Perspective | Monumental’s arena plan guarantees hurt feelings and messy disputes

Perspective | Monumental’s arena plan guarantees hurt feelings and messy disputes

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 2

Who, exactly, looks good in the squabble over where Washington’s NBA and NHL teams will play in the future?

Not D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), who is lobbing grenades and threatening litigation not in a conversation with Monumental Sports and Entertainment owner Ted Leonsis but in an op-ed in The Washington Post and subsequent comments to reporters. Bowser is desperately playing catch-up after her administration failed to anticipate Leonsis’s wandering eye — and her antagonistic approach to the teams that should be pillars of downtown in the District feels as though she’s pushing them out rather than reeling them back in.

Not Leonsis, whose publicly stated vision for a new entertainment district in Northern Virginia fits his idea, as he stated again last month in an open letter to fans, that “The DMV is a supercity,” regardless of whether any of his paying customers share that notion. He’s also boasting about winning championships in both sports — when his teams are far from contention in either. It’s a perilous position.

Not Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) nor state senator L. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth), whose shots at each other’s positions — Youngkin broadly at the Democratic Party, Lucas specifically at the governor and what she sees as his unwillingness to collaborate — fit the tenor of the times but register as wholly unproductive.

This is messy and acrimonious at a time when the Wizards and Capitals could use some positive vibes rather than be caught in a political firefight. The hockey team is scratching and clawing to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year. The basketball team has the NBA’s second-worst record and will miss the playoffs for the ninth time in Leonsis’s 14-season tenure. There’s sparring over where the teams will make their future home. The spinning on both sides is both self-serving and damning.

“We’re going to win more Stanley Cups and we’re going to win an NBA championship,” Leonsis said last week in an interview with NBC4. “That’s how my legacy will be made.”

Pretty bold, given — on the basketball side at least — the past doesn’t exactly seem to be prologue. In Leonsis’s tenure, the Wizards rank 25th of 30 NBA teams in winning percentage and have never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. The Capitals won that 2018 Stanley Cup — a crowning achievement and an immovable memory — but haven’t won a playoff series since, and any “more Stanley Cups” would almost certainly come after Alex Ovechkin has retired and a new core has grown.

So, want to renew those season tickets?

Where are the winners in this ordeal at the moment? Look, I’m on the record as preferring — vastly preferring — that the teams stay at Capital One Arena. As Leonsis wrote in his letter last month, “The [former] MCI Center transformed Chinatown into the economic heartbeat of downtown. … Professional sports teams are important to the fabric of a community. The buildings they play in bring people together, they drive economic growth, and they are worthy of investment.”

Sure. Left unsaid: Moving the teams from downtown Washington will cause harm — lasting harm — to a neighborhood whose health is vital to the city’s international image. It’s an area — four blocks off the National Mall, across the street from the National Portrait Gallery — that tourists should want to visit, not avoid. Nineteen thousand people dining and drinking in their Caps sweaters or Wiz jerseys has a welcoming effect. Desolation doesn’t.

“I don’t believe I’m abandoning D.C.,” Leonsis said in that NBC4 interview.

Come on, Ted. Promote your new project all you want. Just be honest about it.

Leonsis can fall back on the idea that his move to Alexandria fits his long-stated view for the region, that the corridor from Baltimore to Washington should think of itself as one seamless economic conglomerate that has everything businesses and business people could desire, in which borders don’t much matter. The problem: No one else is talking like that.

Maybe failing to embrace regional synergy — a view in which Bethesda is the same as Alexandria is the same as Kalorama, borders be damned — makes most of us stuck-in-the-mud anachronists who don’t know how to see the future. But it feels as though Leonsis is trying to speak his concept into existence. And doing so ignores the feelings of his constituents, who find meaning and identity in the lines that separate Maryland from the District and the District from Virginia. Closed-minded? Fine. Grounded in reality? Absolutely.

Just look how the various jurisdictions are digging in against each other. Bowser sounds prepared for a fight. That there is animus between Monumental and the mayor’s office was mostly just suspected until this weekend. Now it’s out in the open.

In writing about the District’s pledge to provide $500 million of the projected $800 million needed for upgrades at Capital One Arena — a pledge that came after renderings of the Alexandria project had been drawn up and Leonsis had mentally moved his plans across the Potomac River — Bowser said, “Our deal would mean Monumental can avoid any broken promises, breached leases or potential litigation to distract from building the most valuable regional sports company.”

That’s quite a swipe. Monumental was only too happy to swing back, posting on social media an amendment to the lease that the company’s lawyers and executives believe would allow them to move after 2027.

Occasional political and economic bickering can be reason to pick up some popcorn and plop down on the couch; there’s such a voyeuristic quality about it. This feels depressing. That includes the bomb from Lucas, the Virginia state senator who chairs the Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee. On social media, she called the arena project — which she derisively termed the “Glenn Dome” — “not ready for prime time,” and when asked by reporters if she considered the proposal dead, she said, “As far as I’m concerned it is.” She appeared to arrive at that conclusion at least in part because Youngkin, over the weekend, said in a public appearance that “Democrats today do not believe in — nor do they want — a strong America, an America with no rivals.”

Virginia’s assessment of whether to proceed with the arena should be based on whether its financing is sound, whether its impact on Virginia taxpayers will be nonexistent, whether it would boost an area that needs boosting. Debate those points all you want. Don’t threaten to kill a deal because the governor lobbed a not-very-original insult at your party.

Oh, and Governor: Before lobbing those insults — meant for a national audience — it might be wise to think of your own constituents, whom you’ll have to win over, and your own legislature, with whom you’ll have to work if your project is to go through.

The announcement of Monumental’s plan is barely two months old. It feels as though months of bitterness and belligerence are ahead. The story has just started. Sports are supposed to be fun. This fight is anything but.

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