Ted Leonsis uttered some sentimental waste like that about five years ago. On a summer day of celebrations, when tens of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall. They were united by one of the rare things that can make strangers cry and hug and cheer together: the joy of a city’s team winning a championship. And Leonsis, the majority owner of that stimulant, was overcome. As he stood on a constructed stage, pops of red as far as his eyes could travel, Leonsis told the crowd all he ever wanted to do was look out at the people his teams served, and see love reflected back.
But on a cold Wednesday morning inside a pop-up tent somewhere in suburbia, all the District of Columbia could see was betrayal.
There he was, the owner of the Washington Wizards and the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, elevated on another stage and meandering through disingenuous claims about uniting communities and being a good neighbor.
“That is the higher calling on everything that we do,” Leonsis said, “to build these legacies through winning championships, from doing the right things in the right way by our fans, so that people can appreciate the community that they live in.”
But Leonsis is making these promises to the Potomac Yard in Alexandria. He no longer wants the light of his benevolence to shine on Chinatown and Gallery Place, the urban neighborhood nestled in the heart of D.C. In the years following the pandemic, Chinatown’s challenges around the arena spiraled into daily scenes of homelessness, open drug use and crime. When Capital One opened in 1997, it revitalized the neighborhood. If the arena loses its two biggest tenants, then it wouldn’t be hard to imagine its regression into a ghost town.
In 2018, however, Leonsis bragged about staying, and told the Washington Business Journal: “I spent $110 million on renovations since I’ve owned the building … I could see us spending another $100 million over the coming years on infrastructure and technology right here. My goal: The building is 20 years old — I’d like to get another great 20 years out of it.”
Turns out, Leonsis didn’t want to wait that long to get the city’s leaders to help fix his arena. So, like a child spoiled by a lifetime of “yes,” and as the possessor of the shiny toy that all the other neighborhood kids want to play with, Leonsis snatched up his teams and left for a construction lot across the Potomac.
There, on Wednesday morning, Leonsis and his Monumental Sports & Entertainment crew participated in Alexandria’s victory lap. The Virginians on hand for the big announcement could not contain themselves. The emcee choked up during her introductory remarks, and the mayor of the city screamed his overly caffeinated “Good Morning!” into the microphone. And, just as Mayor Justin M. Wilson (D) was explaining how “we want you here” in Alexandria, a protesting resident of the community could be heard shouting his disagreement from outside the tent. Evidently they didn’t want everyone there.
“There’s something special about this place,” Wilson later said without a trace of irony, considering that beneath the tent were rocks and dirt.
If Monumental’s nonbinding agreement gets approved by the Virginia General Assembly and the Alexandria City Council, then this pile of mud would become a world-class development that includes a new arena, practice facilities, a fan plaza, restaurants, offices and retail. It was the same site that once was a rail yard. Then in the late 1980s, the site turned into a multi-screen movie theater and a massive parking lot. An Old Navy store anchored a strip mall across the street. Eventually, around the neighborhood, townhouses popped up. So did the population. But the area remains a place devoid of culture or character.
For years, the Capitals and Wizards have anchored a D.C. neighborhood rich in history and identity. At Capital One Arena, the teams reside next to trombone and electric guitar players serenading people walking by and storefronts styled in Chinese-inspired facades with roasted ducks hanging in the windows.
In Potomac Yard, they’ll play across the street from a Target.
The loyal hockey fan base likely will follow their team anywhere — how ’bout those Commonwealth Capitals? But Leonsis is proposing to take professional basketball away from a basketball-loving city. For his team that claims its #ForTheDistrict on its X profile, however, this isn’t just a move to another state. In taking the Wizards out of D.C., Leonsis threatens to take D.C. — their very soul — out of the Wizards.
Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) should’ve known Leonsis wasn’t bluffing. Bowser should’ve remembered exactly whom she was dealing with: a man who obsesses over wanting more.
Around the time Bowser began her first term, Leonsis led an effort to bring the 2024 Olympics to the District — and one possibility floated was that a new Olympic stadium at the RFK site could later be repurposed into an NBA and NHL arena. Over time, Leonsis ramped up his complaints about paying a high mortgage on the arena in Chinatown — calling it “the worst building deal in professional sports” — and later asked for $600 million of public funding for renovations. For context, that amount is not unlike requests from other professional teams stationed in older arenas. And Monumental could leverage this request because it remained in negotiations with Virginia.
If Bowser thought, “He’ll never leave D.C.,” then that arrogance and gullibility should define her legacy as the mayor who lost two teams at once.
Leonsis’s rapaciousness to become a superpower in sports and forsake any civic responsibilities to a neighborhood at its most vulnerable time, along with the District’s dawdling, will mortally wound Washington as a major sports hub. Just when Leonsis and his enterprise could have been part of the solution for a struggling downtown, he’s adding to the problem by escaping to the sanitized safety of the ‘burbs.
None of this mattered to the Virginians in the tent, though. Because they’re receiving the gift of two professional sports teams, and all the advantages and bragging rights that come with them. Leonsis said so, as he envisioned his Monumental Sports & Entertainment as the engine behind Potomac Yard’s economic boost. Yet, he still found it in his heart to throw a bone to his former love.
“We have a responsibility to do a great job and continue to invest in Washington, D.C.,” Leonsis said. “Hold me accountable. I feel like that’s not just words.”
And then, the man of so many words and such little substance left without taking questions. If he looked out to the people of Washington this morning, he would see something other than love reflected back.