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Bruce DePuyt: No, the Capitals and Wizards are not moving to Maryland 

A “Stop the Arena” sign was shown at a news conference earlier this year about the growing opposition to Virginia’s proposal to bring the Washington Wizards and Capitals to Northern Virginia. Photo by Nathaniel Cline/Virginia Mercury.

When Jack Kent Cooke decided in the early 1990s that the time had come to move his beloved Redskins out of creaky and undersized RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., he exuded confidence that burgundy-and-gold-clad fans would get to enjoy games at a sparkling new stadium fairly quickly.

Things didn’t go quite as planned.

Although Cooke had a lifelong knack for sales (he was an instant success as a 14-year-old, door-to-door encyclopedia salesman), he found it difficult to convince state and local officials in the D.C. area to play ball.

Negotiations to build a new stadium in D.C. fell apart amid allegations that Cooke had been condescending and sexist in his interactions with Sharon Pratt Kelly, the city’s first female mayor. A subsequent handshake deal with then-Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder (D), to build a stadium in Alexandria, fell apart when residents there rose up in opposition. Then came talk of moving to a parcel near Laurel Park racetrack, but that fizzled when it quickly become obvious that the roads around the track couldn’t handle game-day traffic.

(Cooke’s wanderings around the D.C. region frequently brought to mind a vivid childhood memory — the opening of the TV version of “The Odd Couple” — in which Felix Unger, played by Tony Randall, is kicked out of his home by his wife. Viewers see only her forearm as she thrusts Felix’s skillet at him before slamming the door.)

The Redskins’ search for a stadium site became so laughable that one observer (not me, I promise) suggested that he put his stadium on wheels and drive it around the Capital Beltway. But none of it was funny to Cooke, who was approaching his mid-80s by this point. Billionaire executive-types aren’t accustomed to being told no, and they don’t much like it.

The team’s travails exposed a seeming contradiction: The Redskins were the toast of the DMV, appearing in five Super Bowls, winning three. And Cooke was a wealthy and swashbuckling media mogul whose owner’s box on game days featured the boldest of the bold-face names. Although the Redskins’ division rivals all played in larger and more modern facilities, no one seemed to want an enormous stadium — with its inevitable Death Valley of asphalt parking lots — too close to them.

Finally, of course, “The Squire” (as Cooke was known) found willing partners in Prince George’s County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and Maryland Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D). Thanks to an army of lobbyists and some sketchy legislation that got jammed through the Prince George’s Council in 1996 (in the middle of the night), plus millions in infrastructure funding from the state, the Redskins were able to build in Landover.

Cooke died just months before the opening of Redskins Stadium (subsequently renamed FedEx Field and now known as Commanders Field) in 1997.

I was reminded of all this when The Baltimore Banner reported on Wednesday that Ted Leonsis, the popular, longtime owner of the Washington Capitals and Washington Wizards, recently checked in with Maryland Gov. Wes Moore. The timing of the brief call was tantalizing, as Leonsis’ bid to move his teams, their offices, and his sprawling media empire to Alexandria has cratered. Resurrection feels unlikely, given how much fun the Virginia Democrats who are blocking Leonsis and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin seem to be having.

Although it wasn’t reported who leaked news of the call — and none of the many people I spoke with would discuss it on the record — it seems fairly clear that the Leonsis-Moore conversation was made public to send a message to Virginia legislators and local activists. The message: If you continue to obstruct our efforts to move the two franchises and Monumental Sports Network, Leonsis’ sports broadcasting operation, to the Potomac Yards Metro station, we’re capable of partnering with someone else.

Moore has yet to discuss his call with Leonsis publicly, though there is no indication he is particularly keen on spending political capital — much less actual dollars — on an arena. His comments to date suggest strongly that his primary focus is on keeping the Commanders in Prince George’s, where a close ally, Angela Alsobrooks, is the county executive and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Leonsis has not reached out to Alsobrooks, even though his teams played for many years at the now-demolished Capital Centre in Largo, before he was their owner.

To be clear: There is no political will in Maryland to lure Leonsis’s teams to Prince George’s or any other community, in large measure because area leaders (who work extraordinarily closely with one another through the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments) recognize that downtown D.C. benefits enormously from the presence of the Capitals and Wizards at Capital One Arena — and that, by extension, the region wins as well.

Leonsis and Moore have known each other a long time, dating back at least to Moore’s tenure as director of the Robin Hood Foundation. One can imagine Leonsis wanting to vent about his current predicament. Public safety concerns around the arena in downtown D.C. and a desire for a state-of-the-art facility (along with the allure of being able to unite his far-flung employees under one roof) led him to join forces with Youngkin.

But having the call leak to the press feels like a clumsy attempt to influence the negotiations in Richmond and perhaps in D.C. If Moore initiated a relocation call with Leonsis — which seems unfathomable given Maryland’s budget woes and the spiraling, jaw-dropping costs of the Purple Line — we would know it. But Leonsis’ people refuse to say that Moore called them, even though doing so would not be difficult.

The leverage game has been around so long because it works. Who knows — perhaps Leonsis got in bed with Youngkin to win more concessions from D.C. If so, it appears to be working. And sending messages through the media is both fun and cheap.

But NBA and NHL teams play in cities. Leonsis may feel boxed in at Capital One but I have never believed that Alexandria was in the cards. In the meantime, Monumental officials continue to interact with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D), her team, and the D.C. Council.

Earlier this week, D.C. Attorney General Brian Schwalb (D) informed Monumental officials that the deal they struck with the city in 2007 — an agreement that provided $50 million in publicly-backed municipal bonds to upgrade Capital One Arena — required them to remain in D.C. an additional 20 years, through 2047. The letter was first reported by journalist Tom Sherwood on WAMU Radio. Axios called Schwalb’s letter “the latest blow… to Leonsis’ effort to move the teams to Alexandria.”

A spokesperson for Leonsis said the company “fundamentally” disagrees with Schwalb’s interpretation of Monumental’s 2007 agreement with D.C. The spokesperson maintains that the deal gives the company a 120-day window to revoke the 20-year lease extension — and find a new home — if Leonsis prepays the bonds the city authorized to fund arena improvements.

Given this latest twist, plus the opposition in the Virginia General Assembly and in the neighborhoods surrounding the proposed arena — and the inadequacy of the Potomac Yards Metro station, which is so small and under-utilized it’s on Metro’s chopping block — the odds are quite strong that D.C.’s sports teams will play their games in the city for which they are named for the foreseeable future.

This commentary has been updated to include a comment from Monumental Sports.


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Bruce DePuyt: No, the Capitals and Wizards are not moving to Maryland