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Column: DC should go all out to win back the Commanders

While District residents hope their favorite football team returns to D.C., the Washington Wizards and Capitals’ nonbinding agreement to move to Alexandria has shocked D.C. sports fans.

With D.C.’s professional basketball and hockey teams being tempted by greener pastures across the Potomac, Mayor Muriel Bowser should throw the kitchen sink at the Washington Commanders to bring them back to the city. The Commanders haven’t played in D.C.’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, located off the bank of the Anacostia River, since 1996. RFK Stadium is being demolished, and the team’s current home stadium in Landover, Maryland, has become infamous for its poor parking, inconvenient location and underwhelming fan experience. Bringing the Commanders back to D.C. would revitalize its economy and electrify sports fandom in the nation’s capital.

D.C. would still be home to the Washington Nationals, Washington Mystics, Washington Spirit and D.C. United if the Wizards and Capitals move to Virginia. But these two NBA and NHL teams, respectively, are positioned to drive revenue for their home city because both leagues are enormously popular. As the District crawls out of its pandemic-era depression, the city can’t afford to lose two of its most valuable assets on the same day.

Ted Leonsis, whose Monumental Sports & Entertainment owns the Wizards and Capitals, originally said he would keep both teams in D.C. if the city provided $600 million for a proposed $800 million renovation of their shared home stadium in Capital One Arena, which Monumental Sports & Entertainment also owns.

The District came up short. Bowser proposed $500 million for the stadium’s redevelopment the night before Leonsis’ fatal announcement. Virginia’s offer, with an estimated total of $1.35 billion in state and local taxes allocated for the entire Potomac Yards development, means the Wizards and Capitals’ new home would receive the largest ever public subsidy for a project of its kind. Though the teams’ move still depends on the approval of the Virginia state legislature, just the thought of losing the Wizards and Capitals should make any D.C. sports fan shiver — let alone city officials.

The Wizards and Capitals’ departure would deal a blow to D.C.’s downtown as well as the entire city’s finances. Bowser estimated the city could lose $25 million in tax revenue every year if the teams left Penn Quarter, whose small businesses, bars and restaurants have grown accustomed to floods of basketball and hockey fans before and after games.

Whether the teams stay or move, Bowser has committed to creating a task force to revitalize the neighborhood surrounding Capital One Arena. Empty office buildings have characterized much of Penn Quarter in the wake of the pandemic, and some businesses are preparing to leave the neighborhood due to concerns about violent crime.

Bringing the Commanders back to D.C. presents much-needed opportunities for post-pandemic urban development. Leonsis’ announcement about the Wizards and Capitals’ move included a futuristic mock-up of Monumental Sports’ proposed $2 billion development at Potomac Yards. The campus would also be home to a performing arts venue, office space, retail stores and residential buildings, bringing thousands of jobs and generating billions of dollars worth of revenue for the state.

Similarly, the Commanders’ new stadium would be primed to drive the capital’s economy in the wake of the pandemic. If Bowser’s plans for building a one-team stadium at the RFK site could muster even a portion of the revenue that Virginia expects to pull in from its stadium for two, every D.C. resident would benefit from the Commanders’ arrival — regardless of their affinity for the team.

Thankfully, Bowser appears to be making the Commanders’ return a priority. Last summer, Bowser established a sports task force within the Mayor’s office to grow, maintain and attract professional sports teams to the District. And by enlisting her top adviser to focus on the stadium while hiring consulting firms to study financial models for it, Bowser signaled that D.C. is serious about bringing the Commanders back.

Bowser made clear that a new football stadium at the RFK site would not be “surrounded by asphalt.” But as members of the proposed site’s Kingman Park community continue to ask questions about the details of a multi-purpose development project, the Mayor has been relatively short on specifics.

In turn, Bowser should think big by making a concrete proposal for a development project that engages with the new stadium’s surrounding community. By enticing business owners to open bars and restaurants in the RFK site’s neighborhood, Bowser could replicate the city’s success at transforming Navy Yard into a lively nightlife hub with Nationals Park at its foundation.

Last summer, Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.) introduced legislation to extend the length of the District’s lease on the RFK Stadium grounds by 99 years. Though the bill has stalled considerably, D.C. officials anticipate it passing in early 2024. With bipartisan support for revitalizing the former stadium, D.C. should make a big splash in the bidding for the Commanders’ new home.

Now that the team’s scandal-ridden former owner Daniel Snyder is finally out of the picture, Josh Harris’ record-setting $6.05 billion purchase of his hometown Commanders has provided a renewed sense of pride to D.C. football fans. With the city’s nightlife at stake and the capital abuzz with football’s future, Bowser’s office should bring the Commanders home to build on the team’s momentum.

Matthew Donnell, a senior majoring in political communication and English, is an opinions columnist.

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