The owner of the Washington Football Team wants a new stadium and he’d like Virginia to build it for him.
This isn’t exactly news – this has been rolling around for awhile, like a long punt that hasn’t been downed yet – but there are some new developments. The Washington Post recently reported that team officials “have been meeting with Virginia legislators to seek support for a plan to build a stadium and vast commercial complex in Northern Virginia.”
According to this report – and reporter Laura Vozella is one of the best around – the team is looking at Loudoun County or Prince William County. The idea isn’t just to build a stadium but to build what was described as a “mini-city.” Specifically, “team officials have shared detailed renderings of a domed stadium anchoring a vast commercial and entertainment complex — offering other sports, concerts and commercial attractions.” But wait, there’s more: “Restaurants, retail, a conference center and hotels would be incorporated into the project, which eventually could include residential developments on the outskirts.”
This sounds like an East Coast version of SoFi Stadium, the new (as of 2020) stadium in Inglewood, California, that is home to the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers – and will be the site of February’s Super Bowl. It’s been described by Rams owner Stanley Kroenke as a “city within a city.” He has a whole 300-acre project called Hollywood Park which, when built out, is supposed to have 5 million square feet of office space, 890,000 square feet of retail space, a 6,000-seat performance venue (in case the stadium is too big for some acts), 300 hotel rooms and, according to the Rams’ website, “2,500 new sophisticated residences.” Not just residences, but “sophisticated residences.” Probably not something you or I could afford, I suspect.
What billionaire wouldn’t want his own city? The goal, of course, is not just to make money on so few autumn Sundays that you could count them on your fingers, but to make money every single day of the year. And great heaping gobs of it, too.
The idea in Virginia is to make use of a dormant piece of Virginia law, the never-used Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority. That entity was created in 1995 when there was hope that Northern Virginia might attract a Major League Baseball team. (Little-known fact: For a time, future U.S. Sen. Mark Warner was a minority investor in such a project.) That never happened – the Montreal Expos moved after the 2004 season but they landed in the District of Columbia as the Washington Nationals.
According to the Post story, here’s how this would work: The authority would “would create a district and dedicate some or all of the new revenue generated within it — such as from sales or hotel taxes — to construction of the stadium or related infrastructure.”
This sounds great, right? Why, it pays for itself! And maybe it does. But before the General Assembly gets carried away by all this, please allow me to blow a whistle and call for a time-out.
Now, I’m a sports fan. How big a sports fan? I recently watched the Canadian Football League championship, where the Winnipeg Blue Bombers came from behind to defeat the Hamilton Tiger-Cats 33-25 in overtime to win their second straight Grey Cup. That should qualify me for something. I’m not one of those people who goes around making snarky comments about “sportsball.” I’ll even confess to being a lukewarm fan of the Washington Football Team; the lukewarm part stemming from the team’s inexcusable weakness at the key position of owner.
For our purposes here, though, I’m willing to set aside the fact that Washington Football Team owner is Daniel Snyder, who was recently ranked as the second least-popular owner in the league. We’re not voting on who we want to take us to prom, we’re trying to decide if this is a good deal financially for the state.
However, I’m also old enough to remember an earlier attempt to build a stadium in Virginia for this team – Gov. Douglas Wilder’s proposal for the Potomac Yards in Alexandria. That did not end well. Different times, different place, I realize, but the intersection of politics and stadium construction is not always a happy one. (See the recent controversy over whether Oakland should build a new stadium for the baseball A’s or watch them decamp for Las Vegas the way the football Raiders did.) There are those in Prince William County who aren’t happy about having so many data centers coming their way; are they going to be more enthusiastic about a stadium city in their midst?
Not my part of the state, so maybe ultimately not my problem. Still, I must ask the uncharitable but perhaps very practical question: So what’s in this for us?
