WASHINGTON – The Prince of Potomac Yard talked about water.
“When I first came to this site,” Ted Leonsis said Wednesday, “and stood on the roof of the building next door and looked over, we forget the power of having two rivers flowing directly into this community. And iconic real estate is incredibly important. “We have access — you can see the Washington Monument from here, Washington, D.C., a mile and a half from the border from here.”
It must be fantastic! So good that the billionaire owner of the Wizards and Capitals will have a spectacular view of the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia from his future offices in Alexandria, where he will center his entertainment and sports empire. It would be unfair to say so literally he will look down on the people who are funding 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 beautiful sight.
It is, however, a vision for one, for an audience of one. Which, ultimately, is how anyone who cares 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 “deal done” between Jack Kent Cooke and Virginia state representatives a generation ago over that same property for a new football stadium that fell apart like cotton candy. So perhaps the Virginia General Assembly will raise objections to this new project that will be too big to pass. Maybe the NIMBYs in Alexandria will make their voices loud and annoying enough to force a reconsideration.
But I doubt it.
“Hold me accountable,” Leonsis said Wednesday. ALL RIGHT.
It’s about the grandeur of a man and the willingness to walk away when the city that has provided him so much over the past few decades needed someone with his voice and influence to say, post-COVID and post-January. 6, and who is dealing with citywide crime outbreaks that make many uncomfortable: “You know what? Some things could go wrong here right now. But I’m lucky enough to be financially secure enough to walk through the situation with you. I want to be part of the solution. So I will be slightly less wealthy. I remain.”
Don’t tell me rich men don’t do this. That’s exactly 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.
On the contrary, Leonsis went for money. Which, as I’ve said and written dozens of times over the years, professional sports team owners are perfectly within their rights to do. They can play wherever they want their team to play. They can strike any deal that lines their pockets and allows them to create the kind of multi-use “entertainment districts” that will bring the wealthy and comfortable to their new playgrounds. No one doubts that Virginia will build a state-of-the-art arena in Leonsis to be envied and admired.
But it will be hard to take any future talk from Leonsis about his love for the District at face value.
Because he knows how much the Wizards, regardless of their current fate, mean to generations of basketball fans in Washington, I am well aware that the Wizards were once the Bullets, who once played in Baltimore — and, before that, in Chicago. I am well aware of the history of roulette franchising, in many cities, with many teams. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt, deeply, when your the team leaves town. When the Senators left, first, for Minnesota – and then, when the team that replaced them left for Texas, the city was severely damaged. Some of us then followed the Orioles, because they were the closest team. We didn’t love them.
And when the then-Redskins left for Landover, Maryland, even though it was just a few miles from the D.C. line, it was awful. He still does it.
Add it to the registry.
Because Leonsis knows, more than anyone, that the audiences who attend Wizards games, and have attended for the last 25 years, are among the most diverse in the NBA: racially, economically and socially. Maybe Atlanta has similar types of crowds for Hawks games. Most of the League’s arenas are full again these days, post-COVID. But, overall, their fan base is very white and very wealthy. That hasn’t been the case since I started following the team, then playing at the Capital Center in Landover, in the late 1980s. The crowds of wizards resemble the District, at least how it looked. They won’t when the team crosses the river.
(I’m not mentioning the Capitals crowd because the Caps have regularly sold out Capital One. Caps fans have represented for nearly two decades. So I can’t imagine they won’t continue to do so in Virginia.)
Each owner vows that his fans will follow the team “right down the road” to the new home. The Warriors vowed that light rail and express transit would mean that most of their middle-class fans would come from Oakland, across the San Francisco Bay, and follow the team to the new Chase Center in downtown San Francisco.
To be sure, Chase is full, but not with the people who have filled what is now called the Oakland Arena for three decades. You have to pay for a $2 billion arena; you don’t do it with $15 tickets. You do it with six-figure suites and five-figure courtside seats. As John Salley, who at the time won four championships 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 1980s: “ We played in front of the auto workers. “Now we play in front of the managers.”
It will be impossible to forget what now feels like an appropriation of the city’s culture, dubbing Washington’s G-League team the Capital City Go-Go and hitting D.C. at every opportunity, plastering “For the District” and “The District of Columbia” on your Twitter feeds and Wizards player jerseys, or selling alternate jerseys from this year with a breathtaking story about the city’s Borderstones, or slapping “DC” on caps and apparel – just to get away from it all, for l ‘loving deal across the river, yours Face the New World.
