Sports

Perspective | Professional sports in DC just reset. Now what to do with it?

Monday afternoon was gray and dark and a little stormy, not weather that screams “Welcome to baseball season!” But the Washington Nationals had to open the home portion of their schedule, and that’s celebratory. So before a pitch was thrown or a swing was taken, Muriel E. Bowser (D), the mayor of this fine city, stepped to a microphone to address a sellout crowd that was excited about both the atmospheric conditions and the home team’s prospects the year gave the lie.

“On behalf of 700,000 Washingtonians, welcome to the sports capital!” Bowser with belt. “Let’s play ball!”

She can now say that phrase – “Sports Capital” – with a smile. What a difference a week makes.

“Do you know how long I’ve been saying that?” Bowser said later outside a suite at Nationals Park. “For-always.”

In some ways, the Nats’ home opener – an 8-4 loss to the undefeated Pittsburgh Pirates in front of 40,405 fans – has nothing to do with Bowser’s deal last week with Ted Leonsis, who owns the NHL’s Capitals and the Wizards of the NBA to keep teams in their downtown arena. But damn if this didn’t feel like a reboot for sports in the nation’s capital.

Yes, the Nats are in the middle of a rebuild and there will be more days like Monday. But rest easy, district sports fans. There is no more threat to move the teams to Alexandria, nor a hollow PR campaign to convince people how much better it will be. (Side note: The next everyday fan I meet who fully supports this plan will be the first. You?)

In any case, order has been restored. Now: what to do with it?

“We are a world-class city,” Bowser said. “Some people would say we are the most important city in the world. And we believe that arts, entertainment and culture are a big part of who we are. We have built up the strength to deal with big events.

“I thought to myself, ‘Alexandrians,’ eventually I realized they’re just not cut out for dealing with 20,000 people three or four nights a week. Why should they be, right? We Are. And we have built up the strength to be able to organize great events. That’s part of it, but it’s not a new focus either.”

When she was introduced on Monday, the mayor received almost exclusively cheers. Would this have been the case at a sporting event if the Caps and Wizards had traveled to Virginia?

Does not matter. How it happened is not as important as the fact that it happened. So blame the D.C. mayor and city council for not proactively working on a deal to keep the teams downtown, Leonsis for his wandering eye, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) for failed to set the stage for his Alexandria Plan in the Legislature, Virginia lawmakers for dropping a ball they didn’t know would be dropped to them – and focusing on what matters, which is what comes next.

This cannot be about leaving Capital One Arena as it is: a functional, if mediocre, multi-purpose arena in a part of the city that it once helped revitalize but that has since deteriorated. About $800 million — including $515 million from the district — will ensure the arena is at least brought up to code.

But go beyond that. Think big. Think boldly. With the arena as an anchor, how can downtown be a total draw rather than a deterrent?

“In March, 400,000 people came through the arena,” Bowser said. “That’s incredible.”

What a start. Now we want to get them to come downtown at night when the arena is dark, like they did a decade ago. And getting them to eat out before and after, linger and enjoy it because a vibrant, vibrant store is just around the corner from the next one.

There is no going back to the pre-pandemic days when all offices were staffed from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. So there have to be creative ways to make the city center a travel destination again. Bowser’s administration plans to attract 15,000 residents to converted office space. Keep thinking like that. This is not just any part of a city. It’s four blocks north of the National Mall, which is important to locals and tourists alike. In the months when it looked like the Capitals and Wizards were heading south, that opportunity seemed lost. It’s back. Jump on it.

But wait. This is baseball season. What does any of this have to do with the Nationals, who are now ranked 1-3? Consequences.

The Capitals and Wizards staying put could have an impact on the Nats — or a ripple effect across the city. Mark Lerner, the Nats’ managing principal owner, arrived at the ballpark early Monday in his bright red varsity jacket and was as proud as can be in the hours before he made his way to his front-row seats.

Lerner said during spring training that his family is no longer actively pursuing a sale of the team it has owned since 2006. But some people familiar with the process — which began in the spring of 2022 — read that statement this way: The Lerners have not received an offer they consider acceptable, and when someone meets their price, the team stands in about a millisecond for sale.

Remember, the most serious thing – maybe this only seriously – the bidder for the Nats during this process was Leonsis. Because he is who he is – wealthy, locally rooted – he is in a unique position to stay in touch and stoke the coals when they need to be stoked. Shoot, Mark Lerner is both a friend and a minority partner in his company. Leonsis knows David Rubenstein, the private equity giant and DC philanthropist who just bought his hometown Baltimore Orioles, well enough that it’s safe to assume that the MASN chaos that has plagued the Nats throughout their existence could be solved.

Could this potential development make the Nats more valuable for Leonsis? Seems so. Even before flirting with Virginia, his company Monumental Sports and Entertainment poured $80 million into new on-site studios for its regional sports network at Capital One Arena. (I’m not sure MASN has spent $80 million on production since its inception 20 seasons ago.) The idea of ​​baseball as a summer’s worth of programming — with a demonstrably better broadcast product — must have crossed Leonsis’ mind be.

That’s the future, and that’s probably the most exciting thing about sports in Washington anyway. The Commanders have the second pick in the NFL Draft, a pick made by a true general manager who has a modern, forward-thinking front office. Most of the best Nats of 2026 have not yet played their first game at Nationals Park. And the Capitals and Wizards remain in the District of Columbia, which should never have been a question.

The trick is to ensure that going back to the old way is no longer the default. Certainly not in the overall ranking. And not in the fan and resident experience either.

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