It’s surprisingly difficult to see along the nearby Anacostia Freeway (District Highway 295); the trees block it, and even in the winter, there’s just not a good angle. But if you’re a pedestrian jogging along either side the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail in Washington DC, it’s impossible to miss. The monstrosity really presents itself well on the western bank of the Anacostia headed southward, where, when crossing a bridge over railway tracks, runners can gaze at it through the trees.
There it is: the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, opened in 1961 as DC Stadium then renamed in ’68 following Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Configured so that it could function as both a football field and baseball diamond, RFK Stadium enjoyed copious use during most of its 58-year life, most prominently hosting the Washington Redskins from 1971 until 1996, when the team migrated to the eastern suburbs for a most spacious home at the brand-new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, now FedEx Field. RFK Stadium’s role as a MLB venue was not as lengthy: it only hosted the Washington Senators from 1962 to 1971, and then the Washington Nationals for three years starting in 2005, before the Nats’ present home at their eponymous Stadium was complete. It continued to feature numerous other events over the years: big name music performers (the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and, many times, the Grateful Dead), Police and Fire Games, and a mass wedding ceremony in 1997 for members of the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity, better known as the Unification Church, and its followers the “Moonies” (after founder Sun Myung Moon). RFK Stadium’s central function in the 21st century was to host DC United, the city’s Major League Soccer (MLS) team, which it did from 1996 until 2017, at which point DC United migrated to the newly constructed Audi Field, just a few miles away. The aging stadium attracted few events after the soccer team’s departure, having achieved a reputation for “bouncy seats”—a literal sensation that it was shaking when fans stomped their feet hard enough. Given that maintenance and utilities at RFK Stadium cost the city over $3 million a year, it was a shock to no one when the city announced plans for its demolition in 2019.
And so it goes. I covered a more detailed description of RFK Stadium’s unusual management structure in relation to the surrounding grounds—converted from a huge parking lot to an activity-rich urban park—about six months ago. This time I’m less interested in the grounds (commemoratively yet awkwardly named the Fields at RFK Campus) than what’s strapped to the side of this beached whale:
This is still a long-distance view, and it’s competing for landmark status with the prominent DC Armory on the left, another mammoth structure facing a significant repurposing in the years ahead. But the object in question is mounted there on the right side. I’ll pan and zoom in.
It’s a massive billboard for the Apple iPhone 14.
I’m not going to pontificate too heavily on the ethics of billboards on public property: that’s what the individual states do, as Brandeisian “laboratories of democracy”. The District of Columbia, as a sovereign political entity, can decide for itself how to use its public buildings. For a white elephant like the RFK Stadium, this billboard might actually be doing taxpayers a favor, because at least it’s offsetting those exorbitant maintenance costs that the city stopped recouping after DC United moved to greener pastures. However, this same contract with a billboard company would be akin to civic blasphemy on the side of a Smithsonian museum, or—even worse—on one of DC’s magnificent monuments under stewardship by the National Park Service. The US Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) exists as an independent review board precisely to supervise aesthetic decisions of this magnitude; no doubt many years ago the CFA and other oversight agencies determined that RFK Stadium lacked the architectural or civic importance to preserve viewsheds. So it became a giant easel for a billboard, seen by thousands of motorists daily as they exit District Highway 295 onto East Capitol Street NE. Since the City of Washington can’t make money by hosting events at the clunky old monstrosity, why not turn it into ad space?
The irony is, the City (or Events DC specifically) made this decision many years ago, while DC United still kicked a ball around on the inside of RFK Stadium. But what really baffles me is how it the billboard consistently features one single company. Look at older images of this billboard using Google Street View, and it’s all the same: various new releases of the iPhone. It goes all the way back to the iPhone 5, in summer of 2014. Reviewing other archived images from Street View, it looks like the billboard took a hiatus in the early 2010s, but prior to that—during the earliest photo iterations of Google Street View—the billboard once again hung on the side of RFK Stadium, except back then it actually did feature other businesses: Cricket Wireless, Nissan, among others.
RFK Stadium isn’t the only structure in Washington DC to offer a seemingly permanent billboard site for Apple. Three miles away, a windowless Verizon substation just north of I-695 greets even more motorists each day, adorned with an enormous billboard that has featured Apple products for as long as I’ve seen it. Using Street View once more, I have to dig back to summer of 2009 to find Holiday Inn. But everything since then is a clear arrangement between the billboard company and Apple. Is it legal to monopolize ad space this way? Well, if has as deep pockets as Apple, why wouldn’t Tim Cook cut a check to lease space on two of the most lucrative billboards in the country? This one at least hangs on the façade of an otherwise unadorned structure belonging to a private utility.
