Perspective | Ted Leonsis has embraced a Washington tradition: Shameless spin

Perspective | Ted Leonsis has embraced a Washington tradition: Shameless spin

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

The propaganda begins with a piano playing in the background, as propaganda typically does. Then the opening shot: Ted Leonsis, in an office flooded by natural light that overlooks the downtown D.C. neighborhood that he’s eager to leave high and dry. Then comes the spin, a shameless act of desperation from a sports media empire more bent on winning news conferences than championships.

Lately, you may have clicked on Monumental Sports Network, preparing to watch the tip-off of a Washington Wizards game. Your mind turned off, in an emotional state registering somewhere between comatose and could not care less, which is the only way to take in Wizards basketball these days. But just when you’ve settled into blissful indifference, here comes Leonsis, lording over the streets that lead to the National Portrait Gallery in one of the many “Monumental Opportunity” commercials.

“I love Washington D.C.,” Leonsis says, popping onto the screen without warning. And for the next minute of airtime, he does an amazing job of convincing viewers that the only thing he loves more than the District is one of its most cherished commodities: playing political games.

These ads air on the Leonsis-owned network. Agents of Monumental Sports & Entertainment looking off camera, as though they’re being interviewed and not simply regurgitating cherry-picked talking points, while trying to persuade jilted fans in D.C. and prospective neighbors in the Commonwealth of Virginia that the arena they’re trying to build in Potomac Yard is a good, great, wonderful thing for everyone involved.

So marvelous, in fact, that the project appears to feature all benefits and no costs. The millions of spectators that Capital One Arena annually draws will now serve as the catalyst for economic growth in Alexandria, and yet they say this torrent of new visitors will not negatively impact traffic for current residents and businesses. Monumental will pay for this new best-in-class arena with help from the Commonwealth, but they assert there will be no new taxes levied against Virginians.

They claim it’s a “Win-Win-Win!” (That’s three more wins than the Wizards recorded in February.) And even D.C. gets in on this amazing deal, because if Monumental has its way, the ghost town formerly known as Capital One Arena would be able to welcome Disney on Ice and host more women’s sports. Insert exclamation points here.

And isn’t that the dream for every major metropolitan city? The monumental opportunity to watch Mickey, Minnie and Goofy come in for four whole nights, and to cheer on the only pro team left behind for 20 home games played through the late spring and summer. For such benevolence that will surely resurrect a declining neighborhood, D.C. should strip down those “Abe Pollin Way” signs and rename the stretch between Sixth and Seventh Streets “Leonsis Lane.”

But, please, pardon us for not erecting a memorial in his honor. The same man responsible for anointing John Wall, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche as “a new big three,” declaring that the Caps would win multiple “Stanley Cups” and trying to make us believe that Bradley Beal was worth a quarter of a billion dollars and a no-trade clause, is now selling the dream of an utopian future. One infomercial at a time.

His foray into TV evangelism feels like a political ad more than anything else. All that’s missing is Leonsis, with his sleeves rolled up, laughing on a park bench, holding someone’s baby and surrounded by a racially diverse group of paid actors. It’s Monumental’s version of state-controlled media, in which one wealthy man owns way too many professional sports teams in the community, as well as the network that airs their games. So in the face of backlash, he can always buy better facts.

“We have the opportunity to build an iconic destination that redefines what an arena is all about,” Leonsis says in the opening of one of those commercials.

Ever since Leonsis announced his intent to move the Capitals and the Wizards, he and his company have faced an onslaught of anger. Not willing to back down against the negative coverage, nor the NIMBYs of Alexandria, Monumental has punched back with its own narrative.

The $4 billion company has every right to state its case and attempt to save the deal, especially if it feels that D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser is largely getting a pass for what Monumental officials believe is her irresponsibility in not taking action. By bombarding our screens in an attempt to convert skeptics into believers, however, they only hurt their credibility.

“We would not be moving if we didn’t think we had the capability to build the very best venue in all of sports, across the globe,” as Zach Leonsis, Son of Ted and president of Monumental’s media and new enterprises division, says in the one of the ads.

But if the project could stand on its own merits — as an economic catalyst without saddling the people with new taxes — then why the monumental amount of spin?

Probably because the project needs it.

In one commercial, Zach Leonsis crows about Capital One Arena drawing “3 million” fans to downtown D.C. a year. However, the DowntownDC Business Improvement District’s detailed “State of Downtown” 2022 report says that Capital One Arena only drew 1.86 million in attendance that year. Moreover, according to the report, Capital One Arena has never drawn 3 million visitors to downtown during Ted Leonsis’s tenure as owner of both the Wizards and Capitals. In another video, Monica Dixon, Monumental’s chief administrative officer brags that Virginians will pay no new taxes, with no mention of the tax on ticket sales or the millions the Commonwealth will kick in for transportation, parking and a concert hall, to say nothing of the risks if revenue doesn’t meet projections.

Fudging the numbers might be one thing. Force-feeding the public on the notion that moving the NHL and NBA teams to Virginia is a win for women, however, is offensive.

On Monday night, when the Wizards faced the Utah Jazz, Monumental Sports Network aired two of its pro-arena commercials before tip. In the second spot, which starts with Leonsis sharing his love for D.C., Dixon boasts about Disney on Ice returning to downtown D.C. and Michael Winger, president of Monumental Basketball, appears and says with a straight face: “I think it will be great for the community. It’ll be great for our team and I think it will be really special for women’s sports.”

This is spin, and it isn’t even good spin. Last year, the Mystics averaged 4,390 fans. Let’s say that in five years the franchise can double that figure. Even so, a crowd that size would still make the downtown arena look cavernous. And Mystics fans would have to brave the Chinatown neighborhood that’s already beset by business closings, even with the Caps and Wizards still in town. Without the NBA and NHL tenants, there’s a real fear that more retail and restaurants will move away too. But if you drink enough of the Kool-Aid, you might believe that dropping the Mystics into yet another unsettled neighborhood that hosts a touring ice show a couple times a year is a good, great, wonderful thing.

As Monumental tries, and fails, to look like a champion for women and a catalyst for change, the company reveals itself to be tangled in manipulation. With the “Monumental Opportunity” ad campaign, Leonsis thinks he can reshape public opinion by smiling toward a fake interviewer in a sun-drenched room. But he’s proving that even the soothing sounds of a piano can’t make fiction sound sincere.

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