Mar 29, 2024 - News

How Bowser and Leonsis came together to keep the Capitals and Wizards in D.C.

Muriel Bowser and Ted Leonsis at a podium

Photo: Craig Hudson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

To hear Ted Leonsis tell it, Mayor Muriel Bowser never stopped talking with him, even after the heartstopping news late last year that his Washington Capitals and Wizards would ditch downtown for Alexandria.

Why it matters: The mayor and the billionaire sports owner worked toward the $515 million deal for over a month to keep the teams downtown. Here's how it went down.

Behind the scenes: After the Potomac Yard project was announced, the duo first bumped into each other leaving separate events at the ritzy Waldorf Astoria in the Old Post Office Building. They returned a handful of times, the final get-together coming late last week.

  • "I would jump up and run to the bar and get some drinks," Leonsis said at the news conference Wednesday. The mayor and billionaire would talk about downtown and the future of the city.
  • Capital One Arena, built in 1997, needed more space — one of the major draws of the Virginia deal, a dozen acres and all.
  • So, in late February, the mayor's side made an enticing offer. D.C. can secure space for Monumental to expand next door at the Gallery Place shopping center, where retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond had shuttered and the property fell into default.
  • For Monumental, the reaction was: "OK, maybe we can … get close to a campus-like experience," Monica Dixon, a top Leonsis deputy, told Axios. "That was a very important and big moment for us."

More than 100 miles south, an arena stalemate remained between Gov. Glenn Youngkin and top Democrats — with time running out before the March 9 legislative deadline.

  • A chatty raconteur, Leonsis credits Bowser, who is notoriously guarded and declined to offer details for this story, for continuing to pitch the city's offer. "She could have just stopped talking to me," Leonsis said, "and I would have stopped talking to her."
  • Bowser said at the press conference that they were "in touch throughout," belying gossip that the two had an icy personal relationship.

Stretching a marriage metaphor, Leonsis this week sounded like he was renewing his vows with the city. "You date, you call each other, and you drop each other little notes, then you go to dinner," he told Axios in an interview about the dealmaking.

  • "I think she sensed there was an opponent who maybe was not wooing us," Leonsis said, referring to Virginia. "She played the opposite."
  • As the Virginia deal hit roadblocks, Leonsis said that Youngkin "told me to go talk to D.C.," acknowledging the two only had a handshake agreement for the Alexandria arena.

Between the lines: There was no love lost between Leonsis and Virginia state Sen. Louise Lucas, a flamboyant Democrat who takes credit for killing the "Glendome."

  • The two have hardly crossed paths, meeting for the first time at a Richmond hotel early this month.

Why didn't Leonsis lobby Lucas earlier? "It's not my job. I'm a businessman. I'm not a politician," Leonsis told Axios.

  • State Del. Luke Torian, who was at the March 6 meeting, told Axios that Youngkin had asked Leonsis "not to reach out to the General Assembly members." Youngkin spokesperson Rob Damschen told Axios, "This is completely false."
  • But with the governor failing to advance the deal, Torian said lawmakers felt strongly that Leonsis and Lucas meet. Leonsis says he was eventually told to go "see her now."

Lucas left unmoved. "He treated me as if I was invisible," she told the Richmond-Times Dispatch.

  • Leonsis was unimpressed.
  • "I mean, it just doesn't feel world-class," he said about the Richmond politicking. "You don't treat big, important companies that way."

As Youngkin's legacy-defining deal crumbled, talks accelerated between Monumental and the Bowser administration. Lawyers began writing formal agreements about two weeks ago, according to Monumental.

Zoom in: The package, which the D.C. Council is expected to approve on Tuesday, allows Monumental to "add nearly 200,000 square feet of newly programmed space throughout Capital One Arena and in the Gallery Place building next door." A new Wizards practice facility is being envisioned.

The fine print: The plan still has some moving pieces. The neighboring Gallery Place property is undergoing a sale to MRP Realty, with whom D.C. has been in conversations to reserve space for Monumental, a person familiar with the discussions told Axios. (MRP co-founder Robert Murphy and the Bowser administration declined to comment.)

The intrigue: Since early this year, some local movers and shakers have privately advanced an argument that the teams couldn't contractually leave Capital One Arena before 2047.

  • On March 18, Attorney General Brian Schwalb finally put that warning on paper in a letter to Monumental, threatening legal action if needed.

Nine days later, Leonsis called the mayor of Alexandria to reveal his Virginia dalliance was over.

  • He joined Bowser and the D.C. Council on the basketball court that afternoon to sign off on his commitment to the District through 2050.

Leonsis stood in front of the cameras and hugged the mayor. He declared: "I'm really relieved."

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