The bigger consideration, I suppose, is the aesthetic impact amidst a widely variable landscape of signage regulations—or billboard regulations more specifically. DC doesn’t seem like a place loaded with roadside billboards, at least to the degree one might expect given the density of population and traffic. The nonprofit Scenic America, which strives to beautify roadside vistas, cityscapes, and other viewsheds by promoting regulation of signs, billboards, tree cutting, telecommunications towers, overhead utilizes, and the dedication of scenic byways, keeps a careful watch on billboard prevalence by state. In a rank of total billboards per highway mile, DC ranks 47 out of 51, and the only states to rank lower are those that outlaw billboards: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont. With comparative few miles of highway in the District—it can’t help but have few since the whole place is only 61 square miles!—billboards are astonishingly rare, even more when they’re at the scale on RFK Stadium. DC does not make it easy for billboard companies.
Apple’s opportunities to advertise in the nation’s capital are few and far between, thanks to regulatory hurdles. But it has clearly paid dearly for the ones available. And, sometime this year, after RFK Stadium turns into a pile of rubble, the Cupertino company will have one less billboard. What will take the stadium’s place? Plans have morphed a bit here and there, but the centerpiece around all those recreation fields is likely to be a market hall with groceries and dining. And if it doesn’t catch on—I have my doubts about the long-term viability of trendy food halls—at least Events DC can make up for lost revenue by selling the façade to another billboard company.
6 thoughts on “RFK Stadium is coming down. But not before it can serve as lucrative ad space!”
Interesting questions posited here. I suppose that as the societal mores shift, we may continue to find ourselves needing to legislate ethics in a way that was unnecessary years ago.
Whomever authorized the rights for the billboard company to have this space is responsible for everything that appears on it. Any advertiser, including Apple, is paying based on the number of eyeballs that see this space every day. Same goes for all media: billboards, newspapers, television, radio, etc.
Sounds about right! Since the owner is the quasi-public Events DC (the District of Columbia’s equivalent to the Convention and Visitors Bureau) it would be the one authorizing these rights on RFK Stadium, if Events DC can make that decision without District Council authorization. I don’t really think their Apple chauvinism (in both of these locations) is based on anything more than the almighty dollar. These highly visible sites in a city where billboards are rare command a lot of money…money that Apple is willing and able to pay.
And since the increasingly dumpy RFK Stadium hasn’t hosted much of any events in half a decade, it was probably desirable to find ways to make money even when DC United still played there. It costs a lot to keep a rattly old stadium safe and up to code.
As I research another forthcoming blog article, I’ve learned about a further example of this cozy relationship between DC government and Apple. One of DC’s most prominent Carnegie libraries (at K Street in Mount Vernon Square) began as the main library for the city residents–much more accessible than the federally oriented Library of Congress. It proved too small by the late 1960s and the city library relocated to another building. The Carnegie library was underutilized for many years, changing function multiple times. In the early 2000s it served as the City Museum of Washington, but nobody cared enough to visit it and it lasted just two years.
After languishing in much the same way as Indianapolis’s old State Museum (temporarily the City Library in the late 2000s), the owner Events DC established a relationship with Apple to turn the main level into the nation’s biggest and plushest Apple Store. To defray the controversy of leasing a historic public building to a private company, Apple hosts free classes at this location, and the upper level is still used as the DC History Center. https://dchistory.org/about/carnegielibrary/
In both cases–the billboard at RFK and the tenant at this old Carnegie library–the partnership is between Apple and Events DC. Interesting.
I had a much longer comment composed last week, but it didn’t post. But the gist of it was that governments love these quasi private, quasi public “authorities” because it gets them out from under a lot of regulations. They can accomplish a lot and simultaneously have the ability to act both like a private entity with respect to commercial arrangements yet like a public entity with respect to using public money (in the most extreme authority to tax). In general they seem to work well as long as you like what they are doing – one of the most notable is stadiums which are not everyones cup of tea – at least until they are abused, the most notable in history in my opinion being the Triboro Bridge Authority run by Robert Moses in NYC.
Alex, you’ve probably captured why there seems to be such a cushy relationship between Apple and a certain tiny DC-adjacent agency (“tiny” in terms of personnel and budget in proportion to the whole, but not so tiny in terms of influence and its real estate portfolio). Stadia are indeed controversial, but usually not sufficiently so, because the decision-makers can usually sell them to the public in terms of economic development and tax revenue generated, potentially dangling in front of them the prospect of a tax cut (not likely to deliver). This is probably a gross oversimplification, but it’s not entirely different from Tax Increment Financing districts–a different means to a very similar end.