A New Arena Can’t Fix the Washington Wizards

Washington Wizards fans didn’t need a new reason to be miserable. As a Wizards diehard, I’m used to following their annual descent in the NBA standings. But I experienced a fresh sort of pain at the recent announcement that the team would be moving from its convenient downtown-D.C. home to a new, $2.2 billion “world-class Entertainment District” in the Virginia suburb of Alexandria. What’s so sad about my terrible team leaving the emptiest arena in the NBA for a gleaming palace across the Potomac? Sit down and let me explain—right here, in row G, seat 11, because I couldn’t find anyone else to go to the game with me.

In many cities, having NBA season tickets is a status symbol. Not in D.C. lately. I’ve had Wizards season tickets for the past 10 years, a fact that tends to be met with the sort of pitying curiosity that I assume is familiar to Civil War reenactors and ferret owners. I love this team. I really do. I follow the Wizards religiously, by which I mean: regular attendance, tithing, and a vague promise of salvation through suffering. That suffering stretches back 45 years. The then–Washington Bullets won the franchise’s only NBA title in 1978. The following year they went back to the finals but lost. Since that season, the team has never made it past the second round of the playoffs and hasn’t even made it to 50 regular-season wins, the longest such streak in the league by two decades. (Last season alone, six teams won more than 50 games.) The median age in the United States is about 39 years old, meaning most Americans have never existed at the same time as a relevant Washington basketball team.

For my first five years as a season-ticket owner, the Wizards weren’t great, but they were at least competitive, with some exciting young talent. They even made it to 49 wins once! Back then, the arena was loud and the city was paying attention. Now they’re one of the very worst teams in the league, and the seats are empty. The beautiful thing about sports, though, is that winning cures everything. Improving the vibes would seem straightforward: Build a better team. Instead, the owner, Ted Leonsis—who, through his company, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, also owns the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the WNBA’s Washington Mystics—would rather put a $2.2 billion cart before the horse. Maybe building a flashy new arena with the help of Virginia taxpayers is a way to sidestep the “winning basketball games” thing. (Laurene Powell Jobs, a minority owner of Monumental Sports, is the founder of Emerson Collective, which is the majority owner of The Atlantic.)

The new complex will be only about six miles from the Wizards’ current Chinatown digs, but emotionally the team might as well be moving to Alexandria, Egypt. Capital One Arena is easily accessible from nearly anywhere in the region, walking distance from every subway line, and close to bars, restaurants, and museums. The new location is slotted between the Potomac River, a big Target, and acres of current and upcoming construction just south of the still-in-progress Amazon HQ2. In addition to the arena for basketball and hockey, the site plans envision a performing-arts venue, a TV studio, corporate offices, and a “fan plaza,” which is developer-speak for “a big sidewalk.”

The complex that Leonsis wants to build is the dream of sports owners and developers everywhere: a city without the city. It’s a big, walkable, transit-accessible area full of tall buildings and bright lights without any of the annoyances that arise from crowded civilization. There’s no loud music blasting, except what the company pumps through the speakers. There’s no vice, except for the company-owned bars and gambling parlors. There’s no theft, except for the likely extortionate price of everything inside.

Having the Washington Wizards play in the heart of Washington, D.C., isn’t just convenient; it weaves the team into the city’s culture, making every win and loss a matter of civic pride or civic shame. When I reached out for comment, Monumental Sports officials stressed to me that they weren’t abandoning D.C. Under the proposed plan, the WNBA’s Mystics would move to the Wizards’ old arena in Chinatown, and Monumental would put money into improvements that would allow it to host more college sports, concerts, conferences, and other events. But the company just built a partially publicly funded arena for the Mystics and the Wizards’ minor-league team that only opened in 2018 and was supposed to spur redevelopment in the economically depressed, predominantly Black neighborhood of Congress Heights. Now, only five years later, it’s supposedly overcrowded and outdated.

At the new arena’s rollout event, Leonsis gestured to the airport that sits about a mile from the proposed site. “It’s no secret that this great airport here was considered Washington National, and yet it’s in Virginia,” he said. It was an inadvertently apt comparison. An annoying trip out to a sterile complex where everything costs more than it should? Future Wizards games already sound like trips to the airport.

The surprise Alexandria announcement came after Leonsis unsuccessfully asked the city of Washington for $600 million to renovate Capital One Arena, which was built with minimal public investment and opened in 1997. The new arena still isn’t a done deal. It needs approval from local and state representatives, and many who live in Alexandria and nearby aren’t happy with the idea of an “entertainment district” bringing even more traffic through their city. Leonsis’s agreement with Virginia is nonbinding, and he’s still allowed to negotiate with D.C. going forward. Meanwhile, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser prepared a last-ditch plan that would keep the Wizards and Capitals in Chinatown in exchange for $500 million in public funding.

As a longtime fan and D.C. resident, I should be rooting for the Virginia deal to fall through. But what if that option feels just as bad? A “win” for D.C. would cost half a billion dollars that could be spent on, well, anything other than fixing up a billionaire’s property. It’s nearly as much as the city plans to “invest in affordable housing, support community redevelopment, and provide shelter” over the next five years, according to its fiscal-year-2024 budget. Worried about the state of Chinatown after the Wizards and Capitals leave? Maybe the city could put some of that money toward supplementing the $70 million earmarked to “support the District’s economic recovery and growth.” If Monumental takes Bowser’s deal, stays put, and has me back in my usual seat at a renovated Capital One Arena, I can’t imagine looking around the stadium and seeing anything but better uses for my city’s tax dollars. Sure, the schools need new computers, but have you seen the size of the new Jumbotron?

The argument for spending the money is that an arena brings people downtown, and those people in turn spend money, providing tax revenue. But crediting arenas with all that revenue means assuming that those people wouldn’t go out and spend their money anywhere in the city unless they visited the arena—and that the city couldn’t get better results by investing the money directly into neighborhoods. Monumental Sports officials say that all public spending on the new arena complex will be offset by future tax revenue from it—$1.35 billion in funding from Virginia, potentially the largest arena subsidy in American history, would actually be free. But among economists, who disagree on nearly everything, there is broad consensus that sports stadiums don’t contribute much to the local economy. These projects tend to do a better job of obfuscating cost than preventing it, says Nate Jensen, a University of Texas professor who researches government economic-development strategies. He has found that public-school budgets tend to be hit hard, due to their reliance on the sort of property taxes that are often waived to fund new arenas. “It’s probably one of the worst bets you can make in terms of economic development,” he told me. “The economic impact of most stadiums is about the same as a Target store.” (That’s bad news for Alexandria, where developers are considering knocking down the Target next door to make room for more stadium-adjacent development.)

In economic terms, moving the Wizards to Virginia would actually be a big win for me as a D.C. resident. My subway ride to games would be longer, but the billion dollars in funding, the traffic issues, and the potential legal battles would be Virginia’s problem—with apologies to my friends who teach at Alexandria City High School. I would be a free rider, which, economically speaking, is the best thing to be. But that doesn’t feel like a win either. If I operated from a place of pure, cold logic, I wouldn’t be a Wizards fan.

I can think of one more option, though—one that no one has discussed, because, I presume, it is utterly unprecedented in its civic genius. The city of Washington, D.C., should seize the Washington Wizards through eminent domain. The city code outlines the right to acquire private property for condemnation or other reasons in the public interest after paying a satisfactory price to the current owner. If you’re willing to pay half a billion dollars to fix up the arena, why not kick in another couple billion and just take the franchise? The case could certainly be made that the current Wizards team is a form of urban decay.

Government ownership of a sports franchise might sound bizarre and un-American. But consider that, earlier this year, the Qatari sovereign-wealth fund bought a 5 percent stake in Monumental Sports. Why should a foreign nation get to own part of the Wizards while the city they play in gets nothing? Mayor Bowser and the D.C. city council should declare the team a public utility, pump the NBA’s massive TV revenue back into the city, and make the front office run for reelection every four years. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to figure out whether any of this is actually legal. I’m more interested in the principle. D.C. residents infamously don’t get to vote for representation in Congress. At least let us vote for our basketball team.

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