Wizards, Capitals owner Ted Leonsis plans to move teams from D.C. to Virginia

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Ted Leonsis at the SportiConference Invest In Sports 2023 at The Times Center on October 11, 2023 in New York City (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Sportico via Getty Images)

Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis announced plans Wednesday to move his NBA and NHL franchises from downtown D.C. to northern Virginia, with a goal to be in a new arena by 2028.

Leonsis, the founder, chairman and CEO of Monumental Sports and Entertainment, said in a news release the company has reached the “framework of an agreement” on a new entertainment district in the Potomac Yard area of Alexandria, Va. The news release calls the agreement a “public-private partnership.”

Leonsis appeared at an event alongside Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin on Wednesday.

A committee of Virginia lawmakers approved the proposal to build a new sports and mixed-use campus Monday, but the full state legislature still must sign off on it in early 2024. The campus would include a new headquarters for Monumental, a Wizards practice facility, a performing arts venue and an expanded esports facility in addition to the new arena, according to the news release.

“We are committed to providing world-class fan experiences while continuously evolving our teams, deepening community ties, and solidifying our role as leaders at the forefront of sports and technology,” Leonsis said in a statement.

The Wizards and Capitals have played in Capital One Arena (originally called the MCI Center) in D.C.’s Chinatown since 1997, when former owner Abe Pollin moved the franchises from Capital Centre in Landover, Md., the city where the Washington Commanders currently play.

Monumental said it would plan to update Capital One Arena to be the future home of the Washington Mystics, the WNBA team the group also owns, in addition to hosting live entertainment and college sporting events. The Mystics currently play and practice at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Southeast Washington along with the G League’s Capital City Go-Go. The G League team would remain at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Monumental said.

“My belief is that at Capital One Arena, that we can host women’s sports,” Leonsis said. “We’ve invested $200 million in the last 10 years in keeping Capital One world-class as an arena and our intention is to expand (into Virginia) and keep Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C., a great place.”

Late Tuesday, D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. council chairman Phil Mendelson unveiled legislation that outlined a plan to provide $500 million in financing toward an $800 million project to renovate Capital One Arena “to create a state-of-the-art urban arena and solidify Monumental Sports and Entertainment as an economic anchor of the Gallery Place-Chinatown entertainment district and a destination for District residents and visitors.”

“Downtown D.C. is the District’s economic engine that provides revenue resources to support important programs in the city,” Bowser said in a statement. “Mr. Leonsis and Monumental Sports have been critical partners in keeping our downtown thriving, especially after the pandemic. The modernization of the Capital One Arena will be an invaluable investment for continued success and our future prosperity. This proposal represents our best and final offer and is the next step in partnering with Monumental Sports to breathe new life and vibrancy into the neighborhood and to keep the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals where they belong – in Washington, D.C.”

Contextualizing the potential move

We’re at the hardball stage of Leonsis’ hopes of improving what he has told The Washington Post is the “worst building deal in professional sports.”

Capital One Arena has been a linchpin of the revitalization of the downtown D.C. economic corridor since its opening in 1997. If Leonsis were to take his teams to Virginia, it would be a devastating economic blow to D.C., and the Penn Quarter district in which the building resides. The tentacles that extend from the arena to the nearby restaurants, bars and hotels that all depend on game night traffic for large chunks of their businesses during the fall and winter months are crucial.

Yet Leonsis has also reportedly previously said he’d stay in D.C. and at Capital One if the city provided him with $600 million toward a proposed $800 million renovation of the building. (Monumental would reportedly fund $200 million toward the project.) The city, through Bowser, has indicated that negotiations with Leonsis on the proposed renovation deal are ongoing. Leonsis has also spent millions of dollars to construct brand new studio spaces with state-of-the-art cameras and production facilities in the building next door to Capital One for his Monumental Sports and Entertainment company.

Virginia is, obviously, serious about getting pro sports teams in the state. Youngkin also spent time this past summer trying to woo the NFL’s Commanders into Virginia; the Commanders have made no secret they want a new stadium to replace the rapidly aging FedEx Field in Landover. And Leonsis is serious about using his substantial leverage as the owner of most of D.C.’s pro sports teams to get a favorable deal. If Virginia’s General Assembly ultimately approves public funding for the proposed arena, the District will have to move quickly to stop the project’s momentum. — David Aldridge, senior columnist

What this means for fans

How would moving the Capitals and Wizards to Alexandria impact fans who are based in the northern areas of Washington, D.C., and in the Maryland suburbs northeast and northwest of the city? How willing would those fans be to travel regularly to Alexandria?

These are fair questions to ask.

The Commanders have played in Landover since 1997, but in that situation, fans from Northern Virginia only have to make the trip for eight regular-season games a year — and, for the most part, do so on Sundays, when the region’s notoriously bad traffic is at a relative minimum.

Of course, the Caps and Wizards play 41 regular-season home games, and many of those home games are held on weekday evenings. Even with mass-transit options, to what degree would a move to Northern Virginia alienate the segments within the fan bases for whom making a trip to Alexandria would be a hassle?

The central location of Capital One Arena is perhaps the venue’s greatest strength — a boon for the Caps’ and Wizards’ fan bases. — Josh Robbins, Wizards senior writer

Required reading

  • With Michael Winger, Ted Leonsis finally says the status quo is no longer good enough
  • Aldridge: Making Wizards an NBA destination will begin with painful — but needed — first steps

(Photo: Bryan Bedder / Sportico via Getty Images)

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