And if there’s any truth to the report that Leonsis was annoyed by kids playing… Go-Go music, outside of Capital One? Well, it’s hard to know how to process it. Buskers? That is a problem?? Good God.
(After the initial publication of this article, I was informed that Leonsis’ issue does not concern the street musicians who perform in front of Capital One on event nights, but there is concern about one person in particular who has been aggressive with passers-by, both in front of the arena and other nearby businesses.)
If you’re not from here, you might not understand why a Wizards/Capitals move to Virginia is particularly difficult for Washington residents to accept. It’s just four miles from Capital One, Leonsis said Wednesday.
It feels like the Grand Canyon, psychically.
First, the traffic. The dance of putting a 20,000-seat arena, practice facility and new restaurant/entertainment venues in an area surrounded by Reagan National Airport, Amazon II and a large, busy shopping mall, with many streets in entrance and surrounding which currently have one or two -laners, is daunting. Sources involved in Wednesday’s discussions said significant improvements to roads surrounding the proposed site, along with increased light and heavy rail services, are part of the deal. For many, however, the journey will be much longer if they choose to come.
Will fans who took a 30-45 minute subway ride from suburban Maryland to downtown Gallery Place be willing to add another 20-30 minute round trip ride to and from Alexandria? Do the Wizards or Caps games start at 7pm?
Second…well, let’s put it that way. The way many Virginia residents feel when they come to the District for a night out, when they have One Loudoun or Reston Town Center, closer? District residents feel the same way when they go to Alexandria for a night out, when we have Penn Quarter or Columbia Heights or NoMa to patronize. 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 seems that, once again, the District has been kicked in the gut – blamed, because COVID has slashed the number of offices operating downtown like a scythe, leaving restaurants and bars with fewer patrons at lunch or dinner. Make no mistake, though: Mayor Muriel Bowser gets a big L. of hers here. Her job was to stop something like that from happening, because there’s no replacing the Caps and Wizards and the energy they brought downtown. I know it was difficult to find the money needed to keep Leonsis from wanderlust. This, however, is the job. They cannot leave on your watch. They are leaving for her.
I have no doubt that the decision was difficult, perhaps even painful, for Leonsis. It would have been very useful for him to express what he felt on Wednesday to the journalists who asked to speak with him after the press conference, instead of turning them away. And he and his team have ideas for how to transform Capital One, now free from the need to clear dozens of potential days on the calendar each year for Wizards and Capitals games, to keep the building occupied more often than not. Shows on ice. Concerts. Activities in tandem with the DC Convention Center and/or DC Events The Mystics return to Capital One, after playing at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in the Southeast. (By the way: what exactly does Leonsis intend to do now with the ESA, which he spoke so grandly about just a few years ago?)
But nothing can replace a sports team in the soul of a city. Nothing.
You know one of the main reasons why I came Atletico in 2018? I was in San Francisco in the spring of that year, watching the Capitals face the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals, in my hotel room, while covering the Warriors and Rockets. If you’re from DC, you knew, whether you watched Rocked the Red regularly or not, what a big pain in the ass the Penguins were for the Caps for a decade, how desperately Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Bäckström wanted, needed to beat Sidney Crosby and the Pen. It was city business.
So when Evgeny Kuznetsov scored on that breakaway goal in overtime to seal the series over the Penguins, and the broadcast was interrupted by the cheering crowd outside Capital One, in Penn Quarter, deliriously happy, young and diverse, having finally killed the beast, he did something to me. I said to myself, in that hotel room: “Look how happy the city is. Is fantastic. “I would love to be part of chronicling all of this.”
And I was, seeing firsthand the Nationals’ World Series victory and the Mystics’ WNBA title behind “Playoff Emma” within weeks of each other in 2019. And the joy that those franchises they brought to my hometown was immeasurable. , and forever.
I love this city, my city. And my city was hurt, badly, Wednesday morning, when men and women across the river toasted their good fortune, their deal well done, and didn’t seem to give a damn about the pain left behind.
(Photo by Ted Leonsis and Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin: Win McNamee/Getty Images)