- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2009

There is the seemingly ubiquitous Chicago White Sox cap. The pickup basketball games. The dalliances with billiards, bowling and golf. } President Barack Obama, perhaps like no other chief executive in history, loves his sports. And his arrival in the District has many in the sports industry atwitter about the possibility of raising the city’s athletic profile.

“D.C. has a buzz, and it’s been there, but with Obama it’s taking this huge jump to a new level,” said Rebecca Schulte, general manager of Comcast SportsNet, the flagship cable station of several of the area’s sports teams. “We’ve already had a lot of people from other networks ask for tickets for games, both from their clients and their talent. If Barack Obama is everything everyone thinks he is, this is something that will last. I don’t think it’s a quick thing.”

As a White Sox devotee, Obama often has been spotted wearing the team’s cap and has even thrown an insult or two at rival Cubs fans. He has spoken openly of his love for basketball and has been known to shoot around with aide Reggie Love, a member of the 2001 national championship team at Duke.

He also has weighed in on a number of sports-related topics: Obama made headlines in November, for example, when he called for a college football playoff to replace the much-maligned Bowl Championship Series.

What’s more, the new president, with his tall, thin frame, simply looks like a man who is as comfortable driving the lane as he is negotiating with world leaders.

“He’s probably the most athletic-looking president we will ever have,” said Sandy Montag, corporate vice president of IMG Sports and Entertainment. “So right away, there’s an [excitement] about that. He has an energy about him whether you voted for him or not. And then you have the whole basketball aspect - apparently, he has pretty good game. The first pickup game at the White House could be the toughest ticket D.C. has ever had.”

First lady Michelle Obama, meanwhile, is said to be an avid runner, rising early to put in five miles before the president is even out of bed. The couple’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, play soccer.

Sports officials in the District were heartened recently to learn the Obamas want to integrate themselves with the D.C. community - a marked contrast with President George W. Bush, who was known for his frequent escapes to his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

It was a point of emphasis during a recent meeting between members of Obama’s transition team and officials from the Greater Washington Sports Alliance (GWSA), which is charged with attracting and promoting sports in the region.

“We’re going from a guy who was here as little as possible and didn’t want to be a part of this city and who kind of cringed at the thought of Washington, D.C., to a guy who’s embracing it and wants to make it his home,” GWSA president Bob Sweeney said. “And he’s a sports nut, so I expect it’s going to be crazy for the people at Verizon Center and Nationals Park or even stuff like when just he wants to go to a Bayhawks [lacrosse] game.”

Sweeney, meanwhile, said Obama’s presence could be helpful as the GWSA bids for several large sporting events, including the Army-Navy game, the 2014 Gay Games and the 2015 Police and Fire Games, all of which have been known to attract thousands of athletes and spectators.

Obama’s support of the 2016 Olympic Games in Chicago also could pay off for the District: The area could serve as a site for the Games’ soccer competition like it did for the Atlanta Games in 1996.

“We will use Obama as a hook,” Sweeney said. “We’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s even a chance that the president, who’s very active, could be coming out to your event.’”

There also is the celebrity factor. Perhaps no other president in recent years has garnered as much attention from celebrities. The “We Are One” concert Sunday featured performances from Bruce Springsteen, Usher and Garth Brooks, among others. Several prominent sports figures came to the District for the inauguration, most notably top-ranked golfer Tiger Woods, who rarely weighs in on politics but made a brief speech Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial.

Time will tell whether D.C.-area sporting events will become like those in New York and Hollywood, where celebrity sightings are common. But there is at least some belief that Obama indirectly could put more fans in the seats.

“It’s a younger, hipper group,” said Tom George, senior vice president with Octagon, a global sports agency with offices in McLean. “Sports is likely to be more relevant to them.”

Obama has not yet indicated whether he would be a frequent spectator at games in the D.C. area. President George W. Bush attended five Washington Nationals games, twice throwing out the first pitch. His predecessor, Bill Clinton, attended a handful of NBA and NHL games at Verizon Center during the final two years of his second term.

Some officials quietly cringed at the security implications of Obama attending public sporting events but said he would be welcome.

“It would be our honor to host you and your family at a game, and we promise that 19,000 fans at the game will all be pulling for your success in office,” Capitals owner Ted Leonsis wrote in an open letter to Obama on his blog last week.

The D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, which operates RFK Stadium and the D.C. Armory and promotes other events throughout the city, has plans to take advantage of the Obama-fueled buzz. Commission CEO Erik Moses said an appearance by Obama at the fledgling EagleBank Bowl, for instance, would raise the event’s profile.

“I’ve been saying for a while now that this new administration and the energy it’s bringing to the nation’s capital is going to be the tide that raises all boats for D.C.,” Moses said. “I’ve certainly been reaching out to talent agencies and others that represent celebrities about things they can do in D.C. We will continue to promote this city as a destination for all things sports, entertainment and special events. Hopefully people will see that D.C. has enthusiastic fans and patrons and that it’s a cool place to be.”

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