We are just a few days away from the 20th anniversary of the worst year of professional sports in the District of Columbia.
There may be some argument as to whether 1997 was the worst year of pro sports within the boundaries of the city. But I don’t see how. There were no professional sports in the District in 1997.
There was no major league baseball here then, of course, and the Redskins had left RFK Stadium the year before for their first season at what was then called Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in the Maryland suburbs. Already in Prince George’s County were the Capitals and the Bullets, two franchises playing their final seasons at USAirways Arena, still a year away from moving to the then-MCI Center (the arena opened at the end of the year, Dec. 2, 1997).
I was reminded of 1997 by D.C. City Council Member Jack Evans, one of the Washington leaders who helped turn the city back into a legitimate sports town.
“In 1997, Washington, D.C., became the only major city in America that had no sports franchises within its boundaries,” Evans told me in my conversation with him in the latest episode of my podcast “Cigars & Curveballs, available here on The Washington Times website and for download on iTunes and Google Play. “There was nothing here.”
In the 20 years since, Evans’ commitment and belief in the power of sports in the community helped transform the city, from the Verizon Center downtown to Nationals Park in Southeast.
“Today, we are among the three or four cities in America that have every professional franchise in the city except for the professional football team, the Redskins, which I am working on getting them back,” Evans said. “So we have really made enormous progress on the professional sports front that has coincided with the revival of the city.”
He addressed that effort to bring the Redskins, who are looking to move to a new home, back into the city, along with future plans for the Verizon Center and how close the Montreal Expos came to calling Northern Virginia their home in our “Cigars & Curveballs” conversation.
Competing with the suburbs
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been very vocal about his commitment to building a new home for the Redskins, whose training camp is a government-subsidized complex in Richmond and whose headquarters are located in Ashburn in Loudoun County — often cited as a potential location for a new stadium.
The Redskins’ lease at FedEx Field (the team owns the stadium, but they had to sign a 30-year lease for government funding for the infrastructure) is entering its final 10 years, and Prince George’s County officials and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan have made it clear they will fight to keep the team in the state — perhaps down near National Harbor and the newly-opened MGM Grand casino. And District officials are hoping to sell the team on returning to their RFK site, where a new stadium would be built.
Evans said he is “very optimistic” the city can bring the Redskins back.
“First there is the tradition,” Evans said. “The Washington Redskins played at RFK, won at RFK, the fond memories in the region for that team in that stadium during that time still exist, and unlike baseball, when I was trying to sell baseball and getting some hos and hums and yawns when I bring up the Redskins in meetings people are very excited about it.
“They want that football team back in the city and they want it at a place where it is accessible. I use that word. The problem is with the current site at FedEx Field is that you can’t get there, and when you get there, it takes a whole day and you can’t get out of there. We all know that Jack Kent Cooke built the stadium on the cheap, Dan Snyder has tried to make it better. But how good can you make a bad stadium?
“In the NFL Eastern division, the Giants are playing in a brand new stadium, the Cowboys are playing in a brand new stadium, the Eagles are playing in a brand new stadium, and we’re playing in kind of an Erector Set. So they want to get out of that thing.”
Evans proceeded to critique the city’s competition for the Redskins stadium
“Virginia, you look at, they are where the headquarters is in Ashburn,” he said. “That’s a hike. That is way outside the city. There is no Metro there and as you know I am chairman of the board of Metro and it’s going to take a while for the Silver Line to get out there. Even when it gets out there it’s not going to really be accessible for that area. The road system just doesn’t exist. So the same problems you have at the FedEx site you will have in Ashburn.
“Remember something called Disney’s America? Tell me how that worked out. Virginians are pretty good at stopping things. They stopped Jack Kent Cooke at Potomac Yards and they stopped Disney’s America. I would think twice before I would go to Virginia and try a big project like this.
“If you’re going to do that (move to Virginia) move to Richmond, call yourself the Richmond Redskins and we’ll go after another team.
