leonsis sold a small stake of Monumental Sports and Entertainment — the company that operates the NBA’s Washington Wizards and the NHL’s Washington Capitals — to the Qatar Investment Authority, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, last summer. The Qataris paid a reported $200 million for a small sliver of the teams.

The protest will be the first wide-scale fan protest of D.C. United since July 2018, when the club reshaped its sales policy for supporters’ tickets. That led to a protest both outside and inside the stadium during the club’s first-ever match at Audi Field.

(Photo: Jose L Argueta/Getty Images)


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