In 2019, Loudoun United opened the gates at the county’s first professional sports venue: Segra Field, just outside of Leesburg at Philip A. Bolen Memorial Park.
Including the stadium, practice fields, team headquarters and training facilities, it was the product of secret negotiations with county officials, tens of millions of dollars of financing both public and private, and plenty of hype—and Loudoun United kicked off its inaugural season in front of a sold-out crowd.
But only a few months after the team’s first season wrapped up in October 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, scrambling the league schedule and closing sporting venues across the country to the public.
That was hugely disruptive to the deal at Segra, where the team was expected to pay back more than a half-million dollars in 2020. The county ultimately plans to be paid back all the money it put up in financing—as well as owning the stadium. But with fans locked out of the stadium, county supervisors voted to defer $621,233 in rent, spreading that payment out over the next six years instead with at least 8% interest.
And although the pandemic meant fans weren’t in the stadium, the organization did not sit idly by. Segra Field emerged this spring with two more professional teams: both the Washington Spirit, a National Women’s Soccer League team, and Old Glory DC, a Major League Rugby team, this year are calling Segra home. In May 2020, D.C. United began training at Segra Field, and in January of this year, the major league club broke ground on its new training center and headquarters.
“The vision for Segra Field and that campus was always that it was going to be more than just Loudoun United,” said Harry Hardy, D.C. United senior vice president of events and marketing. “So working with Old Glory’s ownership, they identified the same opportunity that we did when we took the team out there.”
Virginia’s current guidelines restrict outdoor sports venues to 30% of their normal capacity—1,500 fans, for the 5,000-seat Segra Field. On May 15, that will be lifted to 50% capacity, 2,500 fans.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to get 2,500 the first game,” said Loudoun Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer. “People are going to ease back into it and at their own comfort level.”
Chris Dunlavey, one of Old Glory DC’s owners, said, so far, Old Glory’s games have been filled by season ticket holders, fans who followed the team from their old home pitch, Cardinal Stadium at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. But as the stadium opens back up, so too will game day—for rugby fans, an all-day event.
Before the pandemic, outside the game, Dunlavey said, there were kids’ play areas, a beer garden, live music—”we had a great tailgating area, where a lot of our fans have enjoyed that so much, that we almost couldn’t get them in the stadium at game time to watch the game,” he said.
He likened it to the decision among minor league baseball teams to make their gamedays special events, with activities throughout.
“[They] created an environment that was about affordable family entertainment, and their business ended up not so much competing with big league sports, but it was more competing with the neighborhood movie theater,” Dunlavey said. “We’re really in that same vein. We’re creating an experience.”
And, he added, “you’ll see the fastest-paced, most action-packed sport out there today, and enjoy the amazing experience watching some top-quality professional rugby, and afterward a celebration of a victory.”
With Segra’s artificial turf surface, Hardy said, the field can be used every day, in contrast to grass surfaces. And there is more to come.
“I think with Segra Field especially, the opportunity is music and concerts,” Hardy said. “We had three or four shows planned last summer, 2020, that we couldn’t obviously facilitate, so I don’t know whether it’ll be this year or next year, but that’s certainly where we want to go at that stadium.”
Dunlavey said while Old Glory won’t know until Segra is fully open whether they lost some fans in the move to Loudoun, there are plenty of fans to be won here. One of the largest and most active youth rugby organizations, he said, is Loudoun Youth Rugby.
Hardy said as COVID-19-era restrictions lift, Loudoun United will be picking up where it left off to build the fanbase and keep people coming to Segra.
“You see the world over right now, especially with what’s going on Europe, just how much soccer is about the fans,” Hardy said. “If ever that was in doubt, just look at what happened with the European Super League and the fans’ reaction to that. So there is no soccer team without fans.”
“Our demographics are so strong for sports, and that drives a lot of the conversations that we have with teams,” Rizer said. “Targeting that youth population, the growth of other sports, the lacrosses and the other things like that—when you look at the demographics of Loudoun and you look at youth participation, it’s an exciting thing for these leagues to look at, because they know that they’re going to have that built-in fanbase.”
Despite the disruptions of the pandemic, Rizer said the expectations for Segra Field’s impact in Loudoun remain high, bringing in not only teams, tournaments, and fans, but also building Loudoun’s reputation as a sports destination. County supervisors plan to make plenty of money from the field, ranging from building Loudoun’s brand as a sports destination to an entirely new tax currently aimed just at Segra games: an admissions tax for professional sporting events. In November 2020, supervisors voted to ask Attorney General Mark Herring whether localities have the authority to apply an admissions tax just to professional sporting events.
“I don’t think any of our base assumptions have changed from when we started,” Rizer said. “Obviously, that won’t be the case this year just like it wasn’t the case last year, but I think our base assumptions remain in place, and we still think that this is a fiscally solid project, especially as we continue to add more sports teams to the mix.”
Yes, still more sports teams—although Rizer said he doesn’t have anything to announce yet.
“We’re always looking at that opportunities and, we do have a couple of more opportunities that we’re in discussions on right now,” Rizer said. “I think one of the things that I find most exciting is that we’re still having these conversations despite the fact that we’re 18 months into the COVID-19 slowdown this year and stop altogether last year. But yeah, we’re still looking at some more opportunities—nothing that I can say that we’ve closed yet, but we do think that there’s some more to come.”
In the long term he said he expects Segra will be “something that we’ll be looking back on as something that was a really good opportunity for the county at the right time.”