“In Maryland, the latest I heard they are considering building it south of National Harbor. There is no Metro there and as chairman of Metro I can tell you that there is never going to be a Metro there, that is so far off where the Green Line goes. If we ever get to National Harbor I would be happy. And then to get the traffic you have to go get to the MGM Grand. It’s very difficult to access either of those areas.”
Then he gave the pitch for the RFK site.
“You tear down the stadium and build a new stadium right there. There’s the Metro right on site and the access roads to that site are tremendous. And frankly, there are 190 undeveloped acres where the RFK sits that is Park Service land that is leased to the District of Columbia. So not only could you build a stadium, but in this day and age you want to do what we did where the Nationals are. You want to build a community around the stadium. So you could have the stadium, the practice fields, the headquarters, a Hall of Fame, hotels and restaurants. You get 75,000 people going to a football game you don’t want to come out, get in their cars and go home.
“It comes down to financing, and I believe that is something the city can work out with the team, who takes care of the land, who pays for the stadium, how does this all work out. I believe having done a number of these deals now, with the Convention Center, the Verizon Center, the baseball stadium, we have much more experience doing this than Maryland or Virginia does, and I believe we can get the deal done.”
Time to rethink Verizon, too
The Verizon Center will be coming up on 20 years in 2018, and there have been discussions about a new arena for the Wizards and Capitals. It was part of the 2024 Olympic proposal, with the arena around the RFK site.
Evans prefers updating the current Verizon Center.
“I’ve talked with (Wizards and Capitals owner, as well as Verizon Center owner) Ted Leonsis about this a couple of times,” Evans said. “The Verizon Center, the inside is great, the court and everything but it is a building that it 20 years old, and it’s aging. It was built in another world in the District of Columbia. Today you would not build like a monolithic building. Look at the Sixth Street side. There is nothing there, it’s just a wall, facing the ugly Metro building which is across the street where our Metro headquarters is, these Joseph Stalinistic buildings that are just horrible. You wouldn’t build that today. You would have life. You would have restaurants in both of those areas.
“In the next five years or so, we’re going to have to either redo the existing Verizon Center and bring it into today’s world, or think about moving the Verizon Center to another location. I like the first. I believe the Verizon Center is the catalyst for life downtown. If you were to move it to the RFK site, for instance you would really take away that excitement that exists downtown at times when it wouldn’t happen otherwise. So what we could do is what they did at Madison Square Garden. They kept playing at Madison Square Garden, but they redid the whole Garden and made it into what it is today, a real showplace. So we could do the same thing.
“He (Leonsis) has raised the concern many times that he has a lot of debt on that building and those teams and that really hampers his abilities to get better players. So we have to sit down and see if we could restructure the whole thing and produce a brand new Verizon Center for today’s world on that site. We’re looking at tearing that Metro building down. So you get rid of these ugly, lifeless buildings and start producing buildings that bring life to the community and tax revenues. So from my point of view that is the way to go.”
Building on the Nats’ model
Because of the financial success of the baseball stadium, bringing in an estimated triple the amount of revenues they expected when Nationals Park was approved, Evans feels confident the city can continue reaping the rewards of having sports franchises within the city. But that nearly didn’t happen. Evans confirmed that Virginia was the preferred choice of major league baseball.
“What turned the tide was the financing,” Evans said. “Major League Baseball owned the team (the Montreal Expos), and they wanted to get top dollar for it, and they could not get top dollar and require whoever bought it to build a stadium. So they said to us the only way you’re going to get a team is if you build the stadium on your dime. We were willing to do it.
The governor (Virginia Gov. Mark Warner) refused to put the state’s full faith and credit behind the stadium, and it collapsed. To this day, I believe if Bill (Collins, who led the Northern Virginia group) had gotten that state financing, they would have gone to Northern Virginia. But they didn’t and they made a decision to come here when you look at success of the stadium and the success of the area around the stadium, it’s phenomenal.”
The city’s success record for arena and stadium deals has been exceptional. Their white whale, though, remains the Redskins.
Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.