July 19, 2024


The Intersection of Information and Insight

‘For the District?’ Yeah, right; Ted Leonsis will take Wizards, Capitals angst across the river

8 min read

WASHINGTON — The Prince of Potomac Yard spoke of water.

“When I first came to this site,” Ted Leonsis said Wednesday, “and stood on top of the roof of the building next door, and looked over, we forget the power of having two rivers flow right into this community. And, iconic real estate is incredibly important. We have access — you can see the Washington Monument from here, Washington, D.C., the border’s one-and-a-half miles from here.”

That must be cool! So nice that the billionaire owner of the Wizards and Capitals will have a swank view of the Potomac and Anacostia confluence from his soon-to-be floor-wide offices in Alexandria, where he will center his entertainment and sports empire. It would be unfair to say he literally will be looking down upon the people who are financing his JerryWorld, his BallmerVille, in Crystal City, or National Landing, or whatever name they prefer for their community across the river. But it will be a swell view.

It is, nonetheless, a view for one, for an audience of one. Which, in the end, is how anyone who cares about and loves the District of Columbia should view this seemingly imminent departure of the Wizards and Capitals for Virginia.

Some of us are old enough to remember the “done deal” between Jack Kent Cooke and Virginia state representatives from a generation ago on that very same property for a new football stadium that came apart like cotton candy. So, maybe, the Virginia General Assembly will raise objections to this new project that will be too great to overcome. Maybe NIMBYs in Alexandria will make their voices loud and annoying enough to force reconsideration.

But, I doubt it.

“Hold me accountable,” Leonsis said Wednesday. OK.

This is about one man’s grandiosity, and readiness to leave when the city that has provided him so much over the last decades needed someone with his voice and influence to say, post-COVID, and post-Jan. 6, and which is grappling with crime outbursts throughout the city that have so many ill at ease, “You know what? Some things may be bad here right now. But I’m blessed enough to be financially secure enough to ride it out with you. I want to be part of the solution. So, I’ll be slightly less rich. I’m staying.”

Don’t tell me rich men don’t do this. That’s precisely what Abe Pollin did, when he built what is now called Capital One Arena downtown, transforming the city, in 1997 — mostly with his own money.

By contrast, Leonsis went for the bucks. Which, as I’ve said and written dozens of times over the years, owners of pro sports teams are perfectly within their rights to do. They can play wherever they want their teams to play. They can make whatever deals line their pockets, and allow them to create the kind of multi-use “entertainment districts” that will bring the well-heeled and well-connected to their new playgrounds. No one doubts that Virginia will build Leonsis a state-ahead-of-the-art arena to be envied and admired.

But, it will be hard to take at face value any future talk from Leonsis about his love of the District.

Because he knows how the Wizards, no matter their current lot, mean to generations of basketball fans in D.C. I am well aware that the Wizards were once the Bullets, who once played in Baltimore — and, before that, Chicago. I am well aware of the history of franchise roulette, in many cities, with many teams. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, deeply, when your team leaves town. When the Senators left, first, for Minnesota — and then, when the team that replaced them left for Texas, it hurt this city, badly. Some of us then followed the Orioles, because they were the closest team. We did not love them.

And when the then-Redskins left for Landover, Md. even though it was just a few miles from the D.C. line, it felt awful. It still does.

Add this to the ledger.

Because Leonsis knows, more than anyone, that the crowds who come to Wizards games, and have come to them for the last 25 years, are among the most diverse in the NBA – racially, economically, socially. Maybe Atlanta has similar types of crowds for Hawks games. Most of the league’s buildings, these days, are again full, post-COVID. But, in the main, their fan bases are very White and very rich. That hasn’t been the case here since I started covering the team, then playing at Capital Centre in Landover, in the late ’80s. Wizards crowds look like the District — at least how it used to look. They will not do so when the team moves across the river.

(I’m not mentioning the Capitals’ crowds because the Caps regularly sold out Capital One. Caps fans have represented for nearly two decades. I can’t then imagine they won’t continue to do so in Virginia.)

Every owner swears that his or her fanbase will follow the team “just down the road” to the new place. The Warriors swore that light rail and express transportation would mean most of their middle-class fans would come from Oakland, across San Francisco Bay, and follow the team to the new Chase Center in downtown San Francisco.

They did not.

To be sure, Chase is full — but not with the people who filled what is now called Oakland Arena for three decades. You have to pay for a $2 billion arena; you don’t do so with $15 tickets. You do it with six-figure suites and five-figure courtside seats. As John Salley, who won four championships back in the day playing for the Pistons, Bulls and Lakers, noted when the Pistons moved from downtown Detroit 31 miles north to the Palace of Auburn Hills in the late ’80s: “We used to play in front of the auto workers. Now we play in front of the executives.”

It will be impossible to forget what now feels like appropriation of the city’s culture, by nicknaming Washington’s G-League team the Capital City Go-Go, and centering D.C. at every opportunity – plastering “For the District” and “The District of Columbia” on your Twitter feeds and the jerseys of Wizards players, or hawking this year’s alternate jerseys with breathless history about the city’s Boundary Stones, or slapping “D.C.” on caps and garments — only to walk away from all of that, for the sweetheart deal across the river, your Braves New World.

And if there is any truth to the reporting that Leonsis was irritated by teenage kids performing … Go-Go music, outside of Capital One? Well, it’s hard to know how to process that. Buskers? That’s an issue?? Good Lord.

(After this was initially published, I was informed that Leonsis’ issue is not with the street musicians who perform in front of Capital One on event nights, but there’s a concern about one person in particular who has been aggressive with passersby, both in front of the arena and other businesses nearby.)

If you’re not from here, you may not understand why a Wizards/Capitals move to Virginia is especially difficult for D.C. residents to accept. It’s just four miles away from Capital One, Leonsis said Wednesday.

It feels like the Grand Canyon, psychically.

First, traffic. The dance of putting a 20,000-seat arena, practice facility, and new restaurants/entertainment venues into an area surrounded by Reagan National Airport, Amazon II and a large, busy mall, with many incoming and surrounding roads that are currently one- or two-laners, is daunting. Sources involved with the discussions said Wednesday that significant improvements to the roads surrounding the proposed site, along with increased light- and heavy-rail services, are part of the deal. It will be, nonetheless, a much longer commute for many — if they opt to come.

Will fans who’ve taken a 30-45-minute Metro ride from the Maryland suburbs to Gallery Place downtown be willing to add another 20-30 minutes of riding time round trip to get to and from Alexandria? For 7 p.m. starts for Wizards or Caps games?

Second … well, put it like this. The way that many Virginia residents feel about coming into the District for a night out, when they have One Loudoun or Reston Town Center available, closer-in? District residents feel the same way about going out to Alexandria for a night out, when we have Penn Quarter or Columbia Heights or NoMa to patronize. You don’t feel safe coming up here? Many of us don’t feel safe going out there. You have your reasons. We have ours.

It just feels like, again, the District’s been kicked in the stomach – blamed, because COVID cut the number of offices operating downtown down like a scythe, leaving restaurants and bars with fewer patrons for lunch or dinner. Make no mistake, though: Mayor Muriel Bowser takes a Big L here. Her job was to prevent something like this from happening, because you can’t replace the Caps and Wizards, and the energy they’ve brought to downtown. I know it was difficult to find the kind of money needed to keep Leonsis from wanderlust. That, however, is the job. They cannot leave on your watch. They are leaving on hers.

I don’t doubt that the decision was difficult, maybe even painful, for Leonsis. It would have been thus helpful to him to express what he was feeling Wednesday to reporters who asked to speak with him after the press conference, rather than rebuff them. And he and his team have ideas for how to transform Capital One, now freed from having to cross off dozens of potential days on the calendar every year for Wizards and Capitals games, to keep the building busy more often than not. Ice shows. Concerts. Activities in tandem with the D.C. Convention Center, and/or Events D.C. The return of the Mystics to Capital One, after playing at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast. (Speaking of which: what exactly does Leonsis plan to do, now, with ESA, about which he spoke so grandly, just a few years ago?)

But, nothing replaces a sports team in a city’s soul. Nothing.

You know one of the big reasons I came to The Athletic in 2018? I was in San Francisco in the spring of that year, watching the Capitals play the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals, in my hotel room, while covering the Warriors and Rockets. If you’re from D.C., you knew, whether you Rocked the Red on the regular or not, how big a pain in the butt the Penguins were to the Caps for a decade, how desperately Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström wanted, needed, to beat Sidney Crosby and the Pens. It was Town Business.

So when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on that breakaway overtime goal to seal the series over the Penguins, and the broadcast cut to the cheering crowds outside of Capital One, in Penn Quarter, deliriously happy, and young, and diverse, having finally slain the beast, it did something to me. I said to myself, in that hotel room, “look at how happy the city is. That is awesome. I’d like to be a part of chronicling that.”

And I was, as I witnessed first-hand the Nationals winning the World Series, and the Mystics winning the WNBA title behind “Playoff Emma,” within weeks of one another in 2019. And the joy that those franchises brought to my hometown was immeasurable, and forever.

I love this city, my city. And my city was wounded, grievously so, Wednesday morning, when men and women on the other side of the river toasted their good fortune, their deal well done, and didn’t seem to give a damn about the pain left behind.

(Photo of Ted Leonsis and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin: Win McNamee / Getty Images)

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