News & Politics

Instead of Asking Maryland for a New Arena, Ted Leonsis Should Take DC’s Money

With a Virginia move stalled, the Caps and Wizards owner is talking to Maryland Governor Wes Moore.

Photograph by Kevin Dietsch via Getty Images.

Ted. Teddy. Theodore. What are you doing, buddy? I mean, I get what you’re trying to do, which is to get paid. Score a juicy government handout. Privatize the profits, socialize the risks. Always and forever make the line go up. It would arguably be business malpractice for you, a certified Rich Guy Sports Owner, to not seek out more icing atop a bigger slice of cake once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for transformative growth, especially if other people are picking up most of the tab. So it’s not surprising that you’ve reportedly talked to Maryland Governor Wes Moore about moving the Washington Capitals and Wizards to his state, especially now that your grand plan to decamp to Northern Virginia in exchange for roughly $1.5 billion of taxpayer loot is anything but a die-is-cast done deal.

But still: what are you doing?

Look, you’ve played your hand pretty well—to a point. You have something politicians want, something that’s exceedingly rare and hard to get: not one but two professional sports teams. You also have the incredible geographic good fortune of being based in the Washington area, which means that instead of threatening to move to Seattle or Las Vegas or Kansas City or San Antonio if local governments won’t build you a new arena—a fraught and complex proposition that all but begs said governments to call your bluff—you can attempt to pit Maryland, Virginia, and DC against each other, gin up a bidding war, and fill your vault with the best resulting offer without having to: a) actually move to San Antonio; b) instantly become a modern-day Bob Short.

And you’ve come so close to doing just that! When the cash-strapped District government wasn’t in enough of a hurry to hand you more than half a billion dollars to upgrade your perfectly fine and functional downtown arena, you went hat-in-hand to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin—who was down to deal, and reportedly the driving force behind a preposterously generous proposed package in which a whole bunch of people not named Ted Leonsis would cover three-fourths of the $2 billion price tag for a new arena, practice facilities, offices, studios, an e-sports venue, a performing arts center, mixed-use development, and a “fan plaza” (that is: some outdoor bricks for people to stand on). By the time city officials realized what was happening and quickly offered you $500 million to stay put, it was too late. Virginia was no longer leverage; it was your future home, and you were more than happy—alongside Youngkin and, for some reason, tuna melt-loving Senator Mark Warner—to tell everyone all about it.

Except: Youngkin isn’t king. He’s not overwhelmingly popular. Crucially, his party doesn’t control the Virginia statehouse. He needs support from legislators, many of them hostile, to turn your handshakes and architectural renderings into shovels and cement mixers. And somehow, some way, someone seems to have forgotten to count the votes—or at least the all-important vote of State Senator Louise Lucas, who chairs the state senate finance committee and has single-handedly put the arena deal into hospice by preventing it from being considered for inclusion in this year’s state budget. Lucas is arguably a world-class troll, and she’s definitely having fun at your expense, but she also seems pretty serious about kiboshing your plan—and right now, there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of political or public pressure to punish her or make the deal happen anyway. 

All of this leaves you stuck. It also brings us to your reported flirtation with Maryland, a transparent—and frankly, kinda sweaty-looking—attempt to rebuild the leverage you’ve largely lost. Sure, it’s possible that Moore and other pols will get googly-eyed at the prospect of spending nine or ten figures to import the NBA’s most-irrelevant franchise and a team in a sport, hockey, that’s on the verge of being lapped by pro soccer. But is that a good bet? Especially when the state has already committed $1.2 billion to spruce up NFL and MLB stadiums in Baltimore, is learning toward a $400 million splurge on the Pimlico horse racing facility, and also is looking to keep the Washington Commanders in state? In Virginia, you were the belle of the ball; in Maryland, you’re the C plot, and the episode’s script is already overstuffed.

So yeah: your once-formidable cards are less a royal flush than a teetering house. Plus, this whole affair has been, uh, suboptimal for how you’re perceived in DC. For a long, long time, you were seen as one of the good ones—at least as far as sports owners go. (Low bar? Absolutely! But you gotta start somewhere). Community-minded, oversaw the Caps winning a Stanley Cup, didn’t stick your foot in your mouth too often, maybe a little too harsh on Gallery Place buskers and a little too keen on retaining talent-allergic Wizards front office decision-makers, but overall not bad. Someone who understood—as you recently told GQ—then when you own a sports team, you “hold the psyches of a community in your hand.” Certainly nothing like Dan Snyder. 

Only now, that’s changing. Post sports columnist Candace Buckner has called you a man of “many words and little substance,” peddling a Virginia move that could hurt downtown DC with a “monumental amount of spin.” Ouch. Meanwhile, The Athletic’s David Aldridge—a longtime local journalist who has seen, well, just about everything, and is as close to being a voice of the city’s sports scene as, well, just about anyone—wrote that the move was “about one man’s grandiosity.” (Spoiler alert: yours). An 11th-hour effort to shake down Maryland, or to use Maryland to shake down Virginia, isn’t going to disabuse anyone of that notion.

But you know what might? Standing down. Despite everything, DC is still offering you $500 million to keep your teams at Capital One Arena. That’s a darn good deal. You should take it before local pols change their minds. Would doing so be a bit embarrassing after your triumphant Potomac Yard dog-and-pony show press conference and subsequent talk about building “an iconic destination that redefines what an arena is all about?” Maybe a little. On the other hand, you once declared John Wall, Jordan Crawford and Andray Blatche to be “a new big three”. Nobody arrested you for crimes against basketball. So shut up already, put the city’s money in your pocket, and wait things out. All will be forgotten, maybe even forgiven, and you’ll still be a whole lot wealthier—all for doing absolutely nothing beyond staying put.

Patrick Hruby
Deputy Editor