Are we absolutely sure that not a penny of our tax dollars from Southwest and Southside are going to get sucked into this? Even if the answer is “yes, absolutely, not a penny now or ever,” then that’s great, that’s exactly what I want to hear. But I’ll still ask again: So what’s in this for us?
When Amazon chose Arlington as the site of its HQ2, that was a win for all of Virginia, at least potentially. We’re seeing computer science programs at colleges around the state expanding – that makes Amazon an indirect revenue generator even in Blacksburg and Wise. Amazon holds the potential to create spinoffs that will land downstate. Yes, it may suck away some of our young adults, but better they wind up in Arlington than Austin.
There are those who say it would be prestigious for Virginia to have a professional sports franchise at the highest levels of the game. Perhaps. But the team won’t be called the Virginia Football Team; it will still be the Washington Football Team or whatever its new nickname will be, right? In any case, it’s not as if Virginia lacks a National Football League team to root for at present; this particular team is well-established in the marketplace. We’re simply talking about where in that existing marketplace — the greater Washington market — that team plays, this side of the Potomac or that side. I should also point out that there are parts of Virginia that are sufficiently far from the Washington market, and close enough to Charlotte, that they look south to the Carolina Panthers as “their” team. The Carolina Panthers list no fewer than 13 radio stations in Virginia that carry the team’s games, as far north as Bedford, Blacksburg, Lynchburg, Roanoke and Salem. The Washington Football Team has radio affiliates in Lynchburg and Roanoke, too, but none further west. If you’re keeping score, and since we’re talking sports, we ought to keep score, Carolina has 13 radio affiliates in Southwest and Southside, Washington just five. For a lot of Virginians, the Washington Football Team is some other market’s team. The prestige point doesn’t count for much here.
So what’s the potential payoff for Southwest and Southside in a new football city in Northern Virginia? Is there one? If not, why should any of our legislators lift a finger – or, more to the point, press that green “yes” voting button – if we don’t get something out of this? Now, mind you, I’m not saying they should vote “no.” What I’m saying is this proposal is an opportunity for some serious horse-trading.
Here’s one way to make this pay off for this part of Virginia: We could get some of the tax revenue. As much of it as we can extract.
It seems a little perverse that the state would find a way to make millions, billions, even bazillions in the most affluent part of Virginia and ignore the fact that there are vast stretches of the state that are officially described not just as distressed, but “double distressed.” University of Virginia demographer Hamilton Lombard has pointed out that Virginia has a massive disparity between the richest part of the state – i.e., Northern Virginia – and the poorest. He’s documented how no other state has a rich/poor gap as wide as Virginia does. The median household income in Loudoun is $142,299 per year. In Dickenson County, the figure is $29,932. And it’s not just Dickenson. There are 33 counties or cities in Virginia with an income gap with Loudoun County that’s larger than the rich/poor gap found in any other state. We’re not just talking about some hardscrabble rural counties either. Roanoke makes that list, too. Northern Virginia seems to exist in a completely different economic world from the rest of Virginia.
So, yeah, I’m definitely asking: What’s in this for us? Oh yes, I’m well aware that some of the tax revenue will wind up in the general fund and eventually find its way to us. But that’s not very politically appealing. How about this: Set aside a certain percentage of the tax revenues from this football city to go to the parts of the state that are struggling with schools with leaky roofs and no air conditioning – conditions that the people who can afford tickets at this new stadium would never tolerate in their own schools.
We could have a fine debate about just where this money should go: Should every locality that meets certain standards for “distress” get a cut? Should the money go for school construction and modernization? Should it go into a trust fund for economic development similar to the Tobacco Commission? There may be more ideas there than dollars. Any of those would be worth cheering for, a lot more so than the mediocre team that Snyder has fielded for most of his time as owner. But I don’t see how legislators from our part of the state can justify voting for this stadium plan unless we get something out of it, and by something I mean some serious coinage. Otherwise, does it really matter to us whether the team plays in Virginia or Maryland or the District?