Washington’s NBA and NHL teams, which have called Maryland or the District of Columbia home for decades, may be moving to northern Virginia.
The Washington Wizards, the NBA franchise that once played in Baltimore as the Bullets, and professional hockey’s Capitals appear poised to relocate to a proposed new arena in Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from the nation’s capital.
The proposed relocation comes 50 years after the Bullets moved from Baltimore to Landover, Maryland, where they were joined by the expansion Capitals the following year. In 1997, both franchises left suburban Maryland for a new downtown venue in Washington, now called Capital One Arena.
Now Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has reached a tentative agreement with the parent company of the Wizards and Capitals to move those teams from D.C. to what he called a new “visionary sports and entertainment venue” on the site of a former railroad yard.
The proposal, which would need the state legislature’s approval, calls for the creation of a $2 billion sports and entertainment district in Alexandria, just miles from the existing arena, Youngkin said in an interview with The Associated Press ahead of a news conference Wednesday at the site. It would include an arena for what would be the state’s first professional sports teams, as well as a new Wizards practice facility, a separate performing arts center, a media studio, new hotels, a convention center, housing and shopping.
“The Commonwealth will now be home to two professional sports teams, a new corporate headquarters, and over 30,000 new jobs — this is monumental,” Youngkin said in a statement.
Monumental Sports & Entertainment CEO Ted Leonsis appeared with Youngkin and city officials at Wednesday’s announcement. He endorsed the proposal, thanked Youngkin and said he had “goosebumps” at the thought of the project coming together “if all goes as planned.”
Monumental also owns the WNBA’s Mystics, and Leonsis said his expectation was that Capital One Arena, where the Wizards and Capitals currently play, could host women’s sports and other events like concerts. The Mystics currently play in an arena in Southeast D.C.
“Our intention is to expand here and keep Capital One Arena in D.C. a great place,” said Leonsis, a wealthy entrepreneur and former AOL executive.
The new development would be located in the Potomac Yard section of Alexandria, near Virginia Tech’s ambitious Innovation Campus, an under-construction graduate school focused on technology.
To help finance the project, Youngkin will ask the Virginia General Assembly in the 2024 session to approve the creation of a Virginia Sports and Entertainment Authority, a public entity with the ability to issue bonds. Those bonds would be repaid partly by tax revenues from the project.
“We have reached a very clear understanding, really subject to finalizing the General Assembly’s work,” Youngkin said in the interview.
Still, on Tuesday night ahead of the announcement, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser unveiled a counterproposal aimed at keeping the teams. The legislation would direct a half-billion dollars to modernize Capital One Arena.
“The modernization of the Capital One Arena will be an invaluable investment for continued success and our future prosperity,” Bowser said in a statement. “This proposal represents our best and final offer and is the next step in partnering with Monumental Sports to breathe new life and vibrancy into the neighborhood and to keep the Washington Wizards and the Washington Capitals where they belong — in Washington, DC.”
Bowser said that proposal has unanimous support from the D.C. Council.
At a news conference Wednesday, Bowser said she holds out hope the teams will stay in the District, noting that the complex financing arrangement to bring the teams to Virginia needs legislative approval.
Fundamentally, though, she said Leonsis must decide if he wants an urban site or a suburban site. Fans, she said, prefer the city.
“National Landing Wizards doesn’t quite have the same ring,” she said, poking fun at the “National Landing” moniker that Virginia economic development officials have used to market Potomac Yard and the surrounding region.
Bowser said the city took the threat of losing the teams seriously. It was only able to put the $500 million incentive package together recently, though, after learning that it could refinance existing debt.
The Baltimore Bullets played professional basketball at the civic center from 1963 to 1973. The team moved to the newly built Capital Centre in Landover in 1973, and the Capitals began play there the following year. The venue, later renamed USAir Arena and US Airways Arena, was demolished in 2002.
When the Capitals and the renamed Wizards moved from suburban Maryland to D.C.’s Chinatown in 1997 in what was then known as MCI Center, officials credited the arena with sparking a revival in downtown Washington. In recent years, critics who have faulted city officials for lax crime policies have said the neighborhood around the arena has suffered disproportionately.
The proposed 9-million-square-foot Virginia entertainment district would be developed by JBG SMITH, a publicly traded real estate firm that is also the developer of Amazon’s new headquarters in neighboring Arlington, Youngkin’s office said.
The administration expects the project to generate a combined $12 billion in economic impact for Virginia and the city of Alexandria in the coming decades and create around 30,000 new jobs, Youngkin’s office said in a statement. Subject to legislative approval and sign-off from the Alexandria City Council, it would break ground in 2025 and open in late 2028.
The development would be a massive win for Youngkin, a former college basketball player. To get it over the finish line, he’ll have to work with Democratic majorities in both legislative chambers after his party fell short of its stated expectations in November’s legislative elections.
Democrats including incoming House Majority Leader Charniele Herring were on hand for Wednesday’s news conference, along with U.S. Sen. Mark Warner. Other key legislative leaders, including the top incoming Democratic leaders in the House and Senate, were not.
The event also drew a group of around 10 protesters, who were barely audible from the tent where the announcement took place.
Located along the Potomac, just across the water from Washington, the entertainment district would be accessible by “all modes of transportation,” Youngkin’s office touted in the statement, including from a newly opened Metro station.
Potomac Yard, just south of Reagan National Airport, is currently occupied by strip malls and other retail.
The site is adjacent to the redevelopment sparked by Amazon’s construction.
In 1992, the owner of Washington’s football team and then-Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder proposed relocating the NFL franchise from RFK Stadium in Washington to a proposed new stadium at Potomac Yard, which for years was the largest railroad switching yard on the East Coast.
But the plan collapsed amid opposition from Alexandria city officials worried about traffic and other neighborhood impacts as well as Virginia lawmakers concerned that the deal was not a good one for the state. Team owner Jack Kent Cooke ultimately rejected concessions that Wilder said were needed to proceed, and built a new stadium for the team in Landover, now called FedEx Field. The club, now called the Commanders, still play there but their lease expires in in 2027.
Asked how a move by Monumental might impact the state’s efforts to lure the Commanders to Virginia and whether those talks were ongoing, Youngkin said he could not comment.
Banner staff writer Norman Gomlak contributed